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Technique Talk: The return of the guillotine choke and future of jiu-jitsu innovation

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Something interesting is happening with the guillotine choke.

In The Ultimate Fighter-era of MMA, it was a powerful weapon used at the highest levels of unarmed combat. As defense to the choke improved, however, it's effectiveness became badly compromised. By 2011, according to Fight Metric, guillotine choke attempts in the UFC were only successful 11 percent of the time they were tried.

However, changes were being made long before 2011, innovations that only now seem to be bearing fruit. While the conventional guillotine was in decline, adaptations to it in the form of grip, position, squeeze and pressure points were blossoming.  By 2015, while the number of guillotine attempts have declined, the rate of successful attempts of the guillotine have nearly doubled.

Most importantly, they've been used to settle high-level grudge matches between top contenders in the case of Charles Oliveira vs. Nik Lentz or even to capture the UFC heavyweight title. The guillotine choke is not as pervasive as it once was, but when it appears today, it's significantly more deadly.

What happened to the guillotine choke? Who is responsible for its improvement? What does its improvement say about the future of jiu-jitsu innovation?

To help answer these questions, I spoke with renowned MMA coach Firas Zahabi. I also talked to noted guillotine experts Dillon Danis and Garry Tonon. All three jiu-jitsu black belts weigh in on what happened to the guillotine choke, why and how it changed, what it all means for jiu-jitsu and where progress is headed.

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If you had to explain to someone why the guillotine works - as in, why it's such a prevalent weapon in MMA and grappling - what would you say?

The number-one reason why the guillotine is so important is because when I want to take you down, I gotta grab your legs. To grab your legs, I gotta expose myself to a guillotine grip. So, if I want to take you down or a lot of my sweeps involve me putting my head down.

I want to control your hips. I want to use my arms to control your hips. If I control your hips, I control your center. And when I do wrap my arms around your legs, guess what? He can wrap his arms around your neck.

But is it's only real value as a counter to takedowns?

No, it definitely has applicability beyond that, but I don't just need to grab your legs to take you down. If I'm side control bottom, I need to grab your legs so I can lift myself up, so I can pull myself up. Whenever I put my head anywhere near your hips to attack your center of gravity with my upper body, I expose myself to a guillotine. It's definitely not only for takedowns.

The two most common submissions, not just chokes, are the rear naked choke and the guillotine. The accuracy of the guillotine has gone up. What's your theory about why that's the case?

I think the guillotine technique has gone up, definitely. The best guillotiners in the world, in my opinion, are in New York. Marcelo [Garcia] and Renzo Gracie Academy, they have taken the guillotine to another level. Marcelo Garcia really tapped out a lot of studs with the guillotine. Just to name a few, Jake Shields. I don't know if you saw his grappling match with Jake Shields. He put him in a guillotine that nobody could resist.

I've trained with Marcelo. He has such a powerful, powerful guillotine. I think his methods of applying it spread out and now we see the McKenzie-tine and you've seen a lot of good guillotines in Abu Dhabi, etc. So, just the way we do the guillotine now is so different than 10 years ago. 10 years ago you just grabbed the neck and squeeze. It wasn't really as detailed as it is now. We've found so many more efficient ways to apply pressure via the guillotine.

What is it about the guillotine that makes it so open to innovation? All submissions change, but if we're talking about submissions that are rapidly changing, I feel like guillotine is right at the front of that list.

I'll tell you one thing. If you put a blue belt with a black belt and you make them wrestle 100 times, the black belt's going to win 99 percent of the time. The one time the blue belt wins, it's probably by guillotine.

Think about it like this. For me to apply a rear naked choke, if I take you down I have to pass your guard, I have to go to side control, I have to mount you and I have to take your back. There's a lot of steps for me to take a black belt's back. There's a lot of steps. Whereas the guillotine, I can apply it from the bottom, from the top and I don't need to improve my position where I'm in your guard or open guard or butterfly guard, I can grab you in a guillotine.

I don't have to sweep you to apply it. To apply a rear naked choke, if you're in my guard, I have to take your back or sweep you, pass your guard, take your back, then apply a rear naked choke. There's a lot more to apply a rear naked choke than a guillotine. A guillotine is an easier position to get to. That's the fundamental appeal of it.

Why are guillotines so great? One, they're easy to get to. Two, if you're very strong, you don't have to be that technical. That's the truth. If you've got a very athletic blue belt, he won't tap a black belt, no, by definition he won't. But the few freak times he does get him, it'll probably be a guillotine.

What was wrong the guillotine 10 years ago?

I just think we didn't know how to apply pressure. We didn't have as many sophisticated techniques as we do today. Today we have a variety of grips, a variety of variations, etc. There's a high-elbow guillotine, ten-finger guillotine, five-finger guillotine. There's so many ways to wrap up a guillotine now that people are just more efficient at it.

Do you believe the guillotine caters to a certain body style or type?

