Clay Guida: Unsafe At Any Speed
Clay Guida is frantically looking for his car keys. The FIGHT! photo shoot is over, and Guida has spent the past 15 minutes cleaning up photographer Paul Thatcher’s gear—rolling backdrops, disassembling lighting fixtures, and clearing trash. Helpful guy, but now it’s time to leave, and he can’t find his car keys. Guida begins to worry. The vehicle was loaned to him by a local dealer who was impressed with the 29 year old UFC star’s kamikaze fighting style. Guida skips back up the stairs and begins to comb the Zebra mats, but Thatcher, a bit of a troublemaker himself, interrupts the search. The keys are in his jacket pocket—probably in an attempt to ensure Guida didn’t dart away distracted in the middle of the shoot. It’s a genuine concern.
Just off Highway 55 in Romeoville, Illinois, across the street from a Panda Express and Bank of America is an abandoned lot with a bright yellow billboard featuring a caveman with brown curly hair and an armor of tattoos, offering minivan mothers the opportunity to train “Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, and Boxing.” It’s not a Geico ad, it’s Guida’s billboard for his new gym.
Clay Guida’s MMA Stop Fitness is located two miles down the road, in the same building as Advanced Physicians—the owners of which are the primary investors in the new endeavor. The investors have 11 physicians’ offices around the state, offering MRI and Pain Management services—a potentially profitable combination for guys like Guida, who, like most fighters, don’t have health insurance. Fight upstairs, repair down.
With his lost car keys in hand, Guida heads to the Sunday night home game of the Chicago Blackhawks—the defending Stanley Cup Champions. A hockey game might be the only popular sport in which a mixed martial artist can enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the fans. This is especially pronounced in Chicago where the recent Cup victory has been a brief catharsis for a city of middle-class yuppie swallowing in the century-long misery of the Cubs. The presence of a championship fighter is just further recognition of that achievement.
Guida isn’t a Ditka-like celebrity in Chicago, but he does draw comparisons to a quarterback entering the school dance after the football game. Hockey fans recognize him as someone they should know but are uncertain why, and fight fans acknowledge him with trailed off shouts of “Guuuiida!!” But he’s also a local guy, so amid the celebrity of his fighting, he runs into friends he’s known his entire life. He’s a man of the people.
A few months ago, the New York Times wrote an unflattering profile of Georges St-Pierre that described him as somewhat petulant in the face of fame—unwilling to pay back in appearances what he has received in attention. It makes sense: St-Pierre isn’t much of a public persona. He’s someone in constant blush, promoting products and mingling with socialites in his second language. Guida is the opposite. He wants interaction and ramps up the enthusiasm when chatting with fans and friends. He’s a spokesperson for the relief of social anxiety and his own brand of unafraid-to-tackle-any-interaction. Where St-Pierre is precise with his words, Clay is unrehearsed and brash, which makes him a great interview, but a risky bet on fight night.
Guida in the Octagon is an indelicate thing. The type of mayhem he unleashes is what drives ticket sales and YouTube highlight films. The unkempt nature of his hair is his trademark, but it’s also indicative of his fight style—wild and enduring. The mass of energy and athleticism he steamrolls on opponents is priceless, and asking him to bottle that and force it out in a singular cycloptic beam is impossible and possibly unwise. It’s like asking him to shave his head.
“Only way I’d ever cut my hair is if it was to help out a kid in need or something,” says Guida. “The UFC offered me great money to cut it for their video game, but I like it too much. Maybe I should get it insured like Palamaulu.”
Insurance seems like a good idea. Whether your fighting or friending Guida, the danger is inherent.
Before the sponsorships and fight night bonuses, there were day jobs and hard labor. After a few years wrestling for Harper College, Guida found work wherever there was adventure and travel. In 2003, he spent five months working on a 200-foot shipping vessel that scoured the Northern Pacific and Bering Sea, looking for schools of cod the weight of Alistair Overeem and Alaskan king crab with the wingspan of Jon Jones. It was hard work with interesting characters from around the globe, including pacific Islanders who taught him how to hide hundreds of pounds of crab on the boat so you could ship it to your home once you were back on land.
“Those dudes had all the angles figured out,” says Guida. “I learned a lot from them—they’re just hard-working scrappers.”
Guida returned home to Johnsburg, Illinois, in the spring of 2003 and immediately went to work for a buddy’s father and later the local carpenters Union, where he felt he could pull more work and better wages. When he wasn’t framing houses and laying brick, Guida was slurping down that free crab meat and drinking beers, enjoying the life of a day laborer. “I was happy, man,” he says. “We traveled the country working all sorts of jobs and making good money for a guy in his twenties. I was living the life, and it was sweet.”
In July 2003, older brother, Jason, who was training MMA, invited Clay and their father to watch his professional MMA debut in Geneva, Illinois. Clay showed up tipsy from a few beers and anxious to see his brother smack someone around.“I had no idea about MMA or the fight game,” Guida says. “ I was going into this thing thinking, ‘What’s the fuck has my bro got into?’”
The fight was being held in the parking lot of the Silver Slipper Saloon, a strip club located behind Midway Trailers, which was an outfit specializing in horse transportation. Across the street was an endless wash of cornfields. As the first fights were about to start, the promoter announced over the loudspeaker that a lightweight had failed to show and they could use a fill-in. Clay, acknowledging it was probably a bad idea, scurried to get involved.
“My brother tried to talk me out of it for like two hours, but I thought I could just go in there and wrestle, and my old man was like, ‘Fuck it, let him try, it’ll be cool.’” It’s not hard to figure out where Clay got his sense of adventure. However, Clay’s fight wasn’t an impressive performance. He shot in on a double-leg takedown, a scramble ensued, and Clay left his neck exposed. He was submitted in a rear-naked choke in the first round.
Guida spent the rest of the summer extracting crab meat with his teeth and framing houses with his hands, while his hair rested. Manual labor was the type of honest, exhausting, and fulfilling work that contented an energetic Guida—but the geographic stability left him wanting momentum. As a guy with rare athletic and emotional charisma, it wasn’t long before the flatlands became too easy to tread.
Jason fought a few more times in 2003 and in March 2004 was offered a spot in a promotion out of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Once again, Clay was at the ready to watch his brother pummel another human, so he packed up for the ride. At 8 a.m. on the morning of the fight, Jason got a call asking whether he knew a lightweight as another last-minute fill-in. “This time, I had a few hours to think about what was gonna happen, and I was sober,” Clay says. He reversed his first result by sinking in a rear-naked choke to get his first career victory. “I was hooked.” He had found a new way to work with his hands.
The success lured him to start training at Gilbert Grappling in Country Club Hills, a 90-minute drive from his home. For work, Guida wasn’t afraid to travel.
With more experience and more wins, he began splitting time between Gilbert Grappling and Midwest Training Center in Schaumburg, a paltry 45-minute commute. He fought 17 times over the next two years and compiled a 21-6 record across the U.S. and Mexico, winning and losing the Strikeforce Lightweight Belt in the process.
Then, he got the call. Guida debuted in the UFC in October 2006 and won by rear naked choke. With his third fight in the UFC—a split decision loss to Tyson Griffin—he began funding his life with his Fight of the Night Bonus, while still living, training, and traveling from his parent’s home. Guida had earned a kill or-be-killed Octagon persona that the fighting public came to admire, and he was generating all of his own training opportunities while other fighters of equal caliber had relocated to Las Vegas where they could live private lives and have one place to train all the components of their game. Guida wasn’t speeding down the fast lane to a title shot, he was in the commuter lane, stuck in third and burning out the clutch.
Fight bonuses can be used for good and evil. Some fighters have been known to spend extravagantly at bars and parties, while others horde their money, cognizant of the fight game’s elastic expiration dates. With his first $25,000 Fight of the Night Bonus, Clay Guida did something wholly unique. He bought a 20-foot recreational vehicle and moved onto an Indian reservation outside of Albuquerque. For tax purposes, his permanent address is with Mom and Dad in Johnsburg, but he still lives, travels, and trains year-round out of the RV.
Guida’s fight career was going well by most standards. He’d become marketable and popular, winning Fight of the Night three times in nine fights and putting together a respectable 5-4 record in the UFC. But Guida, man of tireless energy and steel-like loyalties, sought a change in his training regiment. He’d spent three years driving from wrestling class to kickboxing class, kickboxing to striking, striking to conditioning. Guida had spent a majority of his training camp driving. His entire fight career had been spent riding along the spokes, floating from camp to camp. Now, it was the time to find the hub and stay there.
“I needed to see what I could do as a fighter. There was lots of driving to workout with good partners but no driving to work out with the best.” Guida says. “It was time to try the new collaboration.”
Guida decided to reach out to Greg Jackson and ask if he could join their camp. They obliged, and he set up his RV close to the fighting facility. The workouts began immediately.
“He settled into a structure,” says striking coach Mike Winklejohn. “Guida’s perfect for us. He’s a gentleman in a room full of great guys. He drops by all the classes because he wants the newest techniques, but he still works his butt off to master the meat and potatoes.”
