Matured and focused, young veteran is now living up to his potential inside and outside the cage
Melvin Guillard was always expected to reach this point in his career.
This weekend, the 28-year-old lightweight brings a four-fight winning streak and plenty of momentum into UFC 132 where he will face Shane Roller. He sits in the log jam of fighters near the top of the 155 pound division, no more than a win or two away from challenging for the divisional crown.
But just because people anticipated this kind of success out of Guillard doesn't mean it hasn't been a struggle to get to where he is today. In fact, the charismatic fighter known as "The Young Assassin" could have ended up as one of the sport's stories of wasted potential.
"My whole life, I always expected myself to be great at everything I've done," said Guillard in a matter of fact manner, speaking with HeavyMMA in the week prior to departing for UFC 132. " I hit some bumps in the road, and that was really because being 21 going into The Ultimate Fighter, I was really young.
"I wasn't making great money, but I was making more money than the average kid in my neighborhood, people that were working 9-5s, and you get that high of "I feel like I've made it, I'm successful." I wasn't as successful then as I am now, but you get around the wrong crowds, the drugs, the partying, the wanting to be a rockstar."
After collecting three wins in his first four outings following his appearance on the Spike TV reality staple, Guillard dropped a headlining bout to TUF 2 winner Joe Stevenson. He tested positive for cocaine after the bout and was handed an eight-months suspension and a nominal fine.
The situation is one that Guillard doesn't shy away from – or regret for that matter.
"I don't regret anything I've done. I look back on what I've done and it's made me stronger as a person, as a husband, and as a son to a mother. It's made me stronger to my family."
It also taught the New Orleans native a great deal about the importance of the company you keep, a lesson everyone can benefit from learning.
"All the Yes Men, all the people that are around when things were good - I found out the hard way. When I got suspended and I went to rehab, I lost a lot of people in my life that I thought were really, really genuine friends. I look back on those things now and I just think that was a learning experience.
"My mom used to tell me all the time, `People are going to love you when things are good, but people are also going to hate you and not want to be around you when things go bad.' That's kind of how I approach everything now. I just keep my teammates, my coaches, my wife, and my family close, and I keep everybody else away from me."
Every life has a series of points where you can head one way or the other; follow a better path or continue down a treacherous road. If the experience of being suspend and going through rehab was the first marker where Guillard chose a better path, finding a home as a part of Greg Jackson's all-star ensemble in Albuquerque, New Mexico was the second.
"This place has changed my life, not just in the cage either. I came here kind of still broke and disoriented because a lot of camps wouldn't accept me. I tried to go to Xtreme Couture; they turned me away. I tried to go to Miletich (Fighting Systems in Bettendorf, Iowa) a long time ago, and I decided that wasn't going to work out; my personality isn't going to fit with the guys up there. So it took a lot of soul-searching for me to find the right place.
"I stumbled upon this place because of Joe "Daddy" Stevenson; he brought me here last January and I haven't left since. It's been phenomenal, and as you guys see, all of my hard work, you see it in all the wins I have. I'm undefeated since I've been here."
Not only is he unbeaten since teaming up with Jackson, but Guillard's three victories under the guidance of the sport's preeminent coach have been the best of his career.
A knee to the body stopped Waylon Lowe just three-and-a-half minutes into his opening fight as a member of Team Jackson, while he showed patience in picking apart Jeremy Stephens four months later. Most recently, Guillard climbed into a main event meeting with rising star Evan Dunham in January and dominated, winning the fight in under three minutes.
While a great deal of his success can be attributed to Guillard's hard work, dedication and natural abilities in the cage, he gives the credit to those he surrounds himself with and the familial environment of Jackson's gym.
"I'm blessed and very fortunate to say that this is my home and this is my team. I hope I don't have to go anywhere else. I hope I'm here until I finish my career. I'm in a room full of great guys like Diego Sanchez, Carlos Condit, Clay Guida, the list goes on. We have a phenomenal team here, but everybody lends a hand to helping. Nobody comes to the gym like they're better than the next.
