Rear naked choked to death: Jordan Neely, Daniel Penny & the rules of engagement

A mixed martial arts perspective on the choking death of Jordan Neely by Daniel Penny.

By: Stephanie Cuepo Wobby | 2 months ago

‘He’s got his hooks in’

In the early afternoon of May 1st, the F Train stops at the Broadway-Lafayette Street station. From there, the 911 calls begin. Lying on the floor of one of the subway cars is 30-year-old Jordan Neely. Behind him is 24-year-old Daniel Penny, who has Neely in a chokehold. From outside of the subway car, freelance journalist Juan Alberto Vázquez records a video.

This is what it shows: Neely struggling to move as Penny latches on, his left arm encircling Neely’s neck, the crook of his elbow resting underneath Neely’s chin. Penny’s right arm is behind Neely’s head, his right hand pushing down and forward, it seems, as Neely attempts to get out from his grasp. A second man holds onto Neely’s arms, eventually kneeling on top of the left one after Neely frees it from him.

A third man, who has been watching from such a close distance that he’s basically hovering over Penny, Neely, and the second man, steps in when this happens, applying pressure onto Neely’s right shoulder. And when the second man moves to kneel, you see Penny’s left foot wedged into Neely’s left thigh, see his right foot moving to do the same on the opposite side. 

This is what it prompts: the sound of color commentators’ voices analyzing body language, discussing grappling, arguing over methods and moves to survive a rear naked choke. “He’s got his hooks in”: jargon from mixed martial arts that signals proximity to a submission, a tap, a raised hand announcing a fighter’s victory. So perhaps perspective from mixed martial arts can explain what happened to Jordan Neely—and why it could’ve been avoided. 

‘This man came up behind him…’

In the early afternoon of May 1st, the F Train witnesses a takedown. Vázquez describes the moment in an interview with Curbed: “…this man came up behind [Neely] and grabbed him by the neck, and I think—I didn’t see, but I think—that move of grabbing him by the neck also led him to grab Neely by the legs with his own. They both fell.” 

Vázquez’s video doesn’t show the takedown itself, but the aftermath of it, which is back control. According to the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) Rulebook, this position is successful—and worth 4 points in competition—when “the athlete takes control of the opponent’s back, placing his/her heels between the opponent’s thighs without crossing his/her legs and in a position to trap up to one of the opponent’s arms without trapping the arm above the shoulder line,” holding it for three seconds. The advantage lies in the chest-to-back connection, which ensures the ability to anticipate and control the opponent’s movement, their back creating a complete blind spot. 

In the video, Penny strays from the rulebook definition. From back control, he doesn’t interact with either of Jordan Neely’s arms. But at this point, there’s no reason for him to do so, not when there’s a second man present—a second man whose sole focus is grasping at Neely’s arms as they fight and flail, reaching to grab and peel Penny’s hold from his throat.

And while there is no real use for the third man—the one who takes a step forward and bends over to push down on Neely’s right side—his presence, surely, adds confusion—at least, to the struggling Neely—to the overwhelming number and weight of limbs moving to enclose him. Instead, Penny has positioned his body for a rear naked choke, his left arm having already passed under Neely’s neck—perhaps never having left that location after the takedown—and his right arm sitting behind Neely’s head. 

24-year-old Marine veteran Daniel Penny exits the NYPD s 5th Precinct in hand cuffs after being charged with manslaughter in last weeks chokehold death of Jordan Neely on Friday, May 12, 2023 in New York City. Last week Neely, a 30-year-old black homeless man, was killed by the 24 year-old ex-Marine while riding the F train on the New York City Subway. PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxHUNxONLY NYP20230512107
IMAGO | UPI by John Angelillo Daniel Penny exits the NYPD s 5th Precinct in hand cuffs

‘A properly applied and fully established choke…’

Hadaka jime (裸絞), mata leão, rear naked choke. Its history stretches, according to Jits Magazine, all the way to 564 BC, during the 54th Olympiad. IBJJF rates it as one of the most effective submissions in jiu-jitsu—and perhaps, in mixed martial arts competitions: across several websites, the rear naked choke is considered to be the most common submission, at the top of the list at 523 applications, making up about 44.7% of total submission victories. (The guillotine, the second most common submission, trails the rear naked choke at 251.)

The rear naked choke, a neck-only choke, could either be a blood choke, an air choke, or a mixture of the two—meaning, essentially, that the positions in which one places their arms determines whether they’ll be restricting cerebral blood flow, cerebral oxygen supply, or both. 

“Time to unconsciousness from sportive chokes in fully resisting highly trained combatants,” a 2020 study led by Dr. Samuel J. Stellpflug for the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport, analyzes exactly what its title says: how long it would take for a person to reach unconsciousness after a sportive choke is applied to them.

“Using recorded UFC events between November 12th, 1993 and January 25th, 2020, their panel of seventeen experts—a panel consisting of “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts, life long grapplers, and seasoned MMA fighters”—analyzed the “time between a fully established neck compression technique and loss of consciousness in fully resisting, highly trained combatants.”

“For the rear naked choke, it took an average time of 8.9 seconds to reach loss of consciousness, with the lowest time being 4.9 seconds and the highest time being 23.6 seconds. They conclude that the data suggests that “a properly applied and fully established choke will cause unconsciousness consistently in a short period of time regardless of resistance and defence expertise.”

