Only a handful of fighters possess the humility, dedication, respect and mental fortitude to transgress the sport of mixed martial arts.
Former lightweight standout and current featherweight top contender Clay Guida is one of those rare warriors of the sport.
Throughout his career Guida has earned the respect of fight fans by leaving it all in the cage. He's been battered, he's been bloodied, he's been victorious and he's tasted defeat. But what separates Guida from some of the most polarizing figures of MMA today is not his ability to withstand adversity inside the cage, it's his ability to challenge it for others outside of it.
For nearly the past two years one of the UFC's most barbaric competitors has shown his ability to leave his rage inside the Octagon and take a more active role in the community. Guida has teamed up with childhood friend Adam O'Sullivan and Josh Felperin to promote a Chicago-based youth organization known as Next Contender Foundation, which helps financially troubled kids stay on a straight and narrow path by taking part in MMA or wrestling .
"This is a great thing to do," says O'Sullivan, President and Co-Founder of NCF. "We wanted to build something that was going to help underprivileged children in low income families or with special needs. We want to provide a platform and an opportunity to children to partake in something special and give them a foundation to grow up and have a certain structure and discipline."
Having known Guida for over 25 years, O'Sullivan was able to bring the featherweight aboard fairly quickly.
"This is a great idea for less fortunate kids to give them a positive outlook on life," says Guida. "To give them a team atmosphere, a learning atmosphere and just a positive environment with good instruction."
Guida's popularity within the sport and the foundation's consistent dedication to lend a helping hand to children in search of a positive platform has given NCF the momentum they need.
"Ultimately, when we came up with this idea, one thing we saw was a good opportunity that wasn't being served," says fellow NCF Co-Founder Felperin. "The NBA has their own thing, the NFL has Play 60 and the MLB has their own non-profit as well, so we're looking to become known as the non-profit organization of the UFC. We're looking to be supported by the UFC as far as donations are concerned and get these kids involved."
The foundation has been lucky enough to gain such great support around the MMA community. They've received autographed merchandise, apparel, donations and great involvement from other teammates and fighters. Guys like Donald Cerrone, Jon Jones, Carlos Condit, Diego Sanchez, Leonard Garcia and Diego Brandao. Not to mention Guida's head coaches Greg Jackson and John Winkeljohn. These contributions have in part helped fuel NCF's continuous rise and progression as a non-profit youth organization.
But Guida believes NCF exceeds the sport and means much more to unfortunate kids across the country.
"It goes beyond MMA," says Guida. "The UFC is a great avenue because of their quick expansion, but I just want to see these kids get into a sport and get out there and do something they like. Learn what a team atmosphere is like and find something fun. It simply goes beyond athletics and it starts in the classroom."
What makes the foundation's cause even more impressive is the fact that their actually finding kids who excel at the sport and truly make the best out of what they're given.
"Some of these kids, especially on the low income side, have some serious talent," says O'Sullivan. "They just don't have the opportunity and financial means to get the private lessons, tutelage and learning that they need. It's going to be in the UFC's best interest to take notice of what we're doing."
One of NCF's most prolific standouts is Jonathan Marmolejo, a state-ranked wrestler out of Glenbard North H.S. in Chicago, Illinois. Marmolejo has excelled after given the chance to learn from one of the best wrestling coaches in the nation, Israel Martinez. Martinez also trains Guida and fellow UFC standout light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
O'Sullivan and Felperin have made Marmolejo's evolution as an athlete possible by teaming up with Martinez and giving the young star the tools he needs.
"If we can provide some financial assistance to some of these kids with the talent to get to the next level, we're looking at future potential stars," says O'Sullivan. "So we're expecting big things out of him [Marmolejo] next year."
Similar to Marmolejo, other children have progressed