Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
In a way, it makes perfect sense. Of course Clay Guida made his professional debut at a motorcycle rally. Why wouldn’t he?
This is Clay Guida we’re talking about, the grinning lightweight who bounces down to the cage at UFC events and fights at a frantic pace through the thick veil of his own hair. A guy like that seems like he’d be right at home at a motorcycle rally, and not just any motorcycle rally, either. We’re talking Sturgis. We’re talking the grandaddy of them all, right there in the Black Hills of South Dakota in August of 2004.
The record databases on the internet won’t tell you this story. That's because, according to Guida, the record databases on the internet have it all wrong. They list his first pro fight as a submission loss to Adam Copenhaver at the Silverback Classic 17 in July of 2003.
"That was just an exhibition," Guida said. "I took that on about an hour’s notice, just because I thought, why not?"
He had a few more amateur bouts after that. He won a few, lost a few. It wasn’t until the following summer that he started taking his MMA training seriously, and that’s when he heard about a chance to hitch a ride to Sturgis with some friends who were headed there with their Harleys anyway, and hey, if he could make $300 just for stepping in the ring and another $300 for winning, that would at least provide the group with gas money on the way home.
"They all had good jobs and stuff, so they spotted me on the way out there. I pretty much just had enough money to eat on," said Guida, who, at the time, was working as a carpenter back in Illinois, "swinging a hammer five or six days a week and just getting by."
So he jumped in a friend’s Chevy while a couple other friends followed on their Harleys, and off they went. Just guys on a road trip. Guys headed to a motorcycle rally where one of them would fight another human being for a few hundred bucks. No big deal. Somewhere outside Minneapolis, they pulled into a Wal-Mart parking lot to give the bikes a rest. Here Guida made what would turn out to be a fortuitous purchase.
"I went into the Wal-Mart and bought my first pair of fight shorts," he said. "They were these silver shorts, about three dollars, and they had pockets on them. They were, like, the Wal-Mart brand shorts. But I ended up winning about 16 or 17 fights in a row in them. When I finally lost my first one with them, I hung them up."
Now that he had a pair of shorts to fight in, Guida was ready for action. He and his pals hit Sturgis late that week and set up shop in the Buffalo Chip campground, where the fight would be held that Saturday night. It might not have been the most ideal environment in which to rest and focus before a big fight. Everyone from ZZ Top to REO Speedwagon performed at the campground’s music venue that week, plus there was no shortage of mischief going on around them at all hours of the day.
"Anything you could imagine happening? It happened," said Guida.
At one point a woman on a motorcycle started down the gentle slope into the campground and lost control of her bike. She crashed in a grassy area with the bike lying on top of her, Guida said, as paramedics and onlookers rushed to her aid.
"They all ran over there to get the bike off her, and man, when she got up she had the cocaine eyes big time. She wasn’t feeling any pain. She’d had a long week already."
The morning of the fight, Guida was too excited to just sit around all day waiting for it. He had to do something, had to take his mind off the long hours before fight time. He asked his friend for the loan of his Harley, explaining that he wanted to go on a quick morning ride to keep himself from going insane from the anticipation. He’d only ridden a motorcycle a handful of times, but he figured he knew what he was doing. Well enough, anyway.
"So I hopped on this bike headed out of town, and I’ve got on these cheap black boots, like my going out boots, some jeans, and a black tank top. It’s seven or eight in the morning, and it was a little more brisk than I thought. I was riding in one of these packs with a bunch of people who all had on chaps and biker jackets and real helmets and all that, and there I am in jeans and a tank top."
By the time the group snaked its way up through the hills, Guida said, he was shaking so violently from the cold that he could barely control the bike. The rest of the riders took one look at the kid in the tank top and decided to give him a wide berth, just to be on the safe side.
"They probably thought I was out of my mind," Guida said. "After about an hour, I was done pretending I was tough."
The fight was held in an outdoor boxing ring, with bikers crowding around from all over the campground to see. Guida stood there waiting for his opponent -- a kid named Josh Buck who was said to be a pretty decent wrestler out of Utah.
"He comes out in his wrestling shoes, and I was a little intimidated," said Guida. "I kind of wondered if I was in over my head here."
Sure enough, Buck shot in for a takedown almost immediately. Trouble is, when you show up to a fight wearing wrestling shoes, your takedown attempts have already lost the element of surprise. Guida fended off that first shot, then pulled off a double-leg of his own that planted Buck on his back.
"He goes to pop up, and I hit him with a right. His nose just splattered immediately. I didn’t really even mean to. He just sat right up into it and it smashed his nose."
In a flash, blood poured everywhere. Buck seemed to be in a state of shock. Guida pounced.
"I just started hitting him over and over, sort of surprised him. The ref finally jumped in there and stopped it, and I had blood all over my chest. I wiped it all over me. I licked it off my gloves. It was pretty gross. Even as I was doing it I was like, what am I thinking?"
The whole thing was over in less than two minutes, according to Guida. His pro debut was in the books, he’d made $600 to spend on the trip home, and the event organizers even gave him free tickets to see Kid Rock that night at the campground.
"It was such a cool atmosphere," he said. "I felt like I got to be on vacation and I got paid at the same time. To this day it’s one of my favorite trips, one of my favorite fight experiences."
The next day, Guida and his friends headed to the nearby town of Deadwood, which was then making a comeback in the national consciousness thanks to the HBO series of the same name. Guida was hanging out in one of the saloons there when in walked Josh Buck.
"Man, I felt bad," Guida said. "His nose was totally smashed and he had two black eyes. But we shook hands and had a beer, then played cards together for the next hour. That just shows you how mixed martial arts is. There were no hard feelings. We hugged it out and just had a good time."
When the weekend was over Guida and his friends loaded up and headed back to Illinois, back to their normal lives. He’d had fun, but it still seemed like $600 was about all he could hope to make in MMA. It didn’t seem like anything that would ever be his career.
"At the time, it was just a cool, fun thing to do. But I was gung-ho about learning to build houses, just working and earning a paycheck, maybe opening my own carpentry and construction company some day."
He had no idea that he’d win a couple more fights that fall, then a few more in winter. He didn’t know that in two years’ time he’d be fighting in Strikeforce, then in the UFC. He couldn’t have known that he’d eventually be known to fight fans everywhere as "The Carpenter," but that he’d no longer have to swing a hammer to make a living. All that was still in the future. All that would come after Sturgis.
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