For years Melvin Guillard's has been a story of wasted potential. Just watching the young Louisianan in the cage, you could see the brilliance waiting to be unleashed. It looked for a long time like it would be potential left undiscovered.
Drugs took on a role in his life. Losses piled up. A career once so promising seemed destined to end in disappointment and regret. And then Guillard went to train with Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn in New Mexico. It was there, far from his roots in the south, that he got his career, and his life, back on track.
"That's what's big about what's going on in my life right now. I don't have any negative people, no negative energy around me," Guillard said in a conference call last week. "I have a loving wife who supports me. She spends all her time in my training camps. You know, she gives up time from being in college to be here with me, you know..If I was out there still messing up and doing drugs and messing with the negative people, I'm letting down all the people that really believe in me including the fans. You know? There's so many fans out there now that love me so much that always loved me and I just felt I was being real selfish, thinking of myself.
"Now I don't really think of myself first. I think of everyone else around me that loves me and then I think of myself. And I just think of what would happen if I let those people down. Because one thing about me and I've always been like this even in high school wrestling, I never wanted to let my coach down and disappoint him. So I always worked my butt off even harder. And I think that's right now the turning point in my career like, I don't do after parties anymore. I might go out and just hang out but I'm not doing after parties, getting drunk."
It's this change in outlook that has allowed Guillard to make a similar change in his fighting style. Before, a Guillard fight was feast or famine. Guillard's UFC record stood at 5-4. Only one bout made it the distance. At Jackson's he's learning to control his aggression, utilizing his gifts to make opponents play his game, not to explode into their areas of expertise.
"The reason he was so explosive is because there was this fear. Of running into the counter or running into a takedown when he didn't want it, or getting caught in a guillotine," coach Mike Winkeljohn said. "That skittishness was a lack of confidence in knowing he could be in the proper place at the proper time. To keep that destructive behavior from hurting him or those attacks from hurting him. To keep from getting caught. Through repetition, through throwing certain sparring partners at him to do these things, keeping him calm, I think it's working the other way. He can be explosive now and not worry about getting caught so much.
"I think it takes time and repetition. And it's working. He is getting better. He's becoming a much smarter fighter. He already had all of the God gifted tools and the physical aspect. Reaction time and more speed than anybody out there. But now he's starting to understand when and how to use it...It's coming together in the gym. He's hitting angles, he's using distance properly, and he's finishing also. Throwing that second and third shot. He was always real explosive. He would either use it to knock people out or get caught in something stupid. In his last fight against Jeremy Stephens, the game plan was to stick and move. We saw the reason for that in Stephen's last fight against Marcus Davis. It just made sense, but I had to get that into Melvin's mind. That he has the ability to control the distance and control where the fight is at. He doesn't have to get excited if he doesn't want to."
Since joining Jackson and Winkeljohn, Guillard has compiled a perfect record, winning three consecutive fights for the first time in his UFC career. He's found great coaching there, but also role models among his peers. There are champions in the gym and other rising stars, people who have been up to the mountain top and know how to win. It's a good environment for a fighter used to a more hard knocks crew.
"Having Rashad (Evans) work with me one on one has built my confidence as well," Guillard said. "Him and Jon Jones have really been a lot of help with just improving my style. So, you know, having big brothers like that and guys that really admire what I do, I really look up to those guys."
Guillard has steadily worked his way back up the pecking order at 155 pounds. Now it won't be a newcomer like Rony Torres standing across the cage from him. Opponent Evan Dunham is a legitimate contender, a young fighter who gave former champion Sean Sherk all he could handle in a closely contested bout last year. To Winkeljohn, Dunham presents the perfect challenge for his Octagon veteran who is still just 27 years old.
"I'm real excited about this fight. It's all about speed for Melvin in this fight. Keeping the proper distance and using his feet. There's going to be some scrambles, but the nice thing about Melvin being as athletic as he is, he'll get taken down but he can scramble like nobody else. If Evan has to move into position or posture up to hit him, Melvin's gone," Winkeljohn said. "Evan is a contender and he's so good at what he does. He's scary in that sense. But my money's on Melvin."