Nineteen years later, Clay Guida is still an ageless wonder.
The 40-year-old UFC Hall Famer marches into his 59th professional fight on Saturday when he meets Claudio Puelles in a main card battle at UFC Vegas 52. Despite the mileage on his odometer, Guida could conceivably be 3-0 over his last three bouts if just one more scorecard flipped his way in a recent split decision with the undefeated Mark Madsen, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the old warhorse is still having the time of his life.
“I’ll tell you what, I get more excited now, man, knowing that there’s a new challenge, a new opponent, whether I’ve heard of them or whether I haven’t,” Guida told MMA Fighting. “The fact that we just get to keep going out there and having fun and doing what we love, man, that we set out a long time ago — which to me, doesn’t seem like a long time — is amazing.”
Guida’s road through MMA is one of the longest and most history-rich still active in the lightweight division today, so we asked the living legend to do the impossible: After a career rife with post-fight bonuses and Fight of the Year contenders, which nights stand out most to the UFC’s original wild man? If he could narrow down just five fights that shaped his Hall of Fame journey the most, which performances would Guida pick?
Safe to say, it wasn’t easy.
Editor’s Note: All quotes edited for clarity and concision.
1. Chris Mickle + Alonzo Martinez
The Setup: Xtreme Kage Kombat: Des Moines on May 20, 2005 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Background: Guida was just a 23-year-old wrestler with less than two years of actual MMA experience when the phone call came for his first real step up in competition.
Practically every promise sold to him about XKK’s four-man tournament turned out to be a lie, but Guida wasn’t being brought in to win anyway. The real favorite of the bracket was future WEC contender Chris Mickle, a hometown boy who rode a 12-fight unbeaten streak into the bracket. Guida was merely an afterthought, a live body. Or so everyone thought...
Result(s): Guida def. Mickle via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27), Guida def. Martinez via submission (rear-naked choke) at 3:22 of Round 3.
In His Own Words: “So I’d just fought on a Saturday, I’d beat this college wrestler who was supposed to beat me, climbed up on the cage, did a huge backflip off the cage, and I was feeling pretty good. I was still working a full-time job — I was in the union carpenter apprentice program — but I’m walking into the wrestling room and my phone rings, it’s my manager at the time, he goes, ‘Hey, you want to fight Friday?’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s Wednesday.’ He’s like, ‘OK, well, yeah — these guys, they just called. The fight’s in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s a four-man tournament. They’ll give you a five-pound allowance and you’ll get to pick your opponent, since you’re the short-notice [entrant].’ And I’m like, ‘OK, cool — how much are we talking?’ He’s like, ‘Well, $300 to show and $300 to win the whole tournament.’ I was like, ‘Pshhhh, sign me up, man! This is big money! Let’s go, this is huge!’
“So we took the minivan out there on Friday, man — and we get out there, we get to this place called the Bel-Air Ballroom. It’s a freaking bowling alley, man. We’re like, ‘What is this?!’ It’s got the low ceilings — the cage almost goes up to the ceilings. The cage is in the bowling alley, just off to the left so it’s not on the bowling lanes, but it’s kind of just over to the left. Then over to the right, people are literally bowling while we’re fighting. It’s awesome, dude. I’m like, ‘This is so Midwest and so [The Big] Lebowski.’
“So we go find the promoter, and I’ve always been a bit small for the weight class — boom, I’m 155 [pounds], 156, whatever. We see our other opponents — they’re 165 and 170. We’re like, ‘What the heck? What happened to we get the five-pound allowance?? What about these guys making weight?!’ So whatever, we didn’t make a stink about it. Then they come up to us, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to fight this guy.’ I’m like, ‘Wait, I thought the deal was we get to pick our opponent?’ Nope, that wasn’t true either. So they basically just brought us out there to be a tomato can, and they put me up against this kid Chris Mickle. He fought Jose Aldo. He had fought some tough, tough dudes, man, and won some pretty good fights. I didn’t really know what MMA was, I only had a handful of fights.
