Clay Guida | Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It was an inauspicious beginning, to say the least. The kid, fresh off a grueling stint on a commercial fishing boat, was determined to follow his older brother’s footsteps into the cage. Nothing unusual there, except for on that July night in Ottawa, Ill., some seven years ago, Clay Guida was a spectator. Or at least he was supposed to be.
“I was trying to not let the kid get involved in the sport originally,” says his brother, Jason Guida. “He came back home and was at one of my fights. They needed a guy to fight. He wanted to step in there. I was trying to talk him out of it; he wasn’t having it. My old man tried talking him out of it; he wasn’t having it. So we let the kid fight, and he was doing pretty good until he got choked out, like a minute or so in.”
That is how it started for Clay Guida, tapping out to a guy named Adam Copenhaver at the 17th installment of an event called the Silverback Classic in his home state.
“It was like picking a fight at a bar -- almost,” Jason says. “He probably had a few beers in him, too, for all I know. All I told him was, ‘Keep your hands up, and when you get taken down, don’t go to your stomach and give your back up.’ That was like the first thing he did as soon as the fight went to the ground. He learned a real valuable lesson right off the bat there I’m sure.”
Now 29, Clay is still referred to as “the kid” by his older sibling. As one of the most popular and recognizable stars in the UFC today, he has come a long way since that impromptu bout against Copenhaver. Consecutive wins over Shannon Gugerty and Rafael dos Anjos have led the Chicagoan to a UFC 125 meeting with former Pride Fighting Championships lightweight titleholder Takanori Gomi on New Year’s Day at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
“The step up to Gomi, this is really going to put us on the map in the lightweight division,” says Clay, a Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts product.
At his core, Clay remains very much the same avid MMA fan who was pulled from the audience to fight on the same card as his older brother. It is not uncommon to see “The Carpenter” front and center at a pay-per-view show, transfixed on the action with camera phone in hand.
“Being there makes me want to go back and train harder,” he says. “It motivates me to just want to jump in the cage. There’s nothing better than a UFC fight, a badass MMA fight, being there real close and just soaking it all in with the fans; being able to just pick apart the fight and diagnose what you think is going to happen and see it go completely awry.”
When asked about his memories of Gomi and Pride, Clay’s eyes light up, and it becomes clear he has been watching “The Fireball Kid” for quite some time.
“I thought he was very similar to Chuck Liddell in how he went from being a pretty good wrestler to just knocking out and TKOing guys, demolishing dudes; [Tatsuya] Kawajiri, [Mitsuhiro] Ishida, all these tough Japanese wrestlers that he was just running through; picking apart Jens Pulver. The list goes on,” he says. “He’s one of my favorite fighters, [but] when it all comes to a head, when we’re peaking, I don’t care who’s in front of me. I don’t care if Fedor [Emelianenko] is out there. I’m coming after you, guns blazing, with bad intentions.”
Upon Gomi’s arrival in the UFC, many expected to see the Japanese star who, during a period that ran from early 2004 to New Year’s Eve 2005, won 10 straight fights and finished eight of those 10 opponents in the first round. His UFC debut against Kenny Florian saw “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 finalist and two-time UFC lightweight title contender control the bout with his jab before finishing Gomi with a rear-naked choke in the third round. Gomi’s return to the Octagon four months later, however, rekindled some of his old mystique when he floored Tyson Griffin with a right hook; it was the only time in 19 career fights the durable Griffin had been finished.
Three years earlier, Clay and Griffin waged a memorable back-and-forth battle at UFC 72, with the Xtreme Couture product earning a hotly contested split decision. Gomi’s display of punching power against a common opponent was enough to get Clay’s attention.
“Tyson’s got one of the strongest chins I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I hit that guy with everything I could. I didn’t faze him.”
The plan is to avoid any potentially catastrophic exchanges with Gomi.
“His ground-and-pound is very good, and his knockout power is phenomenal. Tyson is a very tough guy,” says trainer Greg Jackson. “We’re very concerned. I don’t want Clay to get knocked out.”
Jason agrees and points to Gomi’s gas tank as a potential chink in his armor.
“[Clay is] gonna get his takedowns, and he’s not gonna stand in front of that dude,” he says. “Everybody knows that you can’t stand in front of Gomi for even two seconds or you’ll probably be sleeping shortly after that. If he’s still around come late in that fight, you got a good chance at beating that guy, especially if you do like Clay. He’s gonna be pushing the pace the whole time, especially late.”
Now four camps into his Jackson’s MMA tenure, Clay continues to grow. When UFC President Dana White blasted the Albuquerque, N.M.-based team for a dearth of exciting fights after what he deemed a less than scintillating performance by Nate Marquardt in a loss to Yushin Okami at UFC 122, Jackson compiled a list of achievements by some of his most prominent charges. The document was then distributed to various media outlets.
The entry dedicated to Clay -- which documented his two most recent submission triumphs -- also featured an aside: “You read right -- Clay Guida finished two of his last three fights using jiu-jitsu!” The statement serves as a testament to Clay’s progression.
“Granted, he popped [dos Anjos’] jaw standing, but he finished him on the ground,” Jackson says. “Clay Guida’s ground game, it’s really getting better; it’s really evolving.”
Once discouraged by his older brother, Clay is accompanied by Jason during his walk to the cage on fight night. Before he steps into the Octagon, Jason slaps him across the face in what has become a prefight ritual.
“We didn't talk about this,” Clay says. “One day he was like, ‘C’mere.’ And before the fight, he started cracking me. I was just fired up and didn’t think I had ever been hit that hard in a fight. I figured if I’d get slapped by my big bro and not be fazed then nothing’s gonna faze me in the cage.”
Jason still has a few fights worth of experience on his brother, and when the Guida family gets together, he insists he gets the better of their encounters.
“Are you kidding me? I got 50 pounds on that kid, and a whole wealth of knowledge,” Jason says. “He doesn’t stand a chance. I don’t care how much gas he’s got.”
Clay may have the edge on his older sibling in terms of quality of experience. When Clay defeated Josh Thomson to win the Strikeforce lightweight strap in 2006, Chuck Norris presented him with the belt. It ranks as one of the peak moments of the lightweight’s career to date.
“I was on cloud nine,” Clay says. “Me and my brother were in the cage. I was dumbfounded.”
“That was pretty much the coolest thing up to that point, that’s for sure, as far as our fighting careers have gone,” Jason says. “I don’t get awestruck, but that’s the guy right there.”
The kid now plans on making someone else’s night just as memorable somewhere down the line.
“I try not to dwell on those [moments]. Here [against Gomi] is the beginning,” Clay says. “Down the road is gonna be the lightweight belt, and further down is going to be me passing the belt on to somebody.”