How an MMA Journeyman Shocked Everyone - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Clay Collard reacts to his victory over Alex White in their featherweight bout during the UFC 181 event inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because this crossover fighter is only getting better.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Fight sobriquets are funny things. For example, “Cassius” Clay Collard, the moniker of a 26-year-old combat athlete from Utah and self-described “country boy,” immediately brings to mind the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali. And at the last of Collard’s five most recent boxing wins in the past eight months over undefeated opponents, the audience spoke loud and clear. And they weren’t voicing their approval.

“‘Collard Greens’ is what they were screaming at me,” Collard says in a call from his truck where we caught him mid-move from Las Vegas to Idaho. “I guess ‘greens’ ’cause of the money?” he says, laughing. “You can’t really choose your nickname anyway.”

Destiny often chooses for you. And so it was that Collard, who has four brothers, all boxers, started lacing up the gloves when he was 10. He was encouraged by his swimmer mother, whom he describes as “more boy than most boys,” and a grandfather who, despite being wheelchair-bound since age 24 because of a motorcycle accident, was obsessed with boxing.

I take lumps and get paid.

Clay Collard

Which is why it’s so strange when Collard says, “I’m an MMA fighter” (emphasis his).

MMA, or mixed martial arts, a mélange of whichever martial art works best when you’re called upon to use any of them — boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo — started to work its way into Collard’s head thanks to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the biggest name in the game. Collard wasn’t so much attracted to the heat and lights of the big show as he was to the quality of the competition.

In fact, Collard was so drawn to it that 16 days after his 18th birthday, in 2011, he headed to Moab for Red Rock Rumble 3. And in 2:11 of the first round, he knocked his opponent into the L for Loss column.

The month after that?

The same thing, with the same result. A month later? Even better: The match ended 1:10 into the first round. For those keeping count, that’s 70 seconds to knock out a man who had never been knocked out and who had been training for months to not be knocked out.

Destiny was definitely calling, and even outside of his first loss that June to a submission — particularly galling because Collard had wrestled as a kid — it took him only three more years to make it off the regional circuit and into the UFC.

“He was the top fighter out of Utah,” says John Nash, an MMA columnist. So it wasn’t that big of a stretch for the UFC. Collard had come for the competition, and they gave him competition. A last-minute replacement for an injured fighter, Collard got the call to head to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where at 149 pounds he faced Max Holloway in UFC Fight Night 49.

UFC 181 - White v Collard

Clay Collard reacts to his victory over Alex White.

That night in 2014, Holloway, whose record now stands at 21-5 and who boasts championship belts and record-holding runs for win streaks, beat Collard like Collard had been beating other people. But it took him three rounds to do so. Considering that Collard hadn’t imagined he’d be fighting a month before, it was a performance más macho even though he didn’t get his hand raised in victory that night.

“He looked good against Holloway for sure,” Nash says. Good enough that Collard’s next matchup came before the year was out, in Vegas, which is as ready for prime time as you’re going to be in the world of combat sports. Add a win and everything was coming up roses.

Right up until it wasn’t.

Two more losses the next year, and Collard was cut from the UFC and sent back to the regional fight circuit — a clear-cut indication that something was wrong.

“He didn’t seem like he had much past some offensive wrestling fundamentals and an OK, but not notable, boxing game,” says MMA journalist Zane Simon. “He was easy to take down and other than the fact that he generally seemed like he loved to fight? Just a wild action fighter without the skills to stay in the big leagues.”

That was very much the collective scuttlebutt. The UFC tried to bring Collard back, in 2019, but another cut occurred, this time for unknown medical issues.

Then everything changed, again.

In 2017 boxing great Floyd Mayweather Jr. decided to add one more win to his clutch by taking a fight against the UFC’s Conor McGregor. McGregor, who is presently facing a raft of legal troubles that include sexual assault, was a walking, talking hype machine. Even though Mayweather beat him like a bad habit, everyone got rich.

Money was less of a draw for Collard, though, than the ever-present lure of serious competition. “I always want to fight the toughest guys,” he says, and in this case, “the toughest boxers.”

Which is actually not so difficult to do when you’re an afterthought and a curiosity in sports with notoriously short memories. A game guy with a propensity for not winning switching to a sport that many call a sweet science? Easy pickings.

They never saw Collard coming and had no explanation for what was happening when he notched six wins in three years, five of them against opponents who did nothing but box, and box so well that they had not lost a single match among them. Until, that is, they met Collard in the ring and not an MMA cage.

Collard did lose twice, in 2019, and had three draws, but the wins still snapped smart money heads front and center. Collard, for his part, seems unimpressed. “I take lumps,” he says, “and get paid.”

“I mostly just don’t want to put all of my eggs in one basket,” he says, looking short term at a boxing match in May. “But, at the end of the day, I’m still an MMA fighter.”

And with a million-dollar tournament fight coming up later this year in the MMA’s Professional Fighters League, you understand precisely why Collard “Greens” might want to be exactly that.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories