Melvin Guillard knows as well as anyone the ferocity with which Donald Cerrone fights. He's felt the leg-buckling power of Cerrone's kicks and the snap on Cerrone's punches.
For a long time, they were teammates and regular sparring partners at Jackson's Submission Fighting in Albuquerque, N.M.
Few know as well as Guillard how good Cerrone is. And, despite a one-sided loss to Nate Diaz in December that derailed his title aspirations, Cerrone is plenty good.
He was in the Fight of the Night five times when he was in the World Extreme Cagefighting. He's been chosen for Fight of the Night twice in the UFC, and has added a Knockout of the Night and a Submission of the Night bonus, as well.
Cerrone has won seven of his last eight fights, and has finished four of them. Yet, ask Guillard and he'll be the first to tell you that the version of Cerrone he will fight on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 150 is far better than the one he used to spar with regularly at Jackson's gym.
If there is one guarantee on Saturday's card, it should be that the Cerrone-Guillard fight will be explosive from the beginning. To paraphrase UFC welterweight DaMarques Johnson, each man has a 50-50 chance to win but logic dictates there's a 100 percent chance of a finish.
"We haven't trained together since last October pretty much," Guillard said. "It's been almost close to a year. I know he's a great fast learner and he knows how fast I learn and pick up on things. And I don't think we're going to be the same guys we were when we were sparring partners.
"In my mind I'm still like, 'Cowboy's gotten better.' He's tougher and I think I just want to go into this fight and turn it into an old schoolyard brawl. I want to go in and fight him hard, because I know what he brings to the table. I know if you try to sleep on him, I can get the bad end of the deal. I've definitely got to bring my A-game."
Guillard left Jackson's last year and is now training in Florida, but Cerrone remains part of the Jackson's fight team. While coach Greg Jackson will be in Cerrone's corner giving instructions on Saturday, he wasn't part of Cerrone's preparations.
Cerrone wanted it that way, so if he wins, it won't be perceived of as Jackson coming up with the perfect way to neutralize the mercurial Guillard.
"I just haven't been training with [Jackson] for like the last four weeks," Cerrone said. "There's nothing, no beef or anything with me and Greg … but Greg worked with Melvin a lot, and we were great teammates. And I didn't want Melvin thinking that that's all we were doing, picking him apart."
Cerrone often picked Guillard apart when they sparred. Guillard often wondered whether he had a mental block, because day after day, it seemed, Cerrone would get the best of him.
It led Guillard to one day approach coach Mike Winkeljohn, who oversaw a lot of their sparring sessions, and initiate a conversation.
Guillard conceded that Cerrone's kicks often felled him. But Winkeljohn correctly pointed out that sparring and fighting are distinctly different activities.
Because Guillard has come to embrace that thinking, he realizes that their sparring sessions together are just a loose sort of guide of what will happen on Saturday and not necessarily a blueprint.
"I've never rocked him in practice because in training you never try to hurt your teammate," Guillard said. "You want to be as safe as possible. We don't get paid to train. We get paid to fight. And the problem with a lot of guys is they want to go to the gym and find out who's the baddest in the gym.
"I don't care if somebody's badder than me in the gym. I'm in South Florida right now getting the crap beat out of me. It's almost like I never left Albuquerque. And I don't want to be the baddest guy in the gym. I want to be the baddest guy when the lights are on and everything's on the line."
On that, the friends agree. And in a division as crowded as the UFC lightweight division, the significance of every fight is magnified because the top 10 or 12 guys are so close. A loss would send either well down the list of contenders.
The friendship will thus end – for 15 minutes, anyway – as they go at it in a bout which will have a big impact on the rankings.
For Guillard, who has had a misstep just about every time it seems he's finally turned the corner, a win over his pal is critical.
Guillard has lost 10 times in his career, but said he'll never accept losing.
"If I had a kid and he brought home a second-place trophy, I'd make him burn that [expletive] in a tree," he said. "That's how I feel about getting second. I don't like losing at all. And I don't feel I'm running out of chances. I just feel it just wasn't my time. And I wouldn't lie to you. Had I won a title when I was 23, 24 years old, I probably would have ended up on the news for some dumb drug charges and probably thrown my whole life away because I would have been somebody in the spotlight at the wrong time in my life.
"I've matured. I've grown up. I've become an adult now. I take care of my family, I take care of myself. And right now, I'm an adult and I'm ready to wear that belt and represent the UFC as a man of integrity. And I don't feel I'm running out of time. I think right now I'm in my prime. I'm 29 years old. I'm not a kid anymore. I'm a man among men."
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