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Clay Guida had ‘flashbacks of the Diego Sanchez fight’ during epic comeback over Leonardo Santos

Clay Guida made his professional MMA debut in 2003. He was the first Strikeforce lightweight champion. He was one of the original bonus hunters in the UFC.

And nearly two decades later, he’s still making magic happen in the cage.

At age 39, Guida turned back the clock to score one of the wildest comebacks of the year at UFC Vegas 44, submitting decorated jiu-jitsu artist Leonardo Santos with a harrowing second-round rear-naked choke after coming within inches of losing via first-round knockout. It was classic Guida — an all-heart throwback to the veteran’s younger days as one of the toughest outs in the UFC lightweight division — and considering the ride he’s been on in the sport, Guida can’t help but savor the feat he pulled off against Santos.

“I’ve got to say, 15 years later since my UFC debut in 2006, submitting Justin Janes and getting Submission of the Night for $20,000 and getting the Tapout glass trophy that they used to give out, to 15 years later submitting a multiple-time world champion jiu-jitsu black belt by rear-naked choke — it was even more special,” Guida said recently on The MMA Hour. “I know it wasn’t his best performance ... but he was definitely one of the most skilled — or had the most accolades — as far as any jiu-jitsu player that I’ve fought, and he had a really, really good record too. So, [that win is] up there.”

Santos certainly made Guida work for it. The Brazilian had Guida on wobbly legs from the opening bell, and at one point midway through Round 1 the UFC’s live stats showed Santos ahead by a margin of 46-0 in significant strikes. Multiple times, it appeared as if Santos was one punch away from ending Guida’s night, however referee Keith Peterson saw enough from Guida to allow the bout to continue. That proved to be a wise decision

Even still, a submission victory for Guida over a fourth-degree jiu-jitsu black belt wasn’t exactly an outcome that was on anyone’s radar. To put it into context, Guida winning via submission had 16-to-1 betting odds, while Guida winning via Round 2 submission had stunning 43-to-1 odds, meaning a mere $100 bet would’ve cashed out a whopping $4,300.

But Guida is no stranger to wars of attrition. His iconic 2009 bout against Diego Sanchez is one of the most memorable battles of its era for that exact reason, to the point where it was actually enshrined in the Fight Wing of the UFC Hall of Fame. And apparently that Sanchez bout was fresh in Guida’s mind while Santos rained down blows at UFC Vegas 44.

“He kicked me right in the gut,” Guida said. “It was pinpoint. And I don’t really watch my fights right away afterwards, but one of my buddies showed me a highlight and it kind of looked — people thought I got kicked in the midsection, and when I brought my hands down, it looked like I was kind of holding it. But he got me right in the stomach or belly button, and it was brutal. I was almost paralyzed in there for 20 or 30 seconds, and I had flashbacks of the Diego Sanchez fight — and I was like, ‘Not again. This is not happening now.’ My mouth guard came out and then my silly hair ties started coming out, and he was kneeing me in the head, in the shoulders, punching me.

“I had to stay calm in there and just realize if we can get through it against Diego Sanchez, we can get through it against him, and just grab onto anything. And yeah, we weathered the storm and got back in there and pressed the pace.”

At this point, Guida’s longevity is utterly remarkable considering he’s competed his entire career in the lighter-weight divisions, which are generally unkind to MMA’s senior citizens. “The Carpenter” picked up his come-from-behind win over Santos just days before his 40th birthday, and he actually has a winning 5-4 record over his last nine fights.

It’s safe to say even Guida didn’t expect to still be doing this at a high level after all this time, but he isn’t putting any limits on how long this late-career push is going to last.

“I would say I’m surprising myself at this age,” Guida admitted. “I’ve never been one of those to kind of make plans or put an age limit or a sight limit or whatever on my career, because I feel like sometimes when people put maybe a number on it, maybe they don’t exceed that number or whatever, they don’t get to it. So as long as I’m having fun, I’m happy to be here I’m happy to be in the UFC, I’m happy about our performances. It was definitely an ugly one, but I’m just enjoying it.

“I’ll be 40 here in a couple of days and I feel like I’m going on 20. I literally feel like a 21-year-old wrecking machine. I tell my coaches, they see it. And the best is yet to come. I’m in way better shape now physically than when I was 25. If you look at some of the photos when I got in the UFC, still learning strength and conditioning and things from different coaches, and now we have that in Sacramento. We have amazing coaching staffs, as you guys know. ... So I’m not surprised, because we’re wrestlers and we’re built to last.”

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