Winklejohn and Guida began working together before the 2009 fight with Kenny Florian, an undercard that would act as a compass for careers—winner headed north to a title shot, the loser south, relegated to gatekeeper of the lightweight division. Guida was the first to show and the last to leave, according to Winklejohn. Ultimately, he just didn’t fight well.
“Florian hurt him,” said Winklejohn. “We had only started to work together and he wasn’t ready.” Florian’s boxing style—dutifully executed jabs complemented by moments of explosion—was too much for Guida. He left his head too static and was made to pay. Once the fight got the ground, he panicked and forgot the basics.
Guida didn’t waver in his decision to train with Jackon’s camp. He trusted Winklejohn. “He’s a genius. I always ask people ‘Would you rather be coached by Vince Lombardi or Dave Wannstaedt?’” Guida’s loyalties soon paid off with a Submission of the Night victory against Shannon Gugerty and delivering a broken jaw to a streaking Rafael dos Anjos. Next up was hard-hitting Takanori Gomi.
The entire first period was like watching a Japanese tourist gawk as Paleolithic Man tried to fight off a swarm of bumblebees. Guida came out moving in ways that defied logic, leaving Gomi visibly confused. “I looked like I was doing an Irish jig or the Funky Chicken,” says Guida. Even as he two-stepped, Guida brought the fight to Gomi in flurried transitions between glancing jabs and several head-kicks, forcing a stunned Gomi to cover.
“I wanted Clay to utilize his energy and tendency to bounce to disguise his footwork and I think it worked.” says Winklejohn. “I think he won the standup game.”
“He’d miss a hay maker, and I could hear the wind going by my ear. Holy shit! I didn’t want to get tagged by one of those bombs,” Guida says, as he mimics stepping back from a big right hand. “I want to wrestle. Get my guy on the ground and wear him down. That’s my fight style. I don’t want to hang out on my feet and roll the dice.” A quick jab and double-leg in the second and Guida was on Gomi’s back, eventually finishing the fight with an arm-in guillotine and winning another Submission of the Night.
“We did our job,” says Winklejohn. “I wanted to keep Clay’s head moving so much that Gomi would look at that head of hair and not know what to hit. Then,when the time came for Guida to get on top, I wanted him to maul Gomi.”
Winklejohn knows the next test will be another Florian-like fight for Guida. Anthony Pettis, famous for winning the final WEC fight that was highlighted with an off-the-cage head kick, will be standing between Guida and a title shot in the talent-rich lightweight division. Winklejohn knows that the energetic Pettis will be a tough matchup for Guida.
“Pettis is very talented, and he’s got a lot of heart and athletic ability,” says Winklejohn. “However, Clay has the ability to out work even the most conditioned athletes in the world. He’s been in battles, and I know Pettis doesn’t have an answer for Clay’s heart.”
It may sound like Winklejohn is underestimating Pettis or overestimating Guida, but it’s just a coach’s confidence in his fighter. Team Guida knows that Pettis is no joke, but he’s not unbeatable.
“I’ve got an 11-week training camp coming up,” says Guida. “I’ll be ready for this kid.”
The Blackhawks win a shootout, and Guida is pacing back to the loaner GMC Envoy, still emblazoned with the sale price from the local dealership. He wants to take his crowd to the West End, a well-known Chicago bar that hosts a lot of the pre- and post game festivities for Blackhawk’s fans.
“Watch out, Bro!” his buddy screams as he almost clips another SUV in the parking lot. Guida laughs and shuffles his Pandora through punk and rap stations, finally settling on a Jurassic 5 song. “Don’t worry man, I DO have auto insurance,” he says. Makes sense, he’s sponsored by Safe Auto.
The West End is the type of sports bar that employs waitresses based on bust size more than experience and proudly displays more than 3400-square-feet of plasma to distract you from any conversation. As Guida gets to the entrance, the bouncer, manager, and waitresses all recognize him and wave. It’s evident that he’s been here before.
Guida sits on the barstool chatting with the waitress and fans who come up to take photos. He dutifully checks his text messages and engages in conversation about LeBron James and the new-look Knicks. Soon, he’s holding three conversations, one about basketball, another about his new Big Lebowski tattoo, and a third about his travel plans for the next day. Just when one fans walks away, another shows up. Next, it’s the manager, a big fellow with a tight black polo and prison muscles, asking if it’s okay to play YouTube clips of his fights on the televisions around the bar. Guida agrees, and the West End becomes a kaleidoscope of Clay Guida shooting takedowns, throwing jabs, and whipping his hair back and forth. The room is dancing with his image, but Guida sits motionless on the barstool, the man in the middle of his own madness, constantly in motion—even when he’s completely still.