Clay Guida (21-7) may be one of the best fighters you've never heard of.
But not for long.
At UFC 72, Guida faces a very tough Tyson Griffin, who at 8-1 has notable TKO wins over WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber and dangerous striker Duane Ludwig.
A win over Griffin would give Guida much deserved airtime on a future pay-per-view or televised fight card. He may have dropped a razor-thin decision to Din Thomas at Fight Night 8, but his performance that night, as well as the one against Justin James at UFC 64 (which he won), is what puts "The Carpenter" on the precipice of mainstream recognition.
Defeating Griffin would almost certainly push him past it.
I caught up with Clay just after a training session for his upcoming bout at UFC 72. Like most fighters he was very well mannered and spoke with a calm authority.
Aside from being open and candid with his answers, he was also genuinely down-to-earth. We covered everything from life as a commercial fisherman to being passed over as a contestant on The Ultimate Fighter 5.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Clay, first and foremost thank you for taking time out of your schedule to check in with UFCmania. You're scheduled to face Tyson Griffin this Saturday at UFC 72. Tell us about your training. Do you have an answer for his wrestling?
Clay Guida: My answer is to outwrestle him. He's got good partners and a good camp. But I usually outwrestle the good wrestlers because I have a great wrestling background myself. I've been wrestling since I was five and I won a national title at Harper College. This is a key fight for both of us. It should be exciting.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Do you find yourself relying on your wrestling to the point where you might overlook other aspects of training?
Clay Guida: Definitely not. Wrestling is the foundation for me but I train very hard in all the disciplines. I'm working on my striking and Muay Thai. You have to be well-rounded to survive against today's talent. People sometimes don't realize that's not such an easy task. A baseball player only has to master one position. Imagine if they had to master all nine? That's kind of what it's like training for the UFC.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Do you train differently before a fight than you normally would?
Clay Guida: I don't change the way I train prior to a fight - I just pick up the intensity.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What about after a loss?
Clay Guida: Chuck Liddell once said why change what got you to the game and I firmly believe that.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What's your favorite part of training?
Clay Guida: Sparring with your buddies. They push you and you push them. It's great because you get to test each other's limits.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Your least favorite?
Clay Guida: The overall sacrifice. I'd love to be out on a lake with my friends but I guess it's better than swinging a hammer for eight hours.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Does being one of the underrated and possibly overlooked fighters on a pay-per-view card put pressure on you to perform or standout?
Clay Guida: Well I'm used to being the underdog in my fights. I leave the hype to the fans and to the promoters. I just make sure I go out there and have fun.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): How did you get started in mixed martial arts (MMA)?
Clay Guida: It was at my brother's pro debut (middleweight Jason Guida). One of the fighters on the card ended up backing out and the promoter made an announcement that he needed a fighter for an exhibition match. I ran over and begged my brother's manager to get me the spot.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Wait a second, you're telling me you got pulled out of a crowd to compete? This is like fairytale stuff! Keyboard warriors sit at home and dream up scenarios like this.
Clay Guida: (Laughs) Yeah, I know. This is how we do things in the Midwest! My mom and her best friend were there to see my brother and you can imagine their surprise when I walked out!
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): So what happened?
Clay Guida: Well I took the fight and got choked out in the second round. I thought my wrestling would carry me through and for a while it did. Not long after that I got a call from my brother he was like "Monte Cox needs a guy" so I took my second fight again with no notice. This time I won with a rear naked choke at the end of round one. The crowd went crazy and that was it - I was hooked.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What were you doing before you started fighting?
Clay Guida: Unfortunately I didn't get to finish college. I was living on a fishing boat in Alaska working as a commercial fisherman.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Alaska? Like Deadliest Catch?
Clay Guida: Yeah, I was out there on a 200 foot troller in the Bering Sea. The only difference was we weren't looking for crabs. I also worked as a carpenter, which in the end turned out to be a huge plus because now one of my biggest sponsors is the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters. That's where I did my apprentice program.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): That explains your infamous nickname.
Clay Guida: (Laughs) Yeah, Clay "The Fisherman" just didn't sound right. Actually "The Carpenter" started out as a joke but now I'm embracing it. I'm taking it to the end.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): It's not so bad. You could have been known as "The Tool Belt."
Clay Guida: (Laughs) Right.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): So are you at a point where you can sustain yourself as a "Full-time fighter?"
Clay Guida: I've been blessed. I can officially say I make my living as a fighter.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What do you think you would be doing if you weren't fighting?
Clay Guida: I'd probably be in a bar 5-6 days a week talking about how fast I can sheet a roof.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Tell me about the fight with Din Thomas. A lot of fans (including myself) thought it could have gone in your favor, or at least been a split-decision. Were you disappointed with the result?
