Entering 2020, Clay Collard was a relatively unknown MMA fighter who dabbled in boxing. Collard's greatest claim to fame was taking his first UFC fight, on short notice, against future UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway in 2014. Collard lost via third-round knockout.
A 1-3 record with the promotion brought Collard's run in the UFC to an end in late 2015, and he wouldn't take a pro MMA fight for more than two years. It was during that window when Collard's trainer, Ryan Ault, encouraged Collard to hone his boxing skills. Although it was initially pitched as a way to improve Collard's MMA offense, a need for some quick money when his car broke down pushed Collard into taking his first pro boxing fight on a week's notice in June 2017.
MMA pulled Collard back in for a couple of more years as he found some success in regional promotions in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. But by May 2019, he was back in boxing -- and since then, he has fought an astounding 11 times. Now it wasn't pretty at the beginning, but even in the early stages of his transition into the sport, Collard wasn't getting blown out. He managed three draws and one loss within a six-week stretch, and then he began to pick up steam.
Collard is 6-1 in his past seven fights, with his only loss coming against highly touted prospect Bektemir Melikuziev of Uzbekistan. Collard's trio of fights in 2020 have been a whirlwind. After knocking off the previously 9-0 Quashawn Toler in January, Collard was involved in one of the most wildly entertaining two-round sequences in recent boxing history against Raymond Guajardo, who entered the fight at 5-0. The fight featured three knockdowns in the first round -- two scored by Collard and one for Guajardo -- before Collard eventually scored a second-round TKO.
Despite seemingly being set up to be a punching bag for young prospects who were either undefeated or carried just one loss to get some rounds in, Collard has proved to be more than these young fighters can handle.
In each of his past three fights -- most recently against a 6-0 David Kaminsky in June -- Collard has knocked off a promising young, undefeated prospect, with the past two happening on national TV. Suddenly, Collard -- who said he always envisioned his future being in a cage -- finds himself with some career momentum for his exploits inside the squared circle.
"I was 100 percent on doing MMA the rest of my career," Collard said. "I'm a fighter, man. I just like to fight. Boxing, MMA, it doesn't matter to me as long as I can compete. I worked hard, and I work every single day. We put hours in the gym. So I want to compete at something I love to do, and being a fighter, and being a boxer, an MMA fighter, we don't have a lot of time to do it.
"Eventually, everybody gets too old, so I just want to compete as much as I can."
Collard's recent boxing success also has brought on a bit of a following, with fans and fighters alike showing their appreciation. ESPN boxing commentator and former two-division world champion Timothy Bradley applauded Collard's performance, citing his aggression and unconventional angles, during a June 18 broadcast on ESPN. Bradley even went so far as to nominate Collard as his top fighter of the midyear for accumulating a 3-0 record against top prospects in 2020.
After the June victory over Kaminsky, Top Rank publicist Evan Korn said he received numerous requests to interview Collard. People wanted to know more about a basically unpromoted undercard fighter. The tide was turning.
"I didn't think I would blow up this big, I didn't think I'd get this much publicity from it," admitted Collard. "I mean, boxing's huge, it's been around way longer than MMA, so there's a lot of fans in boxing. I didn't realize how much publicity you could get just boxing, just because it wasn't my sport at the time. But now, I love it."
After defeating Kaminsky, Collard (7-2-3, 2 KOs) was given another assignment for Tuesday. He'll face South African-born Lorawnt-T Nelson in a six-round middleweight bout. Once again, Collard will get a showcase fight on ESPN (8 p.m. ET).
Collard's unusual and entertaining run across boxing and MMA stemmed from a foundation set in boxing when he was growing up.
Collard played a variety of sports throughout his childhood in Castle Dale, Utah. He put on boxing gloves for the first time at age 11. That's when his grandfather, recalling an old newspaper article about an Elks Lodge in nearby Price, Utah, having a boxing gym, called and asked about the availability of using that space for training. After being told the facility had been closed for a few years after the head trainer had died, a phone number was provided for that trainer's son, Mark Montoya.
Montoya had been contemplating reopening the facility, and when Collard's grandfather called, his grandfather said, ''Well, I got four kids ready to start tomorrow." Within a week, Collard had his first boxing coach.
At Emery High School, Collard lettered in wrestling. But before boxing could get its claws in him, Collard felt the pull of mixed martial arts. He began his pro career in the March 2011, before he had even graduated high school.
"About a week and a half after I turned 18, I had my first mixed martial arts fight," said Collard, who first fought for a regional promotion in Moab, Utah. By that May, Collard had rattled off three TKO wins, but his raw skill set left him with some painful battle scars early on.
"I ate some real hard leg kicks and couldn't walk for a couple of days, and I'm like, 'I better take a couple of weeks off,''' Collard said.