"It's a family environment," continued Guillard, pride and genuine happiness permeating his voice. "From the kids classes on up to the pro classes, the amateur classes; everybody helps everybody. That's one thing about here: there are no egos in the training room.
"As long as everybody here stays humble and respects that factor, that's why this team is one of the strongest teams. That's why Coach Greg (Jackson) is voted Coach of the Year every year. It kind of speaks for itself. It's just wonderful place."
Though he couldn't be happier with his current training situation, his placement and selected opponent for Saturday is a bit of a sore spot.
"I'm double-sided on that," Guillard admitted about facing Roller on the preliminary portion of the event. "It's a little bit of a bummer coming off a fight in January that everybody expected me to lose. Everybody though Evan Dunham would be the next big thing at 155, so they basically brought me in as a stepping stone, and I steam-rolled right over him.
"I never overlook anybody. Shane Roller is going to be dangerous; he's a worthy opponent. If he wasn't worthy, they wouldn't put him in there against me. The only downside to that is I win that fight next weekend – I win and I knock him out — then I don't move (anywhere) in the rankings; I stay in the same spot."
"He's actually ranked above me. Can you believe that?" blurted out Guillard at the mention of the German's name. His alarm is somewhat understandable: the two met nearly three years ago, with Guillard connecting with a blistering knockout punch, finishing Siver in just 36 seconds.
Fast forward 36 months and not only is Siver neck-and-neck with Guillard in the rankings, he's fighting on the main card while Guillard competes on Spike TV; Siver meets Matt Wiman in the opening bout of the UFC 132 pay-per-view.
Ever candid, Guillard doesn't hide the fact that he's frustrated by the situation, but also shows his maturation hasn't just come inside the cage.
"It's somewhat of a slap in the face, man, but I don't get into the politics of it. To me, I'm not happy about a lot things, but I am happy about a lot of other things at the same time. It's a win-win situation. Eventually my time is going to come.
"Like I keep telling everybody, the only good thing about this whole situation is that I'm fighting my way to the title. I'm earning it inch-by-inch, fight-by-fight, so when I get my title shot and become world champion, nobody can ever question whether I deserve it or whether I earned it or did they just give it to me."
If the young veteran had his way, he wouldn't be facing Roller on Saturday night in Las Vegas; he'd make his next trip to the cage at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee on August 14.
"I asked for the Jim Miller fight twice, because I know in my heart that Jim Miller is my money fight. He's undefeated and he's on an eight- or nine-fight winning streak. You beat a guy like that, it automatically puts you in the running for the title."
Though his stats might be a little off – Miller is 9-1 in the UFC and riding a seven-fight winning streak – Guillard's logic is unquestionable. That explains why he's a little frustrated that someone else is stepping into the Octagon with Miller in Milwaukee.
"But the only downside to that now is that Ben Henderson is fighting him. Henderson is coming off a win, but it's a loss than a win; a loss in the WEC, a win in the UFC. But if Ben Henderson wins that fight, than everything that I'm working for is pretty much going to go out the window.
"I'm a big fan of Ben's; Ben's a great guy and I love him to death, but right now, I'm thinking business. I feel like that is my golden ticket fight and it's going to get away from me."
Though that could be the case, Guillard isn't letting any of it change his focus heading into Saturday night. He knows rankings are subjective, opinions change after every fight, and that neither are in his control. What he can control, however, is the performance he delivers in the cage.
"I'm going to perform to my best, and I want my performances to speak for themselves. Going into this fight next week, I'm approaching it like a title fight. I can't sit there and worry about things that I can't fix.
"Every fight is a title fight. If I lose this fight, it pushes me back instead of forward. That's how you have to look at it, and that's what I do. I approach every fight like it's a title fight."
It's an understandable approach, especially in the dangerous depths of the UFC lightweight division.
While the championship belt isn't on the line Saturday night, if Guillard keeps performing the way he has, it may not be long until he doesn't have to envision himself in a title fight.