A behind-the-scenes look into the lives of three fighters competing in the 1995 Japan Open Vale Tudo Tournament, director Robert Goodman follows kickboxing champ Todd Hayes, shootfighter Koichiro Kimura, and defending champion Rickson Gracie as they prepare and fight for the world championship.
The first thing that struck me about this film was its emphasis on the lives of the fighters and the lives of those around them. Goodman keeps himself behind the camera and scarcely makes himself known at all as he captures the all characters involved in the free-fighting tournament, from the fighter’s family, coaches, and fellow competitors, like the unsung hero Yuki Nakai, who fought through giants to reach the finals while weighing a paltry 135 lbs. The motivations for fighting are broad, and all three of the fighters have incredibly contrasting reasons for entering the tournament.
Kimura, the shootfighter and amateur wrestler, is the youngest and has the least screentime. Still, he has a particularly tender moment with his parents as they learn of his involvement in a tournament with no rules. His reasons for fighting aren’t completely clear, but we get the impression that he’s fighting solely for the enjoyment of doing so, having won several tournaments and trophies in limited rules competition, and now seeks higher and higher levels of competition.
A champion kickboxer, Hayes is fighting for another dream: the 1998 Winter Olympics, where he hopes to win enough money to fund his bobsledding season. His coach, Apollo, is a bit of a tool, and I felt like he was more interested in using Hayes to promote his own martial arts than he was in helping Hayes reach his Olympic dreams. Still, Hayes knows what he wants, and is more than willing to do what he needs to do to get it.
But of course, the hero and selling point of the movie was the pride of the Gracie family, Rickson. He fights not for money or for glory, but to bring credibility to his family’s fighting style. A bit of a diva outside the ring, his athletic prowess is nonetheless terrifying to behold. In the prime of his life, just watching him compete is a phenomenal experience. I think in the modern world of MMA, at times we forget just how good some of the older fighters were, especially after they vanish from the public scene like Rickson did.
The hands-off style of Goodman’s work is fitting for the world of fighters, where actions speak louder than words, and where sometimes life just happens. Touching, terrifying, and inspiring all at the same time, “Choke” is meant for fans and fighters alike, reaching beyond the glitz and the glamour to find the true human stories that take place within the ring.