I would say shorter arm practitioners use a high-elbow guillotine and no-arm guillotines. So, straight pressure on the neck whereas fighters with longer arms use arm-in guillotines more often. For instance, Roger Gracie has an incredible arm-in guillotine and has very long arms as well.

The innovation of the guillotine, was it something MMA took from jiu-jitsu or was there any cross pollination?

I really think it came from jiu-jitsu. I think especially during the golden age of Marcelo Garcia's competitive days, he really opened everybody's eyes to the guillotine. How powerful the guillotine can be and nobody's ever been as successful as Marcelo, in my opinion, with the guillotine. All of us now are doing the Marcelo-tine or the high-elbow guillotine. It's become a staple in jiu-jitsu.

Can something like, say, the kimura be as transformed in the next five years as the guillotine has in the last 10?

Absolutely. You know what? [Kazushi] Sakuraba gave us a kimura boom. I've done a few videos on the kimura. Just recently and I've done an older video on the kimura. It is a phenomenal move. Now, the kimura was made illegal in 1986 in wrestling because Mark Shultz broke an arm of a Turkish wrestler with it.They outlawed the move. You can no longer wrench a guy's arm behind his back, but before it was a technical maneuver in wrestling. Mark Shultz, when he was disqualified, wasn't disqualified on the spot because it was considered illegal. He was disqualified upon review and hours later after the competition. They reviewed the tape and said, 'Hey, you know what? You put the arm way too far.' Then they decided to disqualify him.

But then and there he was given the win. So, the kimura died out a little bit, but Sakuraba was working with wrestling coaches who were still doing the kimura, catch wrestlers. They call it the double [wrist lock]. He brought the kimura back. So, the kimura wasn't so prominent earlier on until Sakuraba used it on the Gracies, et cetera.

Now the kimura has made a comeback since then and it has evolved. Not as much as the guillotine, no, but I really believe we just need one kimura expert to show the world how it's done and people would be right back on the kimura.

Is there any submission you're skeptical about in terms of its ability to be innovated?

One submission that really fascinates me is the squeeze lock [calf or elbow slicer]. The squeeze lock on the knee or elbow because in practice it works so beautifully. In fights, so often, you see it not work.

A great example of this is Rafael dos Anjos got it on Tyson Griffin. He put him in a full squeeze lock, Griffin's knee looked in horrible shape and Tyson ended up winning that fight. He got out of it eventually and actually won that fight.

You don't see it that often in international competition. In Abu Dhabi, you're going to see a lot of guillotines, but you're not going to see a lot of calf slicers. I do believe they do work. Like, for instance, when Eddie Bravo had Royler Gracie. I mean, his knee was just mangled, but I just don't understand why guys don't tap to that. In practice, they definitely do tap.

All of these improvements and innovations make jiu-jitsu better, but does it make them more likely to use jiu-jitsu?

This is my take on jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu is, in my opinion, the most powerful sport for fighting if there's no time limits. Try to consider how jiu-jitsu was developed in vale tudo. Vale tudo was no time limit. You fight till somebody gives up. You either KO the guy or he gives up. There's no other way to win. You have to finish the guy.

So, what happens with wrestlers? Wrestlers get on top, they hold you down, they don't know how to finish, they eventually get tired and the jiu-jitsu guy is either going to gas out or sub you. Most of the time they will sub you. The sport is not time sensitive like wrestling. In wrestling, you basically have three two-minute rounds. You gotta score points now and you have to win within this time limit whereas jiu-jitsu was developed in vale tudo. There is no time limit, so the jiu-jitsu practitioners, the back bone of their style, there's no time sensitivity.

That's why as a coach, me personally, I'm trying to bring that back.

Is that why you think there's this push going on in professional grappling events to go to submission only, and extended time or no time limit?

Absolutely, that's how jiu-jitsu works. It's all about the finish because in vale tudo, you didn't win unless you got a finish. Who cares if you're on top of the guy for 15 minutes? Who cares? Some fights lasted hours. It didn't matter. Who got caught in a submission was the key. Who got subbed.

If you put a wrestler and a jiu-jitsu guy in sub only, the wrestler guy has a chance to ride, but almost no chance to win. A pure wrestler doesn't have any finish holds.

Do you have any favorite guillotine finishes?

I teach all sorts of guillotines, but I'm a high-elbow guillotine guy myself. It's direct pressure on the neck, so I have to apply that pressure to choke you out. That's why I like it. Plus, it's a very powerful method of sweeping, so I'm either going to submit you or sweep you.

Are there any famous match finishes with the guillotine that stand out to you?

One of the best guillotines I've ever seen, I'd have to say Marcelo's guillotine of Jake Shields. That was out of nowhere. It was like a knockout punch. He scrambled and put him in a guillotine in transition. It was a guillotine I don't think anybody can survive.

