LOS ANGELES – Most mixed martial artists wouldn't carry on like hardcore fans if they got bumped from a speaking role at a news conference leading up to the biggest fight of their career.
But then, most fighters aren't like Clay Guida.
Guida will face Ben Henderson in an unofficial lightweight No. 1-contender's match at Saturday's UFC on Fox event at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The two fighters were originally scheduled to be part of Wednesday's newser hyping the show, but when someone on either the Fox or UFC side decided to keep the focus on heavyweight title contestants Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, Guida and Henderson lost their spots on the stage.
Henderson wasn't seen again for the remainder of the afternoon, but Guida stuck around and appeared to enjoy the proceedings at the Nokia Plaza as much as the fans who flocked downtown to witness the spectacle. Guida cheered and took pictures of the main eventers with his cell phone.
"I'm more of a fan now than I was back when I first started watching the fights back in eighth grade," he said. "How can you not be a fan of Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos? It's such a huge card, and the fact that Fox is stepping up as the first broadcast network, it's gonna be huge; this is a historic event in mixed martial arts and everything. My pictures are going up on my Facebook like everyone else. "
That enthusiasm cuts to the heart of what has long made the Chicago native one of the UFC’s most popular fighters. Guida's boundless energy makes his bouts, regardless of their place on the card, one that fight fans put on their short list of must-see matches at any event.
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Twice, Guida has been involved in all-out brawls considered by many the Fight of the Year – in 2007 against Roger Huerta, and in 2009 against Diego Sanchez.
Guida, though, lost both bouts. When he followed his loss to Sanchez with another to Kenny Florian in Dec. 2009, Guida (29-11) found himself at a career crossroad: Was he content to play out his career as a popular fighter, but one who is just another name on the card? Or, after seven years of hard work, was he willing to re-commit himself to his game and make a run at the UFC lightweight title?
"I knew something had to change," Guida said. "I knew I couldn't just keep doing things the way I was doing them if I was going to reach my potential."
Guida left the comforts of Chicago to work with famed trainer Greg Jackson in Albuquerque, N.M., a camp which is home to the likes of UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre.
The results have been immediate: Guida has won four consecutive fights, claiming a pair of big scalps in his last two by submitting former PRIDE champ Takanori Gomi and outlasting former WEC kingpin Anthony Pettis.
"It was about becoming a student of the game," Guida said. "It was about re-dedicating myself on the basics and fundamentals and drilling more. It was about going out there and sparring your butt off in practice every day and then stepping back and looking at, 'What am I taking out of this, am I just going in to get a workout, or am I going in to learn something? '
"The mark of an improving athlete is going back to what got your there: your wrestling, your single-legs, your double-legs, jiu-jitsu, armbars, striking. Just getting in there and mixing it up, rededicating yourself as a student of the game."
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His next test is Henderson (14-2), who has been on a tear that's every bit as impressive as Guida's. The former WEC champion has won 12 of his past 13 fights, including two victories over red-hot Donald Cerrone and an August victory over Jim Miller, which snapped the latter's seven-fight win streak.
Both guys have the gas tank to go all-out for 15 minutes. Both guys excel on the floor, with Guida's amateur wrestling background serving as the base for his game plan and Henderson’s aggressive jiu-jitsu making for an intriguing mix. Henderson arguably has better standup, but Guida has more big-fight experience.
"Henderson's very dangerous," Guida said. "His ground and pound is good, cardio second to none … well, second to mine … he's good in the clinch, he's improving every fight. But when push comes to shove, there's only room for one set of hair in this division."
Throw it all together and you've got a bout that seems made for primetime. Except, Fox has decreed that Velasquez-dos Santos will be the only bout that airs during Saturday's one-hour broadcast, relegating Guida-Henderson to the undercard broadcast on FOX Deportes, which also will be live-streamed on Facebook.
Or will it? Henderson feels he and Guida will force their way onto the big show.
"Someway, somehow, this fight will make it to air," Henderson said Thursday. "If it is afterward or whatever, Dana White is going to want to put this one on prime-time television. He's going to be like, 'Oh, wow. We need to get this on TV somehow, some way. ' I'm going to make sure of that."
Guida seems more content to control the things he can.
"The lightweight division is the deepest in the UFC," he said. "There are so many good guys in this division, you can go down the list and Ben's on there. I can't control whether my fight gets on the air. All I know is that I have the opportunity to go out there and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I deserve a title shot."
And if he takes care of business, he can go right back to being a fan. Asked who he thinks will win the main event on Saturday, Guida didn't hesitate.
"It's gonna be gun-slinging,” he said. "There isn't going to be one person sitting in their seat in the whole stadium, I'll tell you that. I'm going to stick with the champ, go with Cain, go with the wrestler. Let's see how Junior can deal with takedowns."
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- Clay Guida
- Junior dos Santos
- Cain Velasquez