If you’ve ever wondered if you’re the only one who feels like a purple belt on your right side and a white belt on your left side, or if other people feel like a circus star when playing guard against someone with really long legs, there’s a comic for that.
ImmortalChoke is the creative baby of blue belt Billy Hong, who trains out of Charles Gracie Reno in Nevada. Along with his two brothers, Hong is a weightlifter (though he describes himself as the “least obsessed weightlifter” of his siblings) who was drawn to jiu-jitsu after wanting a more creative, dynamic workout. “I think I just wanted to cut loose like a kid on a playground again,” he says. “The idea that every single person has a unique set of moves, a unique set of attributes, and even a unique set of weaknesses purely based on their body type felt so much like a real-life video game to me.”
Like many practitioners, Hong got a slow, sporadic start when he began training while living in San Francisco. He would often take months off at a time, then return for a few weeks, then leave again. “If I’m honest, I was not the sharpest spoon in the drawer learning BJJ at that time and became very frustrated… I had a real love/hate relationship with BJJ. of course I was a beginner, but I just felt like I was incapable of learning, unable to comprehend the simplest techniques most of the time,” he says.
Despite this — and a three-year hiatus — his deep love for the sport led him to pick it up again much later in Sunnyvale, California under Michael Jen of Smash Gyms. Learning under a new coach with a different teaching style enabled Hong to pick up on techniques easier and gave him a new love for the sport.
Now, Hong’s struggles, triumphs, and everything in between are documented in a cute, quirky webcomic he shares on Instagram. The simplistic, but expressive artwork and the accompanying captions and dialogue of ImmortalChoke are hilarious little masterpieces that encompass all the weird thoughts and habits that so many jiu-jitsu athletes experience, but few openly talk about. “Let’s be honest: jiu-jitsu is incredibly intimate, and you are spending a lot of time in the midst of other people’s sweaty body parts,” says Hong. “Navigating through intimacy with strangers and strange bodily fluids to learn technique requires focus, so it’s no wonder a lot of the dialogue in your head floats by as a low-humming undercurrent. That’s why finding a comic you relate to is at the same time surprising and familiar. The joke has always been there, you just didn’t pay attention to it. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I DO always gameplan how I’d jiu-jitsu people in public,’ or ‘there really is an ‘axe murderer’ guy in every BJJ group photo.’”
Hong has shown his humorous side to the world through comics since he was little. At just five years old, he was sketching out illustrations for his friends to make them laugh. “The thought of cracking a joke out loud and having all eyes on me was a terrifying thought. I was a really shy and quiet kid, so it was a way to express myself but have all the attention on a piece of paper and not on me,” he says. He also did a strip for his college newspaper that was “mostly about frat bro stereotypes and terrible puns with lots of profanity”, and once he graduated and moved to San Francisco, he started working on a hand-drawn comic highlighting the funny and downright odd experiences he had. “For example,” he says, “the time I asked my mom why my nose looked so different from my brother’s, and she told me it was because she adopted me from a trash can. Or the time I needed to pee before yoga class and I walked in on a girl taking a dump with all the lights off (what?).”
Hong eventually stopped making comics, but his wife wouldn’t let him quit for long. “She has a freaky sixth sense for most things I should be doing in life and urged me to do a comic on some of my BJJ experiences. She told me years before ImmortalChoke was a thing that there’s an Instagram niche for my comics. And of course, like any good husband, I brushed it off and said, ‘Nah maaaaybe, but it’d probably just be like two people into it, including you.’”
After posting a few BJJ comics to the Smash Gyms Facebook page and following a friend’s suggestion to expand his audience to Instagram, then accruing thousands of fans and followers, Hong realized something: “Do you see a pattern here? I really need to tattoo ‘listen to your wife’ across my forehead now.”
With ImmortalChoke enjoying a steady growth in popularity, Hong is continuing to find pleasure in the simple things. His wife has also taken up jiu-jitsu, and he hopes to have a whole family of mat savages one day. “I often fantasize about having an ImmortalBaby or two and hang drying tiny little gis next to ours,” he says.
As far as the future of ImmortalChoke, Hong hopes to be able to support himself and his family with a creative career that lets him avoid the traditional office life, but for now he’s happy seeing his followers tagging their friends in his posts and daydreaming about all the wonderful ways ImmoralChoke could change people’s lives. “I do have a crazy dream that one day two people will somehow meet each other through my comics, get married, and I get to doodle on their wedding cake or something. Or maybe they’d name their child Lethal Pretzel. Or maybe someone opens a BJJ academy called Butt Scoot Combat and I get to design all of their branding. These are all ways I’d like to impact the world.”