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Melvin Guillard - The Survivor

“He’s gonna be a tough opponent and I wouldn’t have called him out if I didn’t think he was worthy. But I have way more experience than he does, and I feel that I’ll be the stronger, faster guy. Overall, it’s gonna be a great fight."

Five years ago, Melvin Guillard’s life was a disaster – literally. Driven out of his New Orleans home by Hurricane Katrina, the mixed martial arts prospect was thinking of anything but fighting as he came to grips with his new reality.

And it wasn’t going to get any easier. In 2006 his father would pass away, in 2007 he would fail a post-fight drug test after losing to Joe Stevenson, and in 2008, he spent two and a half months in jail on a parole violation.

But before the ultra-talented Guillard became a cautionary tale, he turned it around, and as he approaches his Saturday bout against Jeremy Stephens, he is not only married, in a stable training environment, and far removed from the setbacks of the past, but he’s also won five of his last six and is – dare we say it – a contender.

So when you ask him how to describe the last five years, a half-decade of tragedy and triumph, he can’t seem to condense it down to a word or two.

“Heartache,” he begins.

“Pain, success, maturity.”

“There are a lot of words I could use to describe it - growing pains, experience, perseverance. I could go on and on, but I look at the last five years of my life, and I was a wild young kid who took a lot of chances. I’ve taken some good, I’ve taken some bad. I’ve taken the bumps and bruises for the bad choices I’ve made, and I think that’s why I can sit here today and say that I’m an honorable man.”

It’s hard, if not impossible, to dislike Guillard if you spend any length of time talking to him. You look at some of those bad choices and wonder if it’s the same guy, but it was and it was the downside of growing up in public. Look at the age on his bio, and he’s still only 27 years old, which means that he did a lot of things that a bunch of 22 or 23 year olds did, only he did it on his sport’s biggest stage. So he’s judged for a lot of things that most of us aren’t. But instead of crying ‘woe is me,’ Guillard bounced back, made changes, and arrived here at the top right on time. And he’s rightfully proud of that fact.

“I’m a man of integrity, and a lot of people around me are starting to see it, a lot of fans are starting to see it, and it all reflects off my parents,” he said. “It just shows that this is the kid my parents raised. It wasn’t that other person I had become and it feels good to be myself again and to be a positive role model for everyone around me. I’m loving life right now, I’m gonna continue to work hard, and when I win my world title, I’m gonna continue to work hard.”

A couple of pivotal factors in his life have certainly been his wife, Tache, and his relocation to Albuquerque to work with Greg Jackson and his team. And these days, it’s not about all night parties; it’s about training, family in and out of the gym, and his lone vice – video games.

“Everything I do up here has a purpose,” he said. “I get a lot of time to reflect and think and I don’t go out – all I do is eat, sleep, and train, and I want it to stay that way. It keeps it fun with me.”

The new Guillard can also be seen in the Octagon, and not just because of his 4-1 record in his last five UFC fights. It’s the way he’s winning – with a disciplined attack that can see him gut out a three rounder or still pull off a highlight reel knockout. And unlike his early years, a trip to the mat doesn’t mean an automatic submission loss. For proof, look at this wins over jiu-jitsu aces Gleison Tibau and Ronys Torres. Sure, they weren’t barnburners, but Guillard proved that he had finally started relying on technique, gameplans, and smarts, and not just power and instinct.

"I was a State champion in wrestling, I’m a brown belt in judo, and people disregard that because I’m such a great striker, and I’m okay with that,” he said. “If my opponents only think about my standup, then they’re doing me a favor.”

Yet deep down, he still likes nothing better than the knockout, which he reintroduced into his repertoire in May when he finished off newcomer Waylon Lowe with a knee to the body.

“Every fight, I want to be a finisher and I’ve always been a finisher,” he said. “I’ve only had two fights in the UFC go the distance, and I was happy that I won, but I was not happy because I’m in there to finish guys. That’s just the nature of me being a fighter, and I’ve always had that killer instinct to where if I’ve got a guy hurt, I want to put him out.”

Those finishes also provide a nice jolt to the bank account if you can get a Knockout of the Night bonus, something Guillard has pulled off only once – against Dennis Siver at UFC 86 in 2008. And following the win over Lowe, Guillard decided that he was going to improve his chances of a bonus for his next fight, as he called out recent Fight of the Night recipient Jeremy Stephens.

And he got his wish. But why the ultra-tough ‘Lil’ Heathen’ and not one of the bigger names at 155 pounds?

“He’s gonna be a tough opponent and I wouldn’t have called him out if I didn’t think he was worthy,” said Guillard. “But I have way more experience than he does, and I feel that I’ll be the stronger, faster guy. Overall, it’s gonna be a great fight. I’m looking to get Knockout of the Night, and if he ends up being a lot tougher than I expect him to be, then it should make for a Fight of the Night.”

Ah, the bonus theory. But there’s more.

“I fight anybody that (UFC President) Dana (White) and (matchmaker) Joe Silva tell me to fight, and that’s how I’ve always been,” he said. “But the fans and the critics were starting to get into everything, and they’re like ‘who has Melvin fought?’ And I tried to plead my case that I fought a lot of tough guys, and even fought tough guys before I was in the UFC. When I was in local shows I was fighting UFC veterans. So I’ve been fighting tough fights. And I also did it to let the fans know that Melvin’s not afraid to fight anybody. And the guy that most people are fearing, those are the people I want to fight.”

On Saturday, he gets his wish, and while not looking past Stephens, he’s already planned out the future.

“I’m hoping after this fight I can fight another top five contender or possibly somebody tougher than Jeremy Stephens, and the fight after that, I’m praying to God that I get a title shot.”

It would have been a cruel poke to suggest such a course of action to Guillard a few years ago, but now, this dream is on the verge of becoming a reality, and while the memories of 2005 remain, Melvin Guillard will not let his past define who he is today. And why should he; he’s a survivor.