ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- For about a year, Clay Guida teetered on the brink of lightweight title contention in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
His name first became prominent in such discussions following “The Ultimate Fighter 13” Finale, where he ruined Anthony Pettis’ Octagon debut by grounding the flashy World Extreme Cagefighting crossover for the better part of three rounds. That was Guida’s fourth straight win at 155 pounds, earning him a matchup with Benson Henderson at UFC on Fox 1 in November 2011. The winner was to receive a shot at then-champion Frankie Edgar.
Guida fell short against Henderson, but dropping a decision in a frenetic, back-and-forth affair did little to hurt his standing in the division. Things changed, however, when Guida locked horns with former lightweight title challenger Gray Maynard at UFC on FX 4 in June.
Much to the dismay of Maynard, many of the fans in attendance in Atlantic City, N.J., and those trolling social media platforms that night, Guida employed a game plan that looked far different than the bonus-winning performances authored by “The Carpenter” in the past. Using continual movement and selective striking, Guida frustrated the bigger, stronger Maynard for 25 minutes. The approach nearly paid off, but Maynard landed just enough offense in the final two frames to emerge with a split decision triumph.
Even though the crowd, which had showered him with a rousing ovation as he entered the Octagon, turned on Guida midway through the bout, the fighter was not fazed by the criticism.
“I thought that we executed a very good game plan,” Guida told Sherdog.com. “I would’ve liked to have been more physical and implement my grappling and clinch game a little bit more, but [with] Gray being bigger and stronger, I didn’t get into it as much. I thought I was picking him apart with ones and twos and leg kicks and head kicks.
“I think the crowd definitely played into it, maybe some uneducated East Coast fans that were just out in Atlantic City for a good time who didn’t realize what was going into that fight,” he added. “True fans and media know what went on in the cage that night, so that just motivates me to go out there and not let that happen again.”
Neither the loss, nor the boos, nor the tweets, nor the harsh reaction from some of his peers caused Guida to re-examine his career path. The Chicago native had lightweight gold around his waist once before, when the iconic Chuck Norris presented him with the Strikeforce strap following his victory over Josh Thomson on March 10, 2006. With back-to-back losses pushing him further down the ladder in the UFC’s lightweight division, Guida decided the time had come to try his hand at 145 pounds.
The idea had been considered by Guida and his team for a number of years, but it never came to fruition because he kept winning fights as a lightweight; and for a long time, fighting below 155 pounds was not nearly as lucrative because the UFC did not offer those divisions. As the lightweight class has evolved, some matchups, like the one against the powerful Maynard, forced Guida to adopt a strategy that took him out of his comfort zone.
“It was just a thought process, an idea that obviously people have thrown around for years,” Guida said. I’ve been a [155-pounder] in a [145-pounder’s] body since I’ve been fighting -- undersized, but we fight big.”
It was a move endorsed by Greg Jackson, Guida’s head trainer.
“Clay is fighting at 145 because he didn’t even need to make weight at 155. He was always light for the division. His weight cutting would be like 20 minutes of running, and he’d be on weight. He could eat whatever he wanted,” Jackson said. “You need to actually kind of struggle, dehydrate yourself a little bit, and he wasn’t doing any of that.”
Now 31 years old, Guida has always been known for his boundless cardio and unique fighting rhythm, and that has not changed during his current camp. However, he did have to alter a few things as he approached his featherweight debut against Hatsu Hioki at UFC on Fox 6 this Saturday at the United Center in Chicago.
“It’s an exciting time, just time to get down and clean up the diet, maybe take things more seriously. I wouldn’t say more seriously as far as the dedication aspect or the training aspect, just cleaning things up, tightening things up around the edges,” Guida said.
It is the first time, Guida admits, that he has had to adhere to a true diet, as he has been following the plan of nutrition guru George Lockhart, who has aided many of Guida’s Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts teammates with their weight cuts in the past. As far back as high school, the UFC veteran subscribed to far less scientific methods.
“I had never dieted properly, even in high school and college wrestling [because] I didn’t know how. I would simply starve myself from meet to meet or tournament to tournament. I would just not eat for 36 or 48 hours; I didn’t know any better,” he said.
Had Guida not lost to Maynard in June, Jackson concedes it is likely that his fighter would have remained at lightweight. A few more strikes landed here or there, and Guida might have been talking about working his way toward another crack at Henderson.
“I wish we would’ve just engaged more [with Maynard] the last couple rounds,” Jackson said. “We did really well the first couple rounds, and then we didn’t engage enough; we were doing too much movement and not enough engaging. That’s more of a figuring stuff out kind of deal.
“I think that [the weight cut] is more about being more effective where he’s at,” Jackson added. “He’s actually in better shape than he has been. I don’t feel him [declining] or anything like that. I think he’ll be more effective at 145.”
Guida is happy to have a new direction, sharing a weight class with training partners such as Cub Swanson, Leonard Garcia, Diego Brandao and Bart Palaszewski. He is not ready to rule out a return to lightweight someday, if the timing is right. At the moment, his focus is entirely on facing Hioki -- a world-ranked featherweight and former Shooto and Sengoku champion -- in his hometown.
“I’m excited about it. The transformation has been great. I’ve seen a lot of changes in myself,” Guida said. “Just little things, sacrificing even more so than I did at 155. It’s been special and the stage is set. Once I go out there Jan. 26 in Chicago, heads are gonna roll.”