Fool's gold or signature move? Why Dustin Poirier loves the guillotine choke, but others caution against it

Dustin Poirier knows we’re thinking it. He’s thinking it, too. So is his longtime coach, Mike Brown. So is his opponent, UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev.

Anyone who’s seen Poirier fight at all in the last few years has to ask themselves: What are the chances this man will jump for the guillotine choke in his lightweight title fight at UFC 302 on Saturday? And the reason they have to ask is because he keeps doing it even though it has never once worked out for him.

“No more guillotines,” Brown told him in the corner between the first and second rounds of Poirier’s last fight against Benoit Saint-Denis in March. Poirier made it less than 30 seconds into the next round before he jumped for another one. And, again, it failed.

The problem with going for the guillotine is that, unlike many other submissions, it puts the fighter who attempts it into a vulnerable position. Standing guillotines are tough to finish against competent professionals. Committing to the choke often means conceding a takedown or jumping to guard. If your opponent defends and pops his head out of the choke, that leaves him in top position, raining down punches and elbows while likely winning the round in the eyes of the judges.

Poirier has heard this from his coaches throughout his training camp for this fight. Especially against an excellent grappler like Makhachev, you don’t want to be stuck on bottom.

“Yeah, don't give up position,” Poirier said. “That's the record on repeat. Don't go for it. Even if you think it's tight or you have a good feel for it, don't give up position. Especially with a guy like Islam, you give up position, you might be trying to get back to your feet for the rest of the round and losing the round or putting yourself in deeper water and getting into a more dangerous position. So we'll see.”

CALGARY, AB - JULY 28:  (R-L) Dustin Poirier attempts to secure a guillotine choke submission against Eddie Alvarez in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Scotiabank Saddledome on July 28, 2018 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Dustin Poirier (30-8) has finished eight opponents via submission, but zero by guillotine choke. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

But it’s not like Poirier is the only one who has to be told, maybe even over and over, to forego the guillotine choke. Especially as a counter to a takedown attempt, there’s a certain siren’s song quality to the move. When an opponent is already in deep on a double-leg it might feel like the only option. Or when a fighter is tired and thinks he sees an opportunity to go from slowly losing to winning all at once, the potential offered by the choke can be tough to resist.

“I always use the term fool’s gold,” said Eric Nicksick, head coach at the Xtreme Couture gym in Las Vegas. “Don’t jump guillotines except in particular situations and scenarios.”

But those acceptable circumstances can vary according to the fighter, Nicksick added. To his way of thinking, it’s not just about the guillotine attempt itself, since most pros know how and when to defend against it. It’s all the other variables that go along with the attempt that each fighter has to consider, he said.

“The key if you’re jumping the guillotine is to know what [the opponent’s] escapability is, and then what’s your next transition from there,” said Nicksick. “If you go arm-in guillotine, for instance, you have a butterfly sweep from there. You’re not staying on your back, so you might have a chance to transition to a better position.”

According to statistical analysis by strategy consultant Reed Kuhn, the success rate of guillotine choke attempts in the UFC is just 13% so far in 2024. Even the number of guillotines attempted in UFC fights has dropped to right around 0.2 per 15 minutes of fight time. Back when Poirier first made the transition to the UFC along with most of the other fighters on the WEC roster, the rate of attempted guillotines was about three times as high.

Tim Welch, who coaches UFC bantamweight champion Sean O’Malley, noted that a lot depends on how good a fighter’s ground game is from the bottom. Since he may well need it to either finish the choke or recover from a failed attempt, confidence in one’s own guard should be a determining factor when deciding whether to go for the choke.

“How much do you trust your guard and how much do you trust you can get up?” Welch said. “If I was coaching Dustin, I’d say don’t do it. Focus on sprawling and getting [your] back off the fence.”

There’s also the question of timing with any guillotine choke. It’s not just about finding the right opening to go for the move, but also the right point in the round and the fight. This is something that longtime MMA manager and judo coach Alex Davis has been frustrated by over the years.

“Don’t do it at the beginning of a round,” Davis said. “That’s the first thing. Don’t do it when you’re a minute into the round and then if it doesn’t work you’re going to be stuck on bottom for the rest of the round. If there’s 30 seconds left in the round and you think you can finish it, that’s a different story.”

Davis is particularly critical of fighters who attempt the guillotine early in the first round without a proper warm-up. While some submissions might be easier to finish before both fighters are covered in sweat, squeezing for the guillotine 90 seconds into the fight can also burn out a fighter’s arms, leaving him or her scrambling to regain strength if it doesn’t work.

Then again, Davis added, there are always exceptions to these rules. He saw a reminder of that only recently when Anthony Smith jumped for and finished a guillotine choke just two minutes into a fight with the previously undefeated Vitor Petrino at UFC 301.

“I sat in the hotel and had a beer with Anthony after that fight and he basically told me, 'Hey, the guy just gave his neck to me and didn’t defend,'” Davis said. “I mean, that can happen too. A guy sticks his neck out like a goose, he’s going to get choked. And there’s also the question of the athlete you’re dealing with. You leave your neck out there against a guy like Anthony, you’re going to get f***ing strangled.”

But that’s the other thing that makes jumping for the guillotine against someone like Makhachev extra tricky. The champ has 26 pro fights on his record and he’s never been submitted at all. Poirier has almost 40 fights and he’s never won a fight with a guillotine choke. This latter stat surprises Poirier as much as anyone, especially since he said he’s “crushing it” with the guillotine in practice.

“That’s why I’m so surprised I have like 50 fights and I’ve never finished one with a guillotine,” Poirier said.

For his part, Brown offered a prediction for the fight this week that included a Poirier victory via guillotine at the 2:38 mark of Round 1. He also made this prediction with (at least by Brown’s stoic standards) a knowing smile on his face.

Elsewhere Brown has called working Poirier’s corner the most stressful experience of his coaching life. This is due at least in part, he said, to Poirier’s stubborn resistance to advice that doesn’t mesh with his own instincts in the fight.

“The guillotine is a good example,” Brown said. “If he wants to jump a guillotine, he’s jumping a guillotine.”

Makhachev, too, included Poirier’s predilection for guillotine chokes in his own pre-fight prediction. Only in his version, Poirier tries the choke, ends up on his back, then eats a few punches from Makhachev before getting finished. Poirier, not surprisingly, offered a different prediction.

But even Poirier seems to realize that trying for guillotines at the expense of takedown defense against a fighter like Makhachev is a bad idea. What are the odds that the first time Makhachev loses by submission is also the first time Poirier wins by guillotine? Then again, once you’ve started selling your own shirts that say, “Don’t Be Silly, Jump The Gilly,” the move would seem to be an inescapable part of your lore.

“I’ve got to jump at least one,” Poirier said.

And who knows? Maybe that one is all it will take to make him a UFC champion.