UFC 302: The ‘joke’ defining Dustin Poirier vs Islam Makhachev debates

Somehow, an occasion as momentous and emotional as Dustin Poirier’s final shot at undisputed UFC gold has come to be defined by a joke of sorts, about whether the “Diamond” can pull off a specific choke. So, how did we get here?

In Poirier’s long and storied MMA career, the fan favourite has earned six wins over four undisputed UFC champions. Yet none of those fighters held a UFC title when Poirier beat them, except Max Holloway in his second fight with the American; even then, Holloway was vying for the interim lightweight belt against Poirier, rather than defending his featherweight strap.

That is to say: For all of Poirier’s achievements, he has never won an undisputed UFC title. The “Diamond” claimed the interim 155lbs belt against Holloway in that 2019 rematch, adding to his past win over the Hawaiian, victories over Anthony Pettis and Eddie Alvarez, and future wins over Conor McGregor. But the ‘official’ lightweight title has eluded Poirier.

Furthermore, the 35-year-old has beaten those champions by all imaginable means – decision, knockout, submission – but he has always failed at the technique he enjoys most: the guillotine.

Most recently, Poirier attempted the submission six times in seven-and-a-half minutes against Benoit Saint-Denis in March. Every time, the technique was used in a defensive manner, as France’s Saint-Denis sought takedowns. Three of the guillotine attempts came in the first round, three in the second. Three were standing attempts, three were jumping (involving Poirier dragging Saint-Denis to the canvas). Every attempt failed. In fact, every guillotine attempt in Poirier’s career has failed.

In the end, Poirier ironically knocked out Saint-Denis on the feet, seeing off the young contender in a risky and must-win match-up; Poirier was ranked third at lightweight and had lost to Justin Gaethje by knockout in July, while Saint-Denis was 11th and on a run of stoppage wins. But if Poirier had it his way, he would have beaten Saint-Denis by guillotine.

Poirier (left) knocked out Saint-Denis after numerous failed guillotine attempts (Getty Images)
Poirier (left) knocked out Saint-Denis after numerous failed guillotine attempts (Getty Images)

That is despite the best intentions of his coach Mike Brown. “They actually didn’t play it [on the TV] in between rounds, but after the first round I said, ‘No more guillotines,’” Brown told MMA Fighting this month. “Dustin said, ‘No, but I can hit it! I can hit it!’ I just replied, ‘You crazy bastard.’ I literally said that, then he went and jumped another one.

“He puts a lot of guys to sleep in the gym to be honest,” Brown added. “He does have a very good [guillotine], he just hasn’t hit them in the fight.”

And that brings us to UFC 302 this weekend. When Poirier challenges lightweight champion Islam Makhachev in the main event, it will surely be the American’s final shot at an undisputed UFC title. In late 2021, Poirier was submitted by then-champion Charles Oliveira, and in 2019, the Diamond was submitted by the incumbent Khabib Nurmagomedov. Poirier knows this is his last chance – he has even hinted it will be his last fight.

So, with the stakes so high, surely there is no chance that Poirier derails his gameplan through personal pride – over something as trivial as a specific choke, no less. Actually, don’t be so certain.

Poirier sharing a meme about his love of guillotine chokes (@DustinPoirier via X)
Poirier sharing a meme about his love of guillotine chokes (@DustinPoirier via X)

Poirier insists he will never stop trying the choke, and even recently coined the tongue-in-cheek phrase, “Don’t be silly, jump the gilly.” Fans have been greatly amused by Poirier’s obsession with the guillotine, so much so that it has become a meme of sorts. One bookmaker is even offering ‘Poirier to beat Makhachev via guillotine’ at 50/1.

Those odds, and the nature of fans’ jokes, hint at two things: a widespread affection for Poirier, but also a solemn understanding of his slight chances against Makhachev. Maybe the humour is a coping mechanism.

This is not to say Poirier has no chance. Of course he does. The American is one of the finest boxers in UFC history, and any jokes aside, he has more than competent jiu-jitsu and wrestling games. But Makhachev is the last opponent against whom one should jump a guillotine.

The Russian, the UFC’s pound-for-pound No 1, is a fighter in the mould of his coach and childhood friend Khabib, who beat Poirier handily five years ago and will be in Makhachev’s corner in New Jersey. Yet while Makhachev’s wrestling skills may match Khabib’s, his striking eclipses the legend’s. In fact, all of this talk about whether Poirier can actually submit Makhachev has distracted from the possibility that Makhachev might even knock out his challenger.

Makhachev dropped Alexander Volkanovski with a head kick in October before sealing the finish (AP)
Makhachev dropped Alexander Volkanovski with a head kick in October before sealing the finish (AP)

Makhachev stands southpaw like Poirier, eliminating one of the Diamond’s usual advantages, and the Russian produced a highlight-reel knockout in his last fight, stopping Alexander Volkanovski with a head kick in October – the same weapon that Gaethje used to beat Poirier in July.

Volkanovski, 145lbs champion at the time, was admittedly moving up in weight and doing so on short notice, but the moment showcased Makhachev’s underrated striking. So did his check right hook against Charles Oliveira in 2022, which dropped the Brazilian and set up a submission win for the lightweight title. Those wins, and Makhachev’s initial points victory over Volkanovski last February, took his win streak to 13.

And if – or when – Makhachev initiates grappling exchanges on Saturday, he will be aware of Poirier’s tendency to give up his back. It was from that position that Poirier lost both of his previous title shots, tapping to rear naked chokes against Khabib and Oliveira. Poirier in fact gave up his back twice against Saint-Denis, though he did well to survive en route to victory.

In any case, a standing guillotine is one thing, but if Poirier pulls a jumping choke against Makhachev, he will voluntarily put himself in grave danger. Poirier may feel it is worth the risk, and that he can finally seal the submission and belt that have eluded him for so long. History suggests otherwise.