It wasn’t out of the ordinary for Matt Larson’s cell phone to ring at some ungodly hour only to find Clay Guida waiting on the other end of the line to talk.
Guida would be in a safe haven like the Dollar Deals parking lot in Lake Zurich, in desperate need of sleep and unable to finish the two-hour drive from Chicago’s southwest side, where a late-night training session ended what had already been a full workday.
The 6-foot mattress in the bed of Guida’s 1991 four-cylinder Chevy S-10 Durango had been stored there for such occasions. But still, Guida would call Larson – his fellow Local Union 363 carpenter – to tell him he was OK and that he was stopping to rest his eyes.
It wasn’t unheard of for Guida to drive 250 miles a day between his Johnsburg home and a construction job site where he worked as a residential framer. From there, he’d go to Harper College in Schaumburg, where he wrestled collegiately and finally to Mokena, where he’d train with his brother, Jason, for his future Ultimate Fighting Championship career.
“Then, he’d wake up four or five hours later and do it all over again,” Larson said. “That’s just how he did it.”
In those days, sleep came at a premium, measurable, Guida says, on one hand, prioritized behind his training and learning to become a dependable carpenter.
“Sleep is where you find it,” Guida said.
Guida makes his UFC featherweight debut Saturday (4 p.m., FX) against Hatsu Hioki as part of the UFC on Fox 6 undercard at the United Center. The fight represents a fresh start for Guida, who lost his past two bouts as a lightweight, including a split decision to Gray Maynard in June in the main event at UFC on FX 4.
After the bout, Guida became the target of criticism after he spent much of the fight dodging Maynard rather than fighting at his normal level.
Guida insists Saturday’s fight will be a return to his normal nonstop demeanor. It’s a style that isn’t limited to the cage where he now makes his living. It’s an attitude he grew up with in a middle-class home where his parents both worked, carrying on a family tradition of laborers.
His grandfather held down three jobs to provide for his six sons and three daughters, and his grandmother worked just as hard to keep the nine children in line. The family work ethic was passed down to Guida’s father, Chuck, who began laying carpet at age 14 and continuing the trade until last year when he retired at age 57. Clay’s mother, Debbie, also helped provide over the years, while raising a family that “doesn’t just sit around and just keep moving and moving”.
“Hard work is what built me,” Guida said. “It’s just what I picked up from my mom and my dad, and there’s no substitute for hard work.”
It wasn’t out of the ordinary for Jeff Hand to arrive at a residential building site at 6 a.m. and find Guida’s S-10 already parked there.
The workday started at 7 sharp, and Hand – Guida’s foreman for two years – wasn’t prone to giving people too many chances. Union carpentry worksites aren’t for slackers, and if Hand didn’t see his carpenters constantly moving, he’d pull them aside and warn them to pick up their pace. If he had to tell them twice, they likely wouldn’t return the next day.
Hand never had to worry about Guida, who sometimes spent the night in his truck onsite to ensure he wasn’t late for work and who never let on about his aspirations to become a professional fighter for the first six months on the job.
On the surface, Guida looked like everyone else. He was even-keeled. Mellow. He worked well with everyone, remaining focused on the job rather than the pursuits he was chasing away from the worksite.
If most of his coworkers hauled three five-ply pieces of plywood, each weighing about 40 pounds, Guida would carry four. He’d occasionally stopped to crack a joke, but preferred to keep to himself, spending eight hours on the roof of a house, using a steady pattern of nail-pounding to supplement his regular fighting workouts.
“It was crazy,” said Bryan Thornton, who grew up with Guida in Johnsburg before working with him as a carpenter. “But he just did whatever it took, he rolled with the punches whatever way they took him.”
That included in the ring, where a different side of Guida’s personality came to life. It was a persona that his coworkers, Hand included, never knew existed until they saw him fight in person for the first time.
“When he got in that ring, I saw somebody I had never met in my life,” Hand said.
Inside the cage, Guida was a different person. He was hard-charging and intense. His passion came through with every punch, every kick. But one thing hadn’t changed. The performance was all about the effort.
That’s perhaps what Keith Jutkins noticed first. Jutkins, the assistant to the president of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, had come to know Guida as an honest “handshake kind of a guy.”
Like Hand, Jutkins had witnessed Guida’s dedication to his vocation and to his fighting, willing to do whatever it took to make both work. So the first time Jutkins competed under his fight name “The Carpenter”, his effort was unmistakable.
“Being a union carpenter isn’t an easy job,” Jutkins said. “It’s a tough job; it’s a devoted job. It’s a job of rolling up your sleeves and working an honest day for an honest day’s pay. He really felt when he came into fighting, that that was part of him.”
Guida has never shied away from putting in the work. Not on the job site and not in a professional fighting setting, where he has compiled a 29-13 record, including a 9-7 mark in UFC.He often competes against fighters who come with more collegiate pedigree than Guida’s days at Harper, which won a national championship during Guida’s career. But because he comes from a small town and wrestling tradition, Guida has made a living working for everything he got.
It’s all he knows.
“It’s like the old saying – if it were easy, everyone would do it,” Guida said. “That’s kind of what I got with wrestling – everything you accomplish, you earn along the way. It just builds character along the way.”
Guida’s former coworkers look at him now and the success he’s found in UFC’s ranks and insist he hasn’t changed. He promptly returns phone calls and text messages and never forgets a face, even if they met through a shared friend or acquaintance, Guida would remember.
Several of his friends will be in attendance Saturday night, getting their first look at Clay Guida the featherweight. His former coworkers still consider him one of their own, even considering the length of time that’s passed since he was a fixture on the job site. For Guida, it’s all about remaining true to himself – and to his friends and family who helped instill in him the value of an honest day’s work.
“It’s all about your grass roots and where you came from and the people who not only got you to where you are but where you’re going to go,” Guida said. “I’ve built houses, I fished on an Alaskan fishing boat when I was 20 or 21 in the middle of the Bering Sea, and nothing I’ve done in my life is tougher than that. So it makes fighting in a cage seem like a walk in the park.”