Clay Guida looked around the school bus that carried him and the Montini Catholic wrestling team down Interstate 57, unable to ignore the focus on the faces around him.
During his four-year high school career at Johnsburg, Guida never made the trip downstate. So as the 31-year-old UFC fighter and part-time assistant coach headed for the IHSA individual state championships last week, he couldn’t help but immerse himself in a level of excitement he’s accustomed to bringing to the Octagon.
Guida is in his third year coaching at Montini. The volunteer position allows him not only to work with championship-level wrestlers, but also to explore a profession that could be an option once his fighting career ends.
“Now, I have a coach’s view (of the state championships),” Guida said. “It’s something I never accomplished, I never qualified for state and so to see it from a different perspective, it’s special. It’s hard to put into words.”
Guida was on hand over the weekend when Montini had eight wrestlers advance to the state finals. Having one of the world’s top UFC fighters in their corner, they said, help set a tone for a program that has become one of the state’s best.
“He’s just an inspiration,” said senior 126-pounder Jordan Laster, who finished as the state runner-up. “He gets us really fired up and he gives us that extra push and he tries to go really deep and give us what we need to get us through (the match).
“Just seeing his work ethic and his hard work just comes to us, and after we see him and his success (in UFC) we want to be successful.”
The journey downstate comes at a perfect time for Guida, who will face former No. 1 featherweight championship contender Chad Mendes at UFC Fox on 7 April 20. A win over Mendes would propel the Round Lake native into the upper echelon of the 145-pound division, keeping him on pace for the division championship.
After beating Hatsu Hioki at the United Center, Guida thanked Montini wrestlers for keeping him motivated during his prefight training. The Broncos have won five straight Class 2A state championships and 10 in the program’s history.
“You look at these kids and you see that look in their eye – that fire,” Guida said. “You see the transformation they’ve made from the beginning of the year and you see how they’ve improved and to see a different mindset, it’s pretty incredible.”
In Mendes, Guida faces a fighter who like himself has an extensive wrestling background. Mendes, who wrestled at Cal Poly, was the 2008 NCAA runner-up at 141 pounds as a senior. But Guida also knows Mendes, ranked as the world’s No. 3 featherweight according to Sherdog.com, provides a big challenge.
Mendes has registered first-round knockouts in his previous two fights after losing his first professional fight to featherweight champion Jose Aldo in 2012. Guida realizes that after picking up what many considered a controversial split decision against Hioki that a win against Mendes could push him up the ranks of the featherweight division.
“Obviously a big win over Chad puts me right there in the top three,” Guida said. “That will come out on fight night, but until then, we’re just staying focused and doing the work in the gym.”
For now, Guida will allow time volunteering at Montini, which faces Crystal Lake Central in tonight’s 3A team sectionals at Antioch.
For Montini coach Israel Martinez, having Guida along for the ride not only provides motivation for his wrestlers, but an example. Martinez sees a competitor who might not have the same talent level that many of his opponents have, but that has found a way to channel what he does have and use it to his advantage.
“He really trains hard, really focuses on his opponent and does everything he can outside of the gym, he watches film and he does everything the right way,” Martinez said.
Martinez values the way Guida has become emotionally invested with his wrestlers as they chase after another state championship. Not only does the experience give Guida the chance to experience something he missed out, but it also gives him a glimpse of what he could achieve leading a program of his own in the future.
“I’m (working with Montini) obviously to help the kids, but maybe, in disguise, it’s to help my skill set, too,” Guida said. “As you teach and as you instruct, you become better with your own skill set and you learn more just from being back in the wrestling room on a consistent basis.”