Never tell Evan Dunham the odds. And forget about catching him off guard on short notice, because it is not going to happen.
The once-beaten UFC lightweight, ranked ninth in the world, has put together a string of performances that has rocketed him into contention for the 155-pound belt despite his being a virtual unknown to casual fans a year ago -- proof positive of the adage that "the harder you work, the luckier you get."
Dunham squares off against the dangerous but erratic Melvin Guillard -- a late substitute for the injured Kenny Florian -- at UFC "Fight for the Troops 2" on Jan. 22 at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. It represents a chance for the Oregonian to move past his disputed decision loss to former champion Sean Sherk at UFC 119 in September, when most felt Dunham was robbed on the scorecards.
"I've kinda put that behind me. Obviously, it sucks that it happened, but you can't do anything about it," he says. "There were a few things I could have done, especially in the first round, to change the direction of where that fight went. And now I'm looking to the future and this next fight."
Dunham-Guillard will serve as the main event at "Fight for the Troops 2," which will air live on Spike TV.
"He's a very heavy-handed kid. He hits really hard," Dunham says. "I think he's gonna try and turn it into a stand-up war. He's a tough guy, and he's just as dangerous an opponent as Florian. I'm not taking him lightly."
Nobody in the lightweight division can take anyone lightly nowadays, with some 60 fighters signed to the UFC vying for the title. While the Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard classic on New Year's Day ended in a draw at UFC 125, it emerged as the kind of statement fight that will probably be a requirement for contenders and prospects alike who want to move up the crowded 155-pound ladder.
"I thought it was a great fight. I was fortunate enough to be there and had great seats," says Dunham, who trains with Maynard at Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts in Las Vegas. "I really thought it was awesome. Both those guys are tough as nails. I think Gray showed everybody he's a changed fighter. He's going in there and really putting it on people. I was super surprised he didn't put Edgar away in the first. Frankie showed a lot of heart. Both those guys are studs, and I can't wait for their rematch."
At 5-foot-10, Dunham is tall for the weight class and even taller for a guy who can wrestle effectively. The ancient art does not lend itself to long frames and lean limbs, the owners of which are usually outmatched against shorter, stockier types.
Yet despite those factors, Dunham has used enough wrestling, along with an outstanding jiu-jitsu game, to give fits to some of the division's better fighters, including Sherk and Tyson Griffin, both of whom are talented takedown artists with compact, muscled physiques. With a developing stand-up arsenal, Dunham has surfaced as one of the more talented competitors in the UFC's deepest division.
In his 2009 debut against Per Eklund, his work was cut out for him, so fighting someone on short notice is an experience to which he is accustomed.
"I was fortunate enough to get that fight on relatively short notice. I really didn't have too much time to think about it," says Dunham, who put away Eklund in just 2 minutes, 13 seconds. "I just knew I had to make weight, fight my ass off and win."
Dunham enjoyed a breakout year in 2010, as three fights thrust him into the public eye amidst the crowded ranks of the division. A submission victory over "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 8 winner Efrain Escudero at UFC Fight Night 20 in January was followed by a decision win against Griffin in June and the controversial defeat to Sherk in September.
Entering his showdown with Escudero, Dunham had a couple of UFC wins under his belt, as he followed up the Eklund knockout with a decision over Pride Fighting Championships veteran Marcus Aurelio. He was clearly cast in the Fight Night 20 underdog role. Escudero had a collegiate wrestling pedigree, good looks, a perfect record and momentum from a first-round stoppage of American Top Team's Cole Miller at UFC 103.
Dunham proceeded to unleash a grappling clinic, using an active guard and excellent jiu-jitsu to sink home a gruesome arm bar, forcing the gritty Escudero to tap after his limb was bent to the max. It was a fitting win for Dunham, 29, who had wrestled in high school but spurned the chance to do so in college because he was burned out on the sport. Ironically, he became hooked on grappling again while attending the University of Oregon.
"I took it pretty serious and did freestyle and Greco in the offseason, but I kind of lost the luster for it. I got introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu in college, got choked out and abused by guys half my size," he says. "It made me think, 'What do they know?' and that [it] was something I should do."
Against Guillard, he faces an opponent with exceptional striking, solid wrestling and a penchant for delivering powerful shots with eye-popping athleticism. Guillard has a tendency to fade in fights or lose his effectiveness at times when he has to make adjustments, though he has proved resurgent under the tutelage of Greg Jackson in Albuquerque, N.M.
Dunham makes training the centerpiece of his existence. Mornings are spent at Throwdown Training Center, evenings at Extreme Couture. When Florian dropped out due to injury in early December, Dunham accepted Guillard as a replacement on approximately seven weeks' notice.
"Training is going good. I'm just working [the fight preparations] into my schedule," he says. "I'm feeling good and ready to go."
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.