Deep in the backstage region of the Omaha Civic Auditorium, at the end of a winding maze of dressing rooms, UFC lightweight Clay Guida is getting his fight face on. He's in no hurry. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was preparing for a company softball game rather than a co-main-event bout with The Ultimate Fighter Season 6 winner, Mac Danzig.
"Your mom's out there sitting with the dudes from 311 and some of The Foo Fighters," says one of his Guida's trainers, returning to the locker room.
"Dave Grohl?" Guida asks, interested in which rockers his mother was with.
"Not Dave Grohl," his trainer says. "The other guys."
With a little more than an hour before fight time, Guida and his team pass the time watching the preliminary bouts on a TV monitor perched on a plastic chair.
They do impressions of UFC announcer Mike Goldberg and argue over whose is better.
They text friends on their cell phones.
They talk about everything but the fight. Guida swears he isn't nervous.
"I get the jitters right when I go out," he says. "Even then it's good jitters. I get to punch somebody in the face and get paid for it. What's not to love about that?"
The match-up against Danzig is no doubt a big one for Guida. Danzig's an opponent with a big name due to his reality TV success, and the fight's on a free Spike TV card, which means a potentially bigger audience than some of the UFC's pay-per-view showings. Plus, a win here would help Guida shed the dreaded gatekeeper status in the 155-pound division and could lead to something big down the road.
"Mac's got a lot of hype behind him, and he's a tough guy," Guida says. "But I think I match up better against him than he does against me. He's really technical, but I like to stay in your face and not give you room to breathe."
His first look at Danzig tonight comes as the live broadcast begins. On the small monitor, he watches Danzig discuss his plan to put Guida down and finish him in the first few minutes of the fight. Upon hearing this, Guida smiles and begins pacing back and forth.
"That's not a very good plan," he says, more to himself than anyone else.
Fight time descends almost all at once. Guida walks to the Octagon in the dark. No entrance music, no spotlight. The crowd sees his signature curly mane of hair and starts cheering. This is a pro-Guida crowd. The former Chicago-area carpenter is close to home here. He even has the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters as a sponsor on his fight shorts.
"I still pay my dues," he says.
At the bell Guida comes right out to the center of the Octagon, jabbing on his way in. It's Danzig who appears to be the more technical striker, though. He circles and sticks Guida with a two-punch combination. A straight right gets through Guida's defenses. He defends a Guida takedown attempt and seems to be in control, sniping at Guida from the outside.
Midway through the first, Guida figures out his rhythm and scores a takedown, putting Danzig on his back. Danzig gets to his feet only to have Guida slam him back down. The crowd loves it, and so does his corner. Danzig gets up again. Guida slams him again. The crowd chants Guida's name as the first round comes to a close.
In the second, it's more of the same, with Guida swarming all over Danzig. The crowd favorite eats a hard knee to the chin in the clinch, but is unfazed. He circles behind Danzig and suplexes him to the mat, a move that undoubtedly makes a good impression on the judges.
Danzig knows he's down as the third, and final, round begins. He comes at Guida with a renewed ferocity, though, and throws an uppercut that appears to momentarily hurt Guida. With his opponent's punches and reaction slowed, Danzig uses the opportunity to notch a takedown of his own. He looks for an armbar, but Guida has recovered. He's up on his feet and slams Danzig yet again. The frustration and the fatigue are all over Danzig's face. Guida has been on him all night and it's starting to show.
"The Carpenter" finishes the fight with another takedown and flurry of punches from the top. There's little doubt as to the decision. In his corner, Guida's brother and his trainers celebrate, and a unanimous-decision win is made official for Guida.
Backstage the adrenaline starts to recede. The victor's left eye is swollen and red, a testament to Danzig's punching power, which Guida admits to being more powerful than he had anticipated. He answers questions from reporters. They take note of his more strategic fighting style tonight. He looked like a matured version of the reckless warrior who once let Roger Huerta slip through his fingers.
"I'm glad people are noticing that," he says afterwards, his calm demeanor returning. "It's something I've really tried to work on."
It's hard to imagine that this is the same guy who just a few minutes ago was slamming his opponent to the canvas. There's that nice guy smile, the unassuming manner. His trainers and manager seem more excited than he is. They joke about changing his nickname from The Carpenter to "The Caveman" to match his wild appearance. He could even carry a club to the Octagon.
But Guida just smiles and stays non-committal on the idea. For now, he just wants to relax and enjoy his moment. As good as it feels, he knows it may won't last. Come Monday, it's back to the gym to prepare for the next battle. It takes a lot of work to feel this good, even for just a little while.