Atlantic City. It’s where Nucky Johnson made his bones and broke some others. It’s where Mike Tyson turned Michael Spinks into a YouTube clip for the ages. It’s where Donald Trump built a modern day Boardwalk Empire.
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Oh, Atlantic City’s seen some things, all right.
And so has 33-year-old lightweight UFC fighter Gray Maynard. But neither town nor fighter had seen the type of bout UFC fans got here Friday night.
In front of a raucous Jersey crowd at the sparkling new Revel Resort and Casino, Maynard defeated fan favorite Clay Guida by split decision (49-48, 49-48, 48-49) in the main event of Friday evening’s UFC on FX event. To the great displeasure of the fans, Maynard and UFC President Dana White, it wasn’t quite the slugfest that was initially expected.
Guida’s long hair, the staple of his larger-than-life, high-energy cage persona, was braided back, per request from Maynard’s camp. With his hair tied back for the first time of his career, Guida proceeded to spend much of the night dancing around the outside of the Octagon, frustrating the crowd and his opponent alike.
“I thought Guida was coming to fight,” said a victorious Maynard minutes after the victory. “I came to fight. I thought Guida would come here to do it. He came here with a little game plan. Hey, that’s fine.”
Minutes after he’d already been declared the victor, Maynard was still fuming over the manner in which his opponent fought a match they both needed. “I dropped my hands in the first round, like, ‘Let’s fight.’ I was being respectful. His stuff got old.“
“That fight sucked,” said White in the post-fight news conference. “This isn’t f–king ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ You can’t win a fight by dancing around in circles.”
It was a 25-minute game of cat and mouse and one that Maynard truly had no interest in participating in.
“I was pissed off," Maynard said. "I’m a human, too. I get mad. I’m here to work. This is work. I mean, you can’t just go to the end of the cage and back to the other end the whole time.”
Midway through the fourth round, with Guida running in circles, smiling, taunting, ducking, dancing — Maynard finally connected with a right hook. Guida answered with a right of his own, leading Maynard to respond in a way I’ve never quite seen before: He put up two middle fingers in Guida’s face.
The Atlantic City crowd erupted, as it should have. It was the first flurry of real action in 20 minutes and one that led to a tremendous final minute and a half to the round. Maynard, at his wit’s end, then basically let Guida punch him in the face. Guida obliged, but the crowd had already shifted and the fight’s momentum had swung the other way.
Two middle fingers. The double bird.
And with that gesture, it was suddenly Maynard’s room, Maynard’s fight and Maynard’s moment.
“The fans? The goombas in the crowd? Yeah, we’re on the Jersey Shore. They might have a misconception about mixed martial arts,” Guida said with a laugh of the crowd’s mid-fight shift in allegiance. “You’ve got to tune the boos out.”
It was a bout that both men desperately needed to stay relevant in a top-heavy lightweight class.
As UFC light heavyweight Rashad Evans’ college roommate at Michigan State, Maynard wrestled in the Big Ten during the conference’s wrestling prime. As a fighter on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality TV show, he became a household name with a fearless fight style and good humor when the sport was just hitting the mainstream. He’s had career highs and career lows along the way. He’s come just about as close to a title without winning one as humanly possible, having knocked down Frankie Edgar five times in a combined three bouts.
And yet, this win didn’t guarantee him another title shot or even a significant bump in his position in the weight class.
“It was a frustrating fight," Maynard said. "You saw it in my face. I let my emotions out. It’s not perfect. I move up now. Whoever I have next, I’ll be in the gym next week. The ultimate goal is the belt.”
Before hopping on a plane to Brazil for UFC 147, Dana White gave reporters some final thoughts on the match.
“I don’t think that was a split decision at all. I think Gray Maynard won that fight easily.”
But it’s never easy in Atlantic City.
Sometimes you show up for a fight and end up dancing for five rounds.