After building his record to 13-4 (1 NC), Collard got the call he had been waiting for from the UFC. With just a week's notice, he took the fight against Holloway, and even though he lost, Collard earned an opportunity to prove himself in the promotion. He won his next fight, against Alex White, but after dropping a pair of decision losses in 2015, Collard was eventually released.
"I loved fighting for the UFC; it was a big dream of mine. I fought a lot of big names right off the bat," Collard said. "I was young. I think I was a little too young mentally. I really enjoyed fighting for them. I just don't know if they got the best Clay. My personal life wasn't that great -- I was in and out of a relationship. I was just young, man. I just didn't have my head on my shoulders 100 percent, like I should have.
"I got good experience. I fought good guys. But I think any of those dudes, if I fought them again, I think I put 'em away."
After his UFC release, Collard dipped his toe into the boxing world with his June 2017 win over Jamey Swanson. Collard bounced back and forth between boxing and MMA in fights for regional promotions to a modicum of success in each world.
Collard eventually moved in with Ault in Idaho and then to a ranch in Utah, where all they did was ''live, eat and breathe the fight lifestyle," Collard said.
The results have seemingly spoken for themselves. Collard is 4-1 in MMA since 2018, in addition to his 6-1 stretch in boxing. When you consider the caliber of boxing prospect that Collard has been up against -- Collard's three victories in 2020 have come against opponents with a composite record of 20-0 -- it speaks to how far he has come in the sport.
"Me, personally, I have never believed in the whole A-side, B-side thing," Collard said of the level of his recent opponents. "They're in that ring with me; I'm not in the ring with them. That's the mindset I like to have. So I just work hard, I have great coaching and a great team, and I always push myself to the limit."
Collard will be the first to tell you he doesn't have what you call classic technique or the most sound fundamentals. His style isn't exactly elegant or stylish, but he makes it work.
"I know I'm not the most technical boxer, and my coaches have been working with me a lot with that, because MMA is different, range is different," Collard explained. "I have more tools [in MMA]: I can kick, I can elbow, I can bump 'em."
For Collard, it's a constant struggle not to turn a left hook into a not-so-accidental elbow across the face or suddenly thrust his legs forward to kick an opponent.
"I have to kind of watch myself, because I can get deducted points for something I normally do in mixed martial arts," Collard said. "I'm not that technical of a boxer; I've never claimed to be a boxer. I say I'm a fighter."
One thing Collard does very well tactically is his ability to throw punches while he marches forward, regardless of whether his left or right foot is in front of him. While most right-handed boxers are only comfortable, or willing, to chuck leather if their left foot is out in front, for Collard, he can seamlessly shoot out punches while transitioning from the orthodox stance, to southpaw.
"Even in mixed martial arts, I liked to use my hands, I've always been a boxer at heart," Collard said. "I just love getting in there and trading, man. I love trading leather with people. I like fighting in the pocket. I like how boxing's in the phone booth and you're right in front of each other the whole time."
Collard is still only 27 years old, and while he has had to take on a few odd jobs over the years to keep some money in his pocket, he says he would like to fight into his late 30s. The pull of MMA hasn't stopped, and a contract with the Professional Fighters League means Collard will fight for $1 million when the PFL resumes fights.
But if Collard can continue to ride his current wave of momentum, there could well be a solid future in boxing ahead of him. Should Collard come out victorious and relatively unscathed this week, Top Rank matchmaker Brad Goodman said he would like to book Collard again in August. Collard's scrappy nature and willingness to fight anyone have made him a favorite of Goodman, who quickly became enamored with the fighter.
"He's just one of these guys that no matter who you put him in with, he won't say no to,'' Goodman said. "These guys, if it were up to them, they'd fight once a week."
Of course, Collard has to win, and he'll enter Tuesday's fight against Nelson in a relatively unfamiliar role -- as the favorite at the outset of the bout.
"I love being the underdog; I love proving people wrong. It's something satisfying when you're supposed to lose -- and win," Collard said. "I thought I was going to win the whole time. With this fight, I'm not looking at it any different. I try to fight everybody like they're the best in the world, because if you start overlooking people and start thinking, 'Oh, this guy isn't as good as the last guy,' you can't think like that. That's when you start losing."
"So he's the best guy I've fought to date, in my mind," Collard said of Nelson.
Should he win, Collard wants to stay active. After all, it's that mentality that has brought him to this very unique point of his combat career.
"I like competing, and as far as 2020 goes, I'm trying to get that 'Fighter of the Year.' I want some more people looking at me," he said. "I'm trying to get noticed; I'm trying to put on shows. I fight for the fans -- without them, we can't do this. So I want them to be excited about me."