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The evolution of Clay Guida isn't for everyone

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The danger of becoming a product of reckless excitement is that people then expect reckless excitement.

Clay Guida has had many incarnations in the UFC. He has been a wrestle-first toiler who nickel and dimes his way to victory. He has pinned his ears back and thrown his hands against a Dash-8 propeller, like he did against Diego Sanchez. He has proven his chin does well in turbulent situations. In 43 professional fights, he’s been socked a thousand times and yet never been knocked out.

There are times he’s dominant. And there are times that, without the wherewithal to make in-bout adjustments earlier in his career, his fights have ended up as coin-flip affairs. Under the Zuffa banner, Guida has had six fights end in split decisions. He is - naturally - 3-3 in such bouts of utter indistiguishability.

If he’s consistent in anything, it’s in being a party to non-emphatic fights.

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Here’s what’s bothering people, though - of late, Clay Guida has had the audacity to implement a game plan. There for a minute we had him pegged as a more dervishy Chris Leben, all Tasmanian devil and sheepdog bangs, yet suddenly he’s grown a conscience. And that’s not sitting well with everyone.

"You get the negative feedback for having a strategy," Guida tells MMA Fighting. "I don’t know what professional sports are all about I guess."

As a man of peculiar branding, "game plan" is synonymous with things like "running scared," and "playing safe," and "Greg Jackson" - shadowy words with shadowy implications. We saw it in his headlining fight with Gray Maynard in Atlantic City, when his stick-and-move philosophy felt like a vapor trail to many fans.

In the follow-up bout, the stalwart wrestler in him - which Guida fondly calls his "roots" - resurfaced against Hatsu Hioki. That was this past January when he was debuting as a featherweight, a fight he won.

Was it an incautious, fan-friendly brawl? No. More like a thoughtful tactician with a newfound interest in longevity. And that trade-out has some critics seeing Guida, now 31, as so much milquetoast.

"There’s critics in everything, and I don’t pay too much attention," he says. "That stuff doesn’t shake me for a second. I’m out there to have fun, and do what I do, and adjust to each fight - adjust accordingly. I don’t care what critics say, I’m going to go out there and fight my fight, and when I win that strap, there are still going to be critics.

"Look at Georges St-Pierre. He’s one of the greatest fighters of all time, and people give him a hard time because how many of his fights have gone all five rounds? But look at what he does - he decimates his opponents. Even Anderson Silva. The guy can’t do enough, even when he destroyed Demian Maia and Thales Leites - people who cower away from him - he still got criticized."

The strategic side of Guida will have to be in evidence on Saturday night when he faces Chad Mendes in Milwaukee, too. Mendes is a clashing dictator of a wills who sits near the top of the 145-pound division for his ability to control the action.

"You know what, I’ve had to fight two entirely different opponents [at 145]," Guida says. "I had to fight ‘Stretch Armstrong [Hioki]’ the last time, and it was tough to find my range. So I went back to what got us here, and that’s wrestling, some ground and pound and avoiding submissions.

"[With Mendes] you’re looking to see some of the same - a lot of takedowns and a lot of wrestling in this fight, but I’m fighting a guy that I actually have a reach advantage for once. I don’t remember the last time it’s been - it’s probably been four years since the last time a slight reach advantage, and we’re going to use that opportunity in this fight and move forward."

As a fighter who went in for excitement, Guida excelled. Who can forget his brawl with Roger Huerta, when Huerta - losing on the scorecards - answered the third round bell visibly conjuring the spirit of determination? Or Guida’s fight with Sanchez, where they traded leather so haphazardly in that first round that mouths were dropping cageside?

Those fights not only took home "fight of the night" honors, they were each given "fight of the year" distinction. The reality is that Guida lost them both. What was fun for fans wasn’t as fun for the Illinois native, who gets to fight in the Midwest for the second time in a row. He got within a fight of a title shot at 155 pounds when he did away with the stand-and-bang mentality and "rediscovered his wrestling."

There’s no good formula for winning consistently while making everyone happy with exciting fights. Leaving your chin open for business is of course - in the long run - very bad business. If anything, what we’re seeing in 2013’s version of Clay Guida isn’t just an attempt at a happy medium but a reshuffling of priorities. And now in his new weight class, he has an opportunity to position swap with Mendes to the top of the featherweight heap.

"Within the top two or three," he says. "We go out there and make a big statement and finish Chad, that puts us up there one, two or three. A good friend of mine and my teammate Cub Swanson has been on a tear lately. Same with Ricardo Lamas, who’s a buddy of mine, too. These guys are on very impressive streaks.

"But if we go out there and fight our fight, and wow the crowd, that’ll put us right there in the driver’s seat."