Clay Guida is ostensibly a UFC featherweight. If you want proof, just pull up the UFC rankings. There he is, listed below Irish green and Brazilian gold, standing guard over the top-10 with his manic pressure and occasional belch. Guida is three years into this 145-pound experiment, yet for a guy who's been around longer than the division itself, he remains strangely hard to pin down.
Part of it is his own making. In the minutes after Guida earned a smothering win over Robbie Peralta in April, he seized the mic and challenged Rafael dos Anjos, lightweight's current standard-bearer. It led to a curious sight. A fringe contender throwing down the gauntlet for the champion a weight class above. When is the last time you saw that?
But the peculiar thing about Guida is that the callout made more sense than if the names Aldo or McGregor had escaped his mouth. Guida spent seven years at 155 pounds with the UFC, nearly always fighting the best the division had to offer, and often winning. Within a span of 10 memorable months in mid-2010, he broke the jaw of dos Anjos, choked out Pride's former lightweight king Takanori Gomi, then downed future beltholder and Wheaties coverboy Anthony Pettis. That type of résumé can get you places if you know how to use it right.
All of which leads back to the curious line Guida now finds himself toeing. His callout of dos Anjos came with the addendum that featherweight was never actually meant to be a permanent home. He sounded like a guy ready to return to his roots. And to be honest, he still does.
"I think at one point I was top-three or something, three or four. There's a lot to be said for that, for a guy who is very undersized," Guida told MMA Fighting. "Frankie (Edgar) and myself were the smallest lightweights in the division for seven or eight years, however long it was, and we made a very good run. Obviously he had more success with defending the title, things like that, but I would be thrilled to take on some bigger names or get back into that mix."
So why, then, is Guida returning on Nov. 7 against Thiago Tavares, another former lightweight who has taken to testing the featherweight waters? Well for one, the UFC asked him too. That is often reason enough. But part of it, too, is because in the four years since imploding Pettis' hype train, momentum and "The Carpenter" have become erstwhile acquaintances.
Guida's time at featherweight has gone a little something like this: win one, then get stopped climbing the next rung up. Wash, rinse, and repeat. His 3-3 slide since 2012 has been a frustrating endeavor for all involved, and at this point, MMA's chief Big Lebowski stand-in simply wants to string a few damn good nights together before considering the nitty gritty of where his next step should be.
"I've just got to get in and start putting these wins back to back, you know what I mean?" Guida said. "Besides Peralta, I fought all top-10 guys in the featherweight division so far. Hatsu Hioki, that guy is a puzzle. That guy is super tricky. Chad Mendes is just freaking hell of wheels. He throws thunder.
"Dennis Bermudez, he's just a little bulldog. (Tatsuya) Kawajiri, that dude is a former world champ in numerous organizations. He fought the who's who. And Robbie Peralta could punch a hole through a brick wall, so I haven't had any gimmies. So I've just got to start putting some wins together and be more consistent and then watch the doors open."
Guida's first chance to do so will come on Saturday night at UFC Fight Night 77 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He is on the preliminary card, a rare sight for the nine-time bonus winner, but that only ratchets up his urgency to get things done and get them done now.
In Tavares, Guida meets a man very similar to himself, a UFC veteran from the days of Spike TV and fewer than 20 events a year. Sometimes it is hard to believe Guida is already approaching his 34th birthday. When those unkempt curls bounce around the cage and the crimson starts smearing across his face, he looks the same as he did eight years ago, when he was waging wars against the Huertas and Sanchezs of the world.
But Guida still has that energy, that boundless exuberance that leads to a rush of calisthenics at the end of every 15- or 25-minute fight. And despite what others may say, Guida is confident in knowing there are plenty of miles left on this tread.
"I feel like it's the first day I walked into the gym sometimes," he said. "I'm in better shape than when I was 21, when I was 25. Even when I was 18. I know how to treat my body better, I know how to recover after workouts. Just the more mature, the more fights you have, you get more experience and you learn to recover better. It's about longevity in the sport. Every time I step into the gym, these young guys are showing me things. The veterans, the new instructors, the old instructors are showing me new tricks. I'm trying to put it all together a little bit at a time and just stay on this run.
"Now I get to take on another former lightweight, so it's going to be rock ‘em, sock ‘em come Saturday, man. It's going to be awesome. It's going to be a barnburner."