Monday, April 2, 2007

Melvin Guillard – Fire Away

By Thomas Gerbasi

Long-established as the best middleweight boxer on the planet and a future Hall of Famer, Bernard Hopkins was a few weeks away from jumping to a new tax bracket with a multi-million dollar bout with Oscar De La Hoya in September of 2004. In other words, life was good for ‘The Executioner’. All he had to do was train and show up and perform on fight night.

That wasn’t enough, as he explained to me on a visit to his Upper Darby, Pennsylvania training camp.

“Motivation can come in all shapes and forms with me,’ said Hopkins. “If I go outside and all my tires are slashed, that’s motivation. When things run smoothly, somebody has to break a glass; somebody has to do something. Some people need bumps in the road to make things happen. It don’t always have to be downright dirty, ignorant stuff; it just has to be some type of motivation. In boxing I’ll never have a problem being motivated because there’s always something in boxing, whether it’s on my end – to be fair – or somebody else’s end. There’s always some motivation that will be brought to me, or some adversity will be brought to me.”

UFC lightweight contender Melvin Guillard apparently operates under the same MO, because for all his success in the UFC thus far (an Octagon record of 3-2 with two consecutive knockout wins), his climb up the 155-pound ladder has been done under less than ideal circumstances, whether it’s surviving and recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, constant moves around the country in order to get adequate training, or most recently, the death of his father last November.

“I’m still going through it, still dealing with it, but I’ve got to take it one day at a time,” said Guillard. “In life you always have challenges. You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt, but it doesn’t matter. This is my first fight back since my father died, my mom’s gonna be there, she’s walking me to the ring, so I have a lot riding on this fight.”

He also may be looking at a title shot later in the year if he gets by Joe Stevenson in Thursday’s Ultimate Fight Night main event (Spike TV 8pm ET / PT). It’s a fight with enough intrigue on its own thanks to the clashing styles of the power hitting Guillard and the ground ace, Stevenson, but the recent revelation that Guillard’s close friend Josh Burkman has been helping ‘Joe Daddy’ prepare for the fight has added a new level of heat.

“Burkman’s a traitor,” said Guillard of his ‘Ultimate Fighter’ castmate, who is reportedly fulfilling a previous commitment to Stevenson to help him prepare for an aborted fight with Caol Uno. “Last training camp he took me up to Tito (Ortiz) and we were sparring. I broke his nose and he took it personal, I guess. Now he’s training with Stevenson. It was a shock to me. But dealing with the animosity with Burkman, that doesn’t bother me one bit – I have other things to worry about.”

That he does, but don’t think for a second that ‘The Young Assassin’ isn’t using everything that he can to mentally steel himself for the task at hand and bring it into the Octagon with him on fight night. That’s what he does – he’s a game time player, and when its time to perform, he’ll be ready.

“I got a lot of animosity, I’m an angry kid,” he admits. “I got a lot to get off my chest, so instead of going out on the street and beating people up and going to jail, I go in the ring and do it and get paid. They don’t feel my pain, and Joe Stevenson is about to feel my pain. No one had mercy on me when Katrina hit, nobody had mercy on me when my dad died, so I don’t have any mercy for him at all.”

Emotion can drive you to great things on occasion; in this game it can also force you into a mistake that will leave you waking up in the locker room. So while Guillard is an emotional young man who uses what happens in his life to fuel him, he’s also smart enough to realize that a head full of steam and a knockout punch will only take him so far.

“You never know what’s gonna happen in a fight,” said Guillard, who has been working with Saul Soliz, Pete Spratt, and Ricco Rodriguez for this bout, even getting in some sparring with welterweight contender Diego Sanchez over the last few weeks. “I can’t predict the future, so I have to train for everything. Right now I’m training just in case I get caught in a bad position on my back. I’m training how to get up and get out, and I’m training how to be more aggressive and more offensive but you have to have more defense too. I train the same way for every guy. I never switch up anything and I do the same thing for every opponent. If they’re ground guys, I fight them all the same way. If I happen to get into a slugfest and somebody thinks they can stand up with me, then I’ll knock them out.”

And that, dear readers, is the equalizer. For every fighter who probably sees Guillard as an easy mark for his reliance on his standup game, there will be another who may secretly dread facing him because he’s got hurting power in his hands – the type of thump that can break bones and alter careers. The worst part is that Guillard knows it too and he does not shy away from describing how his hands will be a nightmare for future foes.

“I’ve been punching guys in the jaw forever, knocking them out with one hit,” said Guillard when asked when he knew he wasn’t like the other folks throwing punches, either for a living or for fun. “Even back home in New Orleans, dealing with guys in the clubs, I punch them in the jaw and they’re out. So I always knew I had the punching power. In the ring, I’m coming out looking for the knockout, and I know definitely that he (Stevenson) is worried about me hitting him in the face. And if he keeps worrying about the face, I may just punch him in his weak-ass stomach because he’s a fat boy too. I’m actually looking for a head kick knockout. I like to get something different every time so I can work my butt off to get to the Hall of Fame.”

The Hall of Fame. It’s the dream of any athlete, but few get to reach those heights. And while at 24 Guillard has plenty of time to move to the realm occupied by Royce Gracie, Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn, you’ve got to respect a kid who talks not of the big payday or the trappings of fame, but of greatness. It puts all the bluster in perspective.

“I’m only 23 years old (ed. note – this interview was conducted before Guillard’s 24th birthday on March 30th) and I’m not rushing anything,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of time on my hands, I’ve got youth on my side, and if I don’t get a title shot, I’m not mad. If I get one and don’t go home with it, I’m still not mad, because I’ll be a UFC champion a couple of times before I retire.”

He won’t be getting a shot anytime in the near future without a win over Stevenson, winner of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’s second season and a fighter who has impressed in his two wins in the 155-pound weight class over Yves Edwards and Dokonjonosuke Mishima. Stevenson is also renowned for his ground attack, but has expressed a desire to test his standup. Will April 5th be the night?

“I think he’s gonna come in and go duck city,” said Guilard of the gameplan he expects Stevenson to bring into the Octagon this Thursday. “I’ll hit him one good time and then he’s gonna be the mat rat he is. He’s gonna want to do the jiu-jitsu game, and this is not jiu-jitsu; it’s ultimate fighting. But I’m not worried. I’m gonna go in there and fight my fight, fight at my pace, and I’m gonna knock him out before the second round is over, so I’m not worried about anything. I think the pressure’s on him because he’s got everybody telling him that he should beat me ten out of ten times and that it’s an easy fight. He knows in the back of the mind that it won’t be an easy fight, so with people telling him one thing and him thinking another, it makes the fight harder for him. I’m not expecting an easy fight, but I do expect to get my hand raised at the end. That’s all that matters.”

As for all of the outside distractions, Guillard will just store them in his head and his heart, and hope they translate into fire for his hands.

“I’ll still be ready to perform,” he said. “I think that’s the way the Lord puts it in front of me. To be successful as I am I always go through emotional and personal things in life, and it makes me the fighter that I am. I go through a lot of things just like everybody else. But everybody else tries to hide it and tries to be something they’re not. I don’t try to hide anything. Whatever happens to me, everybody knows about it, but it’s not gonna affect my performance. I’m used to being the underdog. I like it. It gives me more of a reason to prove everybody wrong.”

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