It sounds like what you're saying is the best way to get progress in technical development not so much everyone training and sharing tips, but that leaps in innovation come from one guy's mastery of it, which they share with the wider world. Is that the idea?

History repeats itself over and over again. That's the way it works. Look at Royce Gracie. He showed the world that jiu-jitsu was an important piece of the pie. Before that, we were always arguing about which striking style's the best. We never even considered jiu-jitsu.

Then everybody was doing jiu-jitsu. Then the Chuck Liddell-type showed us if you know enough jiu-jitsu, you can use your striking. So, striking became more dominant. Then we saw wrestlers become more dominant. In my opinion, it's eventually going to be the jiu-jitsu practitioners, it's going to be full circle again. It'll go back to the early days where jiu-jitsu has evolved so far that it will dominate wrestlers and strikers.

For instance, look at Toquinho. He found a very unique and interesting way to bring fights to the ground. Now, he's the first guy to do it. The next generations are going to be watching, they're going to be using these types of techniques and they're going to evolve it. That wrestling defense, they know nothing about these types of attacks. These jiu-jitsu guys will grab you and pull you down in a way you've never imagined.

I don't know if you've seen my video on the web guard. I show how to jump web guard. The takedown doesn't exist. I innovated that myself. It's a way of pulling guard right into submission without having to lock your legs around the guy. You check that out and you see it's an innovation that did not exist five years ago. What's going to exist 10 years from now?

The most important thing you have to remember is that jiu-jitsu is the youngest combat sport. If you compare wrestling, there's been more people wrestling in the history of combat sports than doing jiu-jitsu. There's been more people boxing, there's been more people doing kickboxing.

Kickboxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, they're more refined than jiu-jitsu. There's been more man hours studying and developing those sports for Olympics, world championships, etc., than jiu-jitsu. So, jiu-jitsu is very young. The great minds of the sport have not had decades to innovate yet. When that time comes - and they're doing it now, we're in the process - jiu-jitsu will be the king of the sports because there's so much possibility.

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Garry Tonon, a Tom DeBlass black belt, on why the guillotine is powerful and why there's room for continued innovation in jiu-jitsu:

It's one of the chokes that's out there that only involves control over your partner's neck. Regardless of how big somebody is, strong, whatever the case may be, you're getting an arm around the throat with nothing else inside. When you're going to strangle, it makes things a lot easier. Any strangle involving your partner's arm, another part of the body, whatever, it makes things more challenging.

We're dealing with just the neck when it comes to a rear naked choke or the guillotine. It just makes your life so much easier because you only have to worry about one thing, really.

I definitely feel like because jiu-jitsu is so young, it's the sport you're going to see the biggest advancements in. All the time you're going to see an experienced boxer or kickboxer come in, show some interesting skills in footwork, but it's probably nothing that you've never seen before in competition. Nothing that you haven't seen guys at the highest professional level doing.

Whereas I think jiu-jitsu, there's a lot more headway to be made in terms of executing techniques perfectly and getting more precise.

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Dillon Danis, a Marcelo Garcia black belt, on his mentor and the use of the choke in MMA:

When I first started, I had never even seen the Marcelotine, the way he does it from half guard, the way he does it with the elbow high. When I first started, it was just regular closed guard guillotines. That's all we learned.

I think Marcelo re-amped the guillotine with the special way he does it with the elbow high and then the half guard, so the guy can't roll. I've definitely seen the eras of the guillotine come before me. It's evolved a lot more because back in the day, it was just a closed guard and no one knew how to do it in an advanced way. It was just the old school way. I think Marcelo is the pioneer of the new wave of the guillotine.

In MMA, who would you say has some of the better guillotines?

Camp wise, I would say Team Alpha Male. They have ridiculous guillotines, maybe because of their body types. They all have them, like Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, Joseph Benavidez. I remember when he finished Miguel Torres and Miguel Torres has a really good guillotine, too. He used to finish the power guillotine. He was kinda the first guy to bring that over where you lock up the rear naked choke up from the front.

It comes from their wrestling, too. The wrestling has a big part in your guillotine because you get so used to the front head lock. When you wrestle, you think about choking the guy from the front head lock. I think most wrestlers get their guillotine down and they can get in it from everywhere because they're so used to being on the front head lock. It's a lot easier for a wrestler because they're so used to the front head lock, snapping the head down and going to the head for attacks.

Charles Oliveira is a nasty, nasty submission guy. He used to be really good, too, in jiu-jitsu competition. I think he's so deadly because he just doesn't care. He jumps on anything. He's so dynamic, he's tall and lanky, but he's actually really strong, too. He has a very good body type for jiu-jitsu. That's why it's hard to fight him.

So, part of being good at the guillotine is just being an opportunist?

I would say so, yes. I would say not being scared. When you fight MMA, a lot of guys are scared to even jump submissions because they don't want to end up on their back, but a guy like Charles Oliveira is not scared to jump on a guillotine because if he ends up on his back, he's going to try to submit you the whole time.