Clay Guida: I was disappointed but I thought I performed well. I took it as a life lesson. I don't consider it a bad loss. Din's not some bum off the street, the guy has been fighting for a long time.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What then would you consider your toughest loss?
Clay Guida: I had a title fight in Strikeforce against Gilbert Melendez. Man he put it all over me. He's a tough son-of-a-gun. He'll be a future champion in PRIDE. That shouldn't have been a split-decision. He beat the snot out of me for five rounds.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What has been your greatest win?
Clay Guida: It's hard to name one. At one point I had won seventeen fights in a row. That was an awesome ride.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Do you think the win-streak made you complacent?
Clay Guida: No, the other kid just brought it. He worked me over pretty good.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What's been your greatest hardship since becoming a fighter?
Clay Guida: Losing some close friends. On Christmas Eve of 2005 my best friend Jimmy Haynes was in a car accident and he didn't make it. He was an apprentice with me at the time. Losing my best friend at twenty-four was life-altering for me. Not a day goes by that I don't think of him but I know he's in a better place looking down on his friends and family.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Who has been your biggest supporter?
Clay Guida: My parents and my brother are number one in my life. My coaches are there for me too. I have a lot of great people behind me.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What do you do when you're not training?
Clay Guida: Spend time with my friends and family. I love to travel and sightsee. I'm going to Costa Rica this summer. I also love going to concerts. Sublime, Phish, The Beatles, I love all that stuff.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Is there a Mrs. Guida?
Clay Guida: Oh no, I'm single and happy.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Give me the history on your tattoos.
Clay Guida: The story behind the tattoo on my left arm, the one from the bottom up with the feathers and cow skull, I got that one after my first fishing trip in Alaska. An awesome tattoist out of Seattle freehanded it. I explained to her that I was really interested in the Native American Heritage and background, and that I would like something with my family incorporated into it. So each feather has a bead with their initials on it, and it resembles a member of my family including my niece and nephew. The right arm has a gecko with half-flesh and half-skeleton. This was my first tattoo that I got while working on the road in Alabama. I always liked reptiles growing up and I have a pet snake. I used to collect some exotic geckos and frogs. I like to compare myself to a reptile. Once I latch onto you, it's going to be hell getting me off.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): As we reported back in January, you auditioned for this season's The Ultimate Fighter but were turned down because you were seen as overqualified. Did that leave a bad taste in your mouth?
Clay Guida: No, not at all. I think (TUF) is good for the sport. Any exposure is good exposure. People are too hard on these guys. Most of them are not like that outside of the show. Being sequestered in a house for six weeks makes you nuts.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): I would assume then that you know some of the guys from this season?
Clay Guida: Well Cole Miller I stayed with in Tokyo, we were fighting in the same show. I also know Brian Geraghty and Gray Maynard, those are some great guys.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): How would you rank yourself among the current crop of lightweights?
Clay Guida: Mentally and by heart I'm a champion. Record-wise and opponent-wise I'm top five in the UFC, top ten in the world. I know it's just a matter of time before I get a title.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Well things just got a lot more interesting now that UFC owns PRIDE. What's your take on that pool of talent?
Clay Guida: Nick Diaz is one of the toughest dudes out there. He's such an awesome fighter and his style gives guys a lot of problems. Personally, I'd love to face Gomi. He's actually a pretty nice guy. I met him once in Shooto. He came to check on me after I took a loss to one of his teammates Yusuke Endo. Man I'd love to have a war with him.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): I think the fans would love it too. What do you think about the UFC's recent upsets? Good or bad for the sport?
Clay Guida: I think it's a result of fighter tenacity. Guys are hungrier than ever. That's why I love this sport, for its unpredictability. And the fans win every time.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Name some of your childhood heroes.
Clay Guida: Dan Gable from Iowa, he was an Olympic champion in wrestling. He was just so dominant. Dick Butkus for being such an animal. I'm from Chicago so obviously I'm a huge Bears fan.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): You mentioned Dan Gable I assume because of your roots in wrestling. Give me a wrestlers perspective on the possibility of Kurt Angle entering MMA. Is he the real deal or asleep at the wheel?
Clay Guida: He's dreaming. Just look at his recent drug tests. You can't take away any of his amateur accomplishments but he's way past his prime.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): What about Brock Lesnar?
Clay Guida: Lesnar I think is a whole different story. He's still young and I think he's going to do awesome.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Clay I want to wish you the best of luck against Tyson Griffin. If you had your choice of finishes, what would it be?
Clay Guida: I would love to end it with a huge slam. Something along the lines of Rampage/Arona. But I'm a realist so I'll probably keep with the old school rear naked choke.
Jesse Holland (UFCmania): Clay, thanks again for talking with UFCmania and giving the fans a chance to get to know you a little better.
Clay Guida: It was an honor and a pleasure.