LAS VEGAS – Clay Guida was one of the most popular athletes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, even after his fight with Roger Huerta in 2007.
If you know anything at all about Guida, you know his popularity was warranted. He's a charismatic, energetic firebrand who competes in mixed martial arts the way Pete Rose once did on the baseball field: A little harder and a little faster than just about anyone else.
Guida lost to Huerta in a fight-of-the-year caliber battle on that December night in Las Vegas, submitting to a rear naked choke early in the third round in a battle he had well in hand. It was his third defeat in four outings and, as entertaining as he was to watch, he also understood clearly that MMA is a business and that results matter.
The loss could have been devastating for the Chicago native, who had difficulty understanding why so much effort, so much emotion and so much passion was not producing a positive result.
As hard as he was trying, as much as he cared, what he was doing wasn't working. But Guida refused to believe that he couldn't win and win consistently, yet the fights were suggesting otherwise.
He wasn't getting blown out – his losses were agonizingly close – but he wasn't getting the outcome he wanted. After losing to Huerta in a fight he should have won, Guida took stock of what he was doing and found a way to turn things around.
"When you lose, you can either bitch and moan about your bad luck and accept it or you can figure out what was going on and fix it," Guida said. "I was going to find a way. The losses I've had have made me better."
The results will show that. Heading into his bout with Diego Sanchez on Saturday in the main event of "The Ultimate Fighter 9 Finale" at the Palms, a fight that will be televised live on Spike TV, Guida (25-9) has reeled off three consecutive victories and thrust himself into title contention in the robust lightweight division.
The turnaround came when Guida made a crucial discovery.
"There's a thin line between being reckless and careless and relentless and patience," Guida said. "I discovered that, finally. The loss to Roger Huerta is the best thing that ever happened to me."
What separates Guida, in an era when fighters are becoming more diverse and more skilled than ever, is his brilliant wrestling. He has unparalleled cardio and can fight at a high level for hours it seems. He wrestles many of his opponents into oblivion.
Sanchez (20-2), a former "Ultimate Fighter" winner, has a wrestling background, but his one vulnerability has been against wrestlers who were able to get him down. Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch each repeatedly took Sanchez to the ground and beat him up there in his only two losses.
Guida would be a fool not to take the same approach.
"He's going to fight a lot of this fight on his back," Guida said.
And given Guida's conditioning, Sanchez is going to probably feel like he's sprinted for an hour at 7,500 feet.
Guida is relentless – not reckless. His opponents are rarely able to step back, gather their thoughts and catch their breath when they're fighting him.
Guida fights with the accelerator pushed to the floor at all times. But he fights with more awareness now than he did 18 months ago and in his last three outings hasn't made the small mistakes that cost him wins.
He knows a victory over Sanchez would be a significant step for him. There are others ahead of him in the lightweight division, but if he gets past Sanchez, UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva are at least going to have to put him into the championship discussion.
A win on Saturday would mean consecutive victories over Samy Schiavo, Mac Danzig, Nathan Diaz and Sanchez, a foursome not many lightweights in the world could say they've beaten.
Guida refuses to allow himself to think of what a victory over Sanchez might mean to him. Sanchez is the Super Bowl and the World Series and the World Cup rolled into one for him.
"Obviously, this is a huge fight for me," Guida said. "And when you have a fight like this, it's important to put every ounce of energy you have into that fight. And all I'm thinking about, day and night, is Diego Sanchez. My goal is to be the first guy to beat him at 155. What comes after that, comes after that. I'm not looking ahead, I'm not looking at who is where, I'm just going out on Saturday to fight as hard as I can and find a way to beat the hell out of Diego."