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Judo Chop: 'Year of the Guillotine', Part 1 - Understanding Pressure

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Check out the first part of a three-part series on the recent focus on the guillotine choke.

Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

The guillotine is seemingly one of the simplest chokes in grappling but upon closer inspection it becomes an amazingly detailed and difficult choke to finish consistently. 2015 has been hailed as the return of the guillotine choke to the UFC, but upon closer inspection the "comeback" narrative doesn't check out. According to Fightmetric from 2006 to 2013 there have been 673 attempted guillotines in the UFC with 13.6% of them ending fights.

In the mid-2000's, the year-to-year finish rates of guillotines in MMA didn't fluctuate much. However during that same time period, the guillotine was flourishing in sport grappling. Marcelo Garcia lead the charge of a generation of sport grapplers tweaking their approach and modifying how to apply pressure to get seemingly effortless chokes while others strained and powered for very little result. MMA had its own guillotine specialists, such as Urijah Faber and Jake Shields, who were winning championship matches with modified versions of the choke as far back as 2005.

In 2014 and 2015, the innovations happening both in sport grappling and MMA bore fruit as the successful guillotine practices became more widespread. According to Fightmetric, in from 2013 to 2014 the number of guillotines climbed from 15 successful chokes to 21 successful chokes, and then there was another climb in 2015 to 23 chokes. More interesting is that the number of attempted guillotines has declined but the success rate of finishing said attempts has climbed, up from 14.3% in 2013 to 23.5% in 2015. As Luke Thomas so perfectly put it in the introduction to his interview with Firas Zahabi on the subject of guillotines: "The guillotine choke is not as pervasive as it once was, but when it appears today, it's significantly more deadly."

We are not experiencing a 'comeback', as it were. The guillotine never left. Rather we are seeing a revolution of the MMA guillotine. But what has changed to make the guillotine more effective than in years past?

In the last 10 years the understanding of how to apply the choking pressure has improved greatly. The finish of the guillotine from the guard was a rather simple manner of wrapping one arm around the neck, grabbing the wrist of the choking arm and pulling up on it while extending the legs and arching the back. It is important to note this traditional guillotine is a "no arm" guillotine where only the opponent's neck is encircled and both his arms are outside the choke.

This finish has largely stopped resulting in taps at the highest levels of both grappling and MMA. It most certainly can be effective, but it often lacks that extra inch need to force a tap out of a professional athlete. As guillotine craft has improved, there have been advancements on how to find that extra bit of leverage to force a tap in a "no arm" guillotine.

Of the 23 guillotine chokes that occurred in 2015, only 2 were finished by this method and both were matches that were generally considered to be lower-level fights - Sage Northcutt's finish of Cody Pfister and Aleksandra Albu's second career win over Izabela Badurek. While this classic finish of the no arm guillotine isn't nearly as popular anymore, having an arm wrapped around the opponent's neck is a powerful position.

In 2015, 14 of the guillotine chokes finished, well over half, were some variant of a "No Arm" guillotine and they were spread fairly evenly across an array of different angles and grips. These numbers are indicative of something that can be observed when watching the fights as well - MMA fighters are much better at transitioning between grips on guillotines than there were in the past.

One of the most popular grips is the palm-on-palm finish, also known as the Prayer or Chancery Choke. It was made famous to MMA fans by Cody McKenzie's use of it on the Ultimate Fighter and during his UFC tenure. Its highest profile application to date was in the main event of UFC 140 when Jon Jones used it to defend his Light Heavyweight title against Lyoto Machida.

JJLM

Above, notice that Jones' left arm has encircled Machida's head as with the vanilla guillotine, but his left hand is turned so the palm is facing down. Jones' right hand is not controlling his own wrist - rather he is pushing his right palm up and into his left palm, as if he is trying to bring hands to his left shoulder. This provides much more and more efficient pressure on the neck than the classic grip.

This grip resulted in four submissions in 2015, with two of them causing the opponent to pass out in the choke. The prevalence of this once-rare variation has to do with MMA fighters becoming much more efficient with transitioning grips mid-submission.

Let's look at an example from this past year. At UFC 188, Patrick Williams finished an excellent Prayer grip guillotine in the first round of his match with Alejandro Pérez.

It starts out after Williams hurts Pérez in the first flurry of the fight. Pérez falls against the cage and immediately shoots in for a survival takedown, and Williams wraps up his neck with his right arm (1). Williams spins Pérez around and begins to attack for a high elbow guillotine (2), a very efficient grip in its own right developed by Marcelo Garcia. Surprisingly the high elbow was only finished once this past year, by Matt Brown, but it is becoming an increasingly common sight in MMA. Williams attempts to finish the high elbow, but when the pressure isn't quite right, he is faced with the choice of dropping down to his back to seek the finish or transition his grips. Williams opts to drive Pérez backward and slides his left hand from the high elbow into the prayer position (3). Williams then pins Pérez to the cage and drives his hips forward for additional pressure, and Pérez passes out within seconds.

Changing to more efficient grips is a huge factor in the rise of guillotine as a great variety of 'no-arm' guillotine grips were seen in 2015, including the 10-finger guillotine and the Ninja Choke. The use of the cage by Williams to pin Pérez and apply extra pressure to the choke is another common tactic, as four guillotines were finished while standing in 2015, and all of them occurred when the opponent had been pinned to the fence. This comes from a better understanding of the role of hip positioning when it comes to finishing the choke - it is not just upper body squeeze that creates the choke but hip pressure also.

This hip pressure can also be found by attacking the choke from top position, using the mat to pin the opponent. Eight of the 2015 guillotines were finished with an opponent's back to the mat. This is hardly a new tactic in MMA, Jake Shields was famous for finishing his guillotines one-handed from the mount and Urijah Faber often death rolled his opponents to mount before finishing them. This is because the ideal pressure on a guillotine is not simply pulling up on the neck - rather it is a combination of downward force on the back of their head, in a motion that will make the opponent's chin touch their chest while bringing the forearm up and into their neck on a diagonal angle of attack.

Above is Charles Oliveira moments before Nik Lentz tapped out in their match during May of 2015. Notice how Oliveira's shoulder is behind the crown of Lentz's head and is actually picking up his head and forcing down on Oliveira's left arm. Oliveira's back arch is what gives his shoulder the power to drive Lentz's head down and further, Oliveira's hips come in the stronger his back arch becomes. The most successful guillotiners understand the role good hip pressure plays in finishing the choke, and find ways to bring their hips in close regardless of situation.

Again these ideas of grips and positioning to achieve greater pressure are not new, but the knowledge is wider spread in the sport than in previous years and the simple grab-and-squeeze approach is far less common. This better understanding has lead to other innovations that will be discussed in Part 2. Until then enjoy this highlight of one of the living guillotine masters today, Marcelo Garcia.

A special thank you to Rami Genauer of Fightmetric for his help finding submission totals and answering my most inane questions