Dr. Stellpflug and his colleagues briefly mention, in the study’s introduction, the non-sportive use of such chokes in military and law enforcement training, referring to the technique as “vascular neck restraint,” or VNR. While their terms are different, there remains the same “anatomic goal,” as the study describes: “to compress the neck bilaterally such that the internal jugular veins are compressed… The physiologic effect is the reduction of cerebral perfusion pressure below the ability of the brain microvasculature to accommodate, resulting in unconsciousness.”

In her 2013 article about Marine Corps recruits learning the responsible use of force, Lance Cpl. Bridget M. Keane writes specifically about the military use of these chokes, as well as the counter techniques learned by recruits in their fourth week of training through the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, or MCMAP. (Daniel Penny is an ex-Marine.)

At MCMAP, recruits learn the rear naked choke and its figure-four variation. While it is already established that a rear naked choke can be a blood choke, an air choke, or a combination of both, Keane specifies that the type that the recruits are learning to apply are blood chokes. In her article, she interviews drill instructor and black belt martial arts instructor Sgt. Brandon Karnes, who says that a properly applied blood choke “can knock out an enemy in less than eight seconds.” Responsible use of force, then, is learning the “importance of controlling a situation with the least amount of force.”  

Cause of Jordan Neely’s death: ‘compression of neck (chokehold)

In the early afternoon of May 1st, the F Train stops at the Houston Street and Second Avenue station. 30-year-old Jordan Neely enters a subway car. He begins to yell, Vázquez says, about how he “didn’t have food, he didn’t have water… he was tired,… he didn’t care about going to jail.” He continues to yell. He removes his jacket and throws it on the floor. He continues to yell. And then he is taken down. 

From there, the F Train stops at the Broadway-Lafayette Street station. Google Maps measures the distance between the two subway stations at 0.2 miles, give or take: a ride that lasts one minute long, a walk that lasts five. Response times vary. The first 911 call, according to the New York Post, is clocked in at 2:26 PM, while Truthdig reports that the first call actually occurs six minutes earlier, at 2:20 PM. NBC New York states that the NYPD is called to the Broadway-Lafayette Station at around 2:25 PM, and according to The New York Times, firefighters arrive at 2:46 PM, seven minutes after the NYFD receives a call for help. 

In the midst of it all, there remains the video. Nearly four minutes long, it captures the moments in which Neely loses his consciousness from the chokehold: the moments before NYPD and NYFD and EMTs arrive, the moments before they transport Jordan Neely to Lenox Hill Hospital, the moments before his death is pronounced—a death which the city medical examiner will rule two days later to be a homicide, the cause of which will be “compression of neck (chokehold).” 

Responses vary. Vázquez will state that the chokehold lasted for approximately 15 minutes. New York City Mayor Eric Adams will announce it took police officers and first responders six minutes to arrive at the scene, not 15. In his own statement, Penny will offer the shortest length of time: “Between stops, it was only a couple of minutes, so the whole interaction, less than five minutes.” 

A strangulation technique

Rear naked choke, mata leão, hadaka jime (裸絞). I had forgotten one more term used to describe it: a strangulation technique. In their 2023 study, “Strangulation Injuries,” Dr. Roberta J. Dunn, Dr. Kunal Sukhija, and Dr. Richard A. Lopez define strangulation as “the compression of blood or air-filled structures which impedes circulation or function.” 

What happens to a body when it experiences strangulation? The study’s authors provide the reader with four pathways, should the strangulation continue, all of them excruciatingly detailed in medical jargon—

inadequate venous return from the cerebral circulation, arterial flow prevention, elevated intracranial pressures, unconsciousness, depressed brain stem functions, asphyxia; prevention of oxygenated blood flow to the cerebral vasculature, asphyxia; inability to oxygenate the pulmonary vasculature, systemic hypoxia, rapid loss of consciousness; cardiac dysrhythmia, cardiac arrest 

(in simpler terms)

mental confusion, severe headaches, weakness, lethargy, acute visual disturbances, facial and glottic swelling, dizziness, pain, severe headaches, blurred vision, vomiting, weakness, problems with moving or talking, lack of energy, seizure, unconsciousness, dizziness, irregular breathing, impaired vision, nausea, shortness of breath, loss of consciousness, hyperventilation, face or lip discoloration, inability to speak, severe headaches, confusion, anxiety, rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, pounding in the chest, dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain

—and all of them ending with the same result: death. 

15 minutes, six minutes, two. What does it matter, and what does it mean, when all Penny really needed were 8.9 seconds to—as he put it—“put [Neely] out”?

May 3, 2023: Jordan Neely is pictured before going to see the Michael Jackson movie, This is It, outside the Regal Cinemas in Times Square in 2009. - ZUMAm67_ 20230503_zaf_m67_104 Copyright: xAndrewxSavulichx
IMAGO | ZUMA WIRE BY Andrew Savulich May 3, 2023: Jordan Neely is pictured before going to see the Michael Jackson movie, This is It, outside the Regal Cinemas in Times Square in 2009.
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About the author
Stephanie Cuepo Wobby
Stephanie Cuepo Wobby

Stephanie Cuepo Wobby is a Filipino American writer and a former U.S. Army combat medic. She joined Bloody Elbow in 2023.

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