The frontrunner for boxing’s Prospect of the Year, a candidate for Fighter of the Year and one of the best stories the sport has seen in a pandemic-ravaged 2020 insists he isn’t long for it. Clay Collard is a mixed martial arts fighter. It’s spelled out in the bio of his Twitter feed and it’s something Collard emphasized on a 30-minute phone call last week.
“I’m a fighter,” Collard told SI.com. “But I’m a mixed martial artist first.”
Six months ago you likely never heard of Clay Collard. Why would you? At 27, Collard began the year with a pedestrian 4-2-3 record. He fought eight times in 2019. He won three of them. His year ended with a one-sided beating from Bektemir Melikuziev, a top super middleweight prospect. That fight happened in an empty arena on the undercard—the deep undercard—of Canelo Alvarez’s win over Sergey Kovalev.
Then came January, and a matchup with unbeaten welterweight Quashawn Toler. Collard took that one by unanimous decision. A month later, a Super Bowl weekend showdown with 154-pound prospect Raymond Guajardo. Perhaps emboldened by Collard’s record, Guajardo came out swinging. Four-plus minutes of action later, it was Guajardo’s corner throwing in the towel. Last month, Collard returned to super middleweight to face another undefeated prospect, David Kaminsky. Collard bloodied Kaminsky for six rounds, walking away with a decision win.
“Collard is a handful,” said ESPN broadcaster and former two-division champion Tim Bradley. “He’s just worried about doing what he needs to do.”
On Tuesday, Collard will enter unfamiliar territory, as the A-side of a 162-pound catchweight fight against Lorawnt-T Nelson, Collard’s second straight inside Top Rank’s bubble in Las Vegas. It’s a reward of sorts for Collard, whose rise has generated national interest.
“I’ve been a part of combat sports since I was a kid,” Collard said. “This has been a wild ride.”
Indeed. It began in Castle Dale, Utah, a coal mining town 150 miles south of Salt Lake City. Collard’s mother was a swim coach, his father a diesel truck driver. Collard was a wrestler and MMA lured him in early. He grew up watching Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar and dreamed of fighting in the UFC. “I’d watch with my Mom and tell her, ‘This is what I’m going to do some day,’” Collard said. “And my mind hasn’t changed since.”
Collard’s first taste of MMA came in high school. A wrestling coach told Collard about an MMA card rolling through town. He encouraged Collard to try and join it. Collard did, knocking out his opponent in 12 seconds. The next day he told his father: I want to fight again. The next weekend, Collard was in Moab, Utah. He could fight—but he had to officially turn pro. Collard did, and picked up another knockout. He made $300 for his trouble. “It was three weekends in a row,” Collard said. “Whatever I could get.”
Collard was officially an MMA fighter. But he wasn’t really one. In his third fight, Collard’s legs were battered. “Took some nasty leg kicks,” Collard said. “Walked funny for days.” So Collard decided he needed to learn. He started traveling around Utah, popping into different gyms. After getting caught in a choke hold during one fight, Collard focused on jiu-jitsu. He held training sessions with other would-be MMA fighters in his high school wrestling room.
In 2012, Collard faced Justin Buchholz, an ex-UFC veteran. He lost, by stoppage. “I was beating him the whole fight,” Collard said. “Just got caught in a choke.” A year later, Collard faced Buchholz in a rematch. In a brutal fight, Collard walked away with the decision. “A five round war, man,” Collard said. “To this day it was one of the most entertaining MMA fights I’ve ever been in.”
Soon after, Collard got the call from UFC. His first fight was against Max Holloway, a rising featherweight star. Collard got knocked out. Three fights later, Collard was released. “UFC, they didn’t get the best version of me,” Collard said. “I was going through some things in my personal life. I just wasn’t all the way there.”
Officially, Collard’s boxing career began in 2017, with a split decision win over Jamey Swanson on a Salt Lake City show. “But that was only because I wrecked my car,” Collard said. “I needed some cash.” Still, getting back to UFC was the priority. Collard’s coach, Ryan Ault, suggested Collard keep boxing. “He believed it would better my MMA game,” Collard said. Besides, Ault told him, “You’re going to get more publicity in boxing.”
In May, 2019, Collard landed a fight against Tipton Walker, then an unbeaten super middleweight. “I'm sure they brought us out there for me to be an opponent and for me to lose,” Collard said. “That just wasn’t what I was there to do.” Fighting in Dearborn, Mich.—Walker’s backyard—Collard battled the 22-year old Walker to a draw. A month later, Collard dropped down to 154-pounds to face Quinton Randall, another undefeated prospect. He lost a four-round decision. Three weeks later, he was back at super middleweight to face once-beaten Emilio Carlos Rodriquez. He picked up another draw.
A week after that, it was Quincy LaVallais.
A week after that it was Maurice Winslow.
In all five of Collard’s opponents in 2019 were undefeated and none had more than one loss.
“I'm a little too old to get noticed going the 10-0, knocking out a bunch of wannabes way,” Collard said. “I haven't been in the boxing world for years and years, so the only way we're going to get noticed in boxing is if we take out undefeated and close to undefeated guys, top prospects. So that's who we went after.”
Still, even as Collard committed to boxing, he kept an eye on MMA. The Guajardo fight was supposed to be Collard’s last. Before the fight, Collard signed a contract with the Professional Fighter’s League, the fledgling MMA outfit that awards tournament winners with a $1 million prize. Collard was set to join the PFL in the spring. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The PFL cancelled its season. Collard turned his attention back to boxing. “[Fighting] is what I do full time,” Collard said. “If I don't fight, I'm going to go hungry. I'm going to be homeless if I can't pay my rent, and I pay my rent by fighting.” Top Rank added Collard to one of its early Bubble shows. Collard respond by wiping out Kaminsky, a 19-year old prospect.
Collard can’t predict his future. He intends to eventually rejoin the PFL, which won’t resume until 2021. Until then, Collard is a boxer. He will make $10,000 on Tuesday, a source told SI.com, a career-high payday. If he beats Nelson, he hopes Top Rank will find a significant fight for him before the end of the year. But he isn’t overlooking anyone.
“I don't believe in the whole ‘A side, B side’ thing,” Collard said. “When you have that mindset, you run into a guy like me.”