“So I end up going out there and I keep taking this dude Chris Mickle down over and over, and I’m just putting a ground-and-pound clinic on him. I mean, bouncing his head off the canvas like a basketball, dude. Hammerfists. And he’s sitting there in guard just taking it — and he’s got this funny little grin on his face. I’m like, ‘This kid is out there, dude. This is wild.’ I’m looking at the ref like, ‘You’re not going to stop the fight?’ No, he was a hometown guy, and we’re getting booed. Then we got into the finals. The other side of the bracket was a guy named Alonzo Martinez, who fought in [Strikeforce and Bellator] for a little while — he knocked his dude out in like a minute. So I fought a full fight, this dude knocked his dude out right away, he’s got all this time to rest and watch us fight, and I get like the 30-minute rest in the back. And I get in there and Alonzo Martinez is like a giant compared to me. He’s weighing 175, I’m barely tipping the scales at 160 after eating a Subway sandwich.
“He’s pummeling me, dude. I mean, he’s just not having my wrestling. He’s just having his way with me. I’m like, ‘Oh boy, alright.’ First round, he wins. Second round, he wins. And it was scheduled for five rounds — it was my first five-round title fight — and I’m like, ‘Alright, I’ve got do something because this is not going well.’ So I come out in the third round, I kind of give the old head fake and I crack him right in the mouth with one of my best crosses I can throw — and he just wipes his mouth off, just like no big deal. Like, ‘Oh my goodness, I just threw the kitchen sink at this guy — he didn’t even flinch. Oh boy, here we go.’
“So I just did my old best Goldberg double-leg, man. I speared him, he went to his butt, and I heard him go, ‘ooooooohhhhhh,’ and he rolled over. I knocked the wind out of him or something. I think we just gassed him out. He rolled over and I rear-naked choked him and won the fight — went up on the cage and had my hands up and the whole crowd started cheering, man, and it was almost like the whole crowd flipped for us. At first they were cheering against us, for their local hometown hero, and then they were cheering us on, and I remember vividly having my hands up in the air and just thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this fighting thing — and we’re going to be good at it, man.’”
(I’d usually embed video of the fights in this spot, but apparently there’s no surviving footage of this XKK tournament, so go ahead and just imagine a baby-faced Clay Guida running through fools amid a backdrop of your grungiest Friday night bowling league.)
2. Josh Thomson
The Setup: Strikeforce: Shamrock vs. Gracie on March 10, 2006 in San Jose, California.
Background: Guida’s success in the bowling alley brawls proved to be exactly the breakthrough he needed. After starting his MMA career off with a middling 3-3 record, the Illinois native’s confidence exploded overnight — Guida rattled off wins in 15 of his next 16 bouts, including a triumphant night against future WEC and UFC contender Bart Palaszewski, all while working full-time as a carpenter’s apprentice.
His run caught the attention of a new upstart promotion in California calling itself Strikeforce, which was setting the stage for its debut show headlined by marquee names Frank Shamrock and Cesar Gracie. Promoter Scott Coker also wanted to throw a title fight onto the card to highlight local San Jose draw Josh Thomson — and an unknown Midwest kid with a penchant for barn-burners wound up as the B-side who got the call.
Result: Guida def. Thomson via unanimous decision (49-46, 49-45, 49-45).
In His Own Words: “At the time they brought us in, I was pretty unknown. I was like 22-3 or 23-3 or something, so we had a pretty decent record, but it’d only mostly been on the Midwest circuit, hadn’t fought really any big, big names yet. So we got the call, it’s going to be the first legal California card, it’s supposed to be one of the biggest ones in San Jose, and we’re watching film on Josh Thomson — he had the epic [UFC] fight with Yves Edwards, he had fought Hermes Franca, so he was a name. At one point, he was ranked second or third in the world. I just thought, ‘OK, cool. Here’s what I know how to do: I know how to wrestle and ground-and-pound. Here’s what this guy knows how to do: Everything. So what am I going to focus on? Getting this dude to the ground — and trying not to get my head knocked off in the meantime.’
“So there’s 16,500 fans booing us and it was almost like Rocky in Russia against Ivan Drago. And we went out there — we were just like a steam engine, man. Just kept taking him down and doing our thing. Next thing you know, by the fifth round, people are cheering for us and they’re like, ‘What is going on? Who is this kid?!’ We get our hand raised, and I turn around and Chuck Norris is presenting me with a championship belt. This is just like a dream. This is too cool. I look over my brother and I’m fanboying out to Chuck Norris — it was his 65th birthday and we’re like, ‘This is surreal, man.’ And that one put us on the map, I would say. That’s when we just laid out on the gas pedal. We went all in on mixed martial arts.”
3. Justin James
The Setup: UFC 64 on October 14, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Background: After the upset in San Jose, Guida had become impossible to ignore.
Opportunities in Shooto and the WEC followed a split decision loss to Strikeforce legend Gilbert Melendez, but the UFC had always been the dream — and with the 155-pound division having recently been reintroduced to the UFC’s ranks in 2006, it was only a matter of time before the call arrived. Guida just had to make sure life didn’t get in the way first.
Result: Guida def. James via submission (rear-naked choke) at 4:42 of Round 2.
In His Own Words: “So I’d been laid off from the carpenter’s apprentice program, I’d been laid off from the union. That was the first time ever — I just didn’t realize that was a thing. I was so young, I’d heard about people getting laid off in the trades, but I just never thought that was going to happen to me. I’m living with my parents at the time and I don’t want to go home and face the music and tell my dad, ‘Hey, I’m out of a job, dude. I’m living in your basement and I don’t know what to do.’ I just didn’t really fathom what I was going to say or how I was going to break the news to him and my mom. So I said from there, man, it was another one of those self-talks, that I’m like, ‘You know what? Maybe this is the sign. This is meant to be. I’m going to do this thing full-time. I don’t know how to do it, but I’m going to find a way. We’re going to make this s*** happen.’
“So I’m unemployed now, just fighting full-time, and it’s like 7 a.m. — I get a phone call and it’s my coach. He’s like, ‘Alright, you ready for this?’ I’m like, ‘I’ve been ready for this my whole life, coach.’ He’s like, ‘OK, I just got off the phone with Joe Silva — October 14, UFC 64, 2006, Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay Event Center, against Justin James, jiu-jitsu guy.’ And it’s one that, for me, I’ll always remember every moment of that day. I’d been to a UFC event when Frank Mir snapped Tim Sylvia’s arm — this is right when I first started fighting back in 2004, when I first was getting into MMA and stuff — so it was special for it to be in Vegas. That’s where fights belong, and especially for your debut, to be on such a card with such magnitude — Anderson Silva’s second fight after he just cremated Chris Leben, and he was fighting, who was kind of almost untouchable at the time, Rich ‘Ace’ Franklin — Randy Couture is calling the fight, Joe Rogan is calling the fight, some of my favorite guys.
“So I went out there, after almost getting my arm broken in the first or second round by Justin James, he gave up his back and I choked him out — and the rest is history. We found out later that night at the press conference, we won $20,000 for Submission of the Night, and they sent us a really cool glass sculpture that said ‘Submission of the Night.’ So the stage was set, man. We were in the UFC and we weren’t going to hold back.”
4. Roger Huerta
The Setup: The Ultimate Fighter 6 Finale on December 8, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Background: Once Guida was in the big show, it didn’t take long for UFC fans to fall in love with the free-swinging maniac with the free-swinging locks.
In true Guida fashion, “The Carpenter” nabbed post-fight bonuses in two of his first four octagon bouts, cultivating a fast reputation as a fan favorite whose appearances on any card were must-see TV. But his results were also inconsistent. Guida was just 2-2 in his UFC run when the call came for his first main event, a matchup as the B-side against one of the hottest prospects up to that point in UFC history: Sports Illustrated cover boy Roger Huerta.
Result: Huerta def. Guida via submission (rear-naked choke) at 0:51 of Round 3.
In His Own Words: “Man, he had so much steam behind him and so much hype behind him, being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. People thought he was the guy. He had some big fights, some big wins. But I’ll tell you what, we came out there in that first round and we put a 10-8 on him. Just everything we threw for some reason that night, we could not miss. That small cage in the Palms, the Pearl [Theater] in the Palms casino, man, it was bananas. People were hanging from the rafters, dude. It was so loud and intense in there, and that’s one of the coolest venues to see a fight. That was my first main event, and there was so much about that fight. I was cracking him with my overhands, hitting him with my crosses, catching his kicks, taking him down, ground-and-pounding, scrambling, always on top.
“I hit him with a rear uppercut that just sent him into [orbit]. Like, what he said in post-interviews, he goes, ‘Man, I blacked out. I didn’t even know where I was. And then all of a sudden everything went from black to red, and my vision was blurry, I open my eyes — there was all this hair.’ And he’s like, ‘I finally get my vision back and it was Clay Guida standing on top of me with his hair and he was just raining down punches.’
“I could’ve probably just sat in the corner of the third round and just won that fight by not doing any but circling, but everybody knows: That’s not our style. That’s not how we fight. And unfortunately, it came to be our demise that night, because I went out there to shoot and he came out with a flying knee — and he clipped me. He clipped me and he put me in a whole other atmosphere, dude. He got me good and he ended up finishing me.
“So that was one of those, it was like, ‘How?’ I really had to think to myself, how can a fight be going so, so well — and then in the blink of an eye, how can it turn like that?’ So I really had to kind of look within myself. Don’t get me wrong, that was an awesome fight, Fight of the Night, we bonused out, we got Fight of the Year. But if I don’t make that a Fight of the Night and I win, OK, next we’re probably fighting Kenny Florian and we’re in title contention. So I kind of almost had to sacrifice the insane, crazy, wild, knocking-’em-down-drag-’em-out fight style to preserve my longevity in the UFC, and just become a little bit more ring savvy, more aware, utilize my skills, utilize my wrestling and our conditioning. Not every fight has to be super, super crazy. So that was a defining moment to me, because I had to just step back and look at where we were going in the UFC in a short time, and really reevaluate.”
5. Diego Sanchez
The Setup: The Ultimate Fighter 9 Finale on June 20, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Background: Guida’s come-to-Jesus moment after the Huerta loss proved to be effective. “The Carpenter” went on a tear over the next two years, plowing through a trio of wins and even besting a pre-superstar version of Nate Diaz in a Fight of the Night at the UFC’s first champion vs. champion pay-per-view headlined by Georges St-Pierre and B.J. Penn.
For the first time in his UFC career, Guida was in the title picture.
It all crested in a matchup that would eventually be celebrated as one of the greatest in UFC history, against a former welterweight who was making waves in his new division, the only lightweight with a wilder reputation than Guida himself: “The Nightmare” Diego Sanchez.
Result: Sanchez def. Guida via split decision (28-29, 29–27, 29-28).
In His Own Words: “The Diego Sanchez fight speaks for itself. There’s just so many different moments, so many cool events that happened outside of the ring and memories for other people. That’s what I always like hearing, is the stories from my friends, fans, family, coaches, teammates, people that come to fight week — that’s what does it for me, man. That’s part of the reason why I compete, to hear their enjoyment of it and to give them some entertainment. So we’re back at The Palms. Here we go again, you know? I’ve still got Huerta kind of on my mind. I’m passed it, but we’re main-eventing again. Diego and I, this is a highly-touted matchup. He’s on his way up, I’m on my way. We’re both on win streaks. The stage is set. This fight was meant to happen. And that place was rocking even louder, dude. Obviously we go out there and the first round, I walk into a kick that still rings my bell thinking about it, man. Boom — I was on my butt! Then the whole fight from there was literally just flashes. I remember 20-second flashes of not remembering and then — boom — I’m in on a leg! Boom — there’s blood all over the place!
“The referee, Josh Rosenthal, he tells me a week later because I saw him at UFC 100, he’s like, ‘Guida, dude, I’ve got to tell you this story, man. You’re the wildest dude ever.’ I’m like, ‘What’s up, man?’ He’s like, ‘Dude, during your fight, that crazy flurry, your mouth guard flies out and you’re just eating uppercuts and knees — and you look over at me, dude, and you just kind of like winked at me. But you put your finger up, like, ‘Don’t stop the fight.’ And Diego’s just railing you with knees and punches, dude.’ [Laughs.] I was like, ‘Yeah, I remember looking over but I don’t remember all that.’ And he’s like, ‘It was wild, dude.’
“There were fights in the crowd. People were trying to get into fights with [my friends] in the crowd up on the second level. We got everybody too juiced up. People will tell me, like, ‘Dude, we had to fight this guy and that and the other.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ Drinks were being thrown at each other in the audience, I heard. It was just bananas. My mom was rolling around on the ground during the first round because she was scared to the bejesus because I was getting pummeled and there was blood everywhere on me. My manager had to grab her by the head and shoulders, he said, ‘Mrs. Guida, he’s coming back! He’s starting to win!’ He literally had to grab her physically because my dad couldn’t handle it.
“So that was one of those fights for the ages. For its time and place, that fight was meant to happen, I think. It really sent the division into another realm of excitement. And if I’m looking back at it now, that was 2009 — that was 12 years ago, dude. So it’s just wild to think that. Thank goodness for Diego, we both get inducted into the [UFC] Hall of Fame because of that fight. So just the magnitude of that event and that part of our careers, it will live on forever. To me, that’s amazing. I get lost for words for it sometimes, because we hear it and I’m thankful for every time people say it, but it almost sometimes doesn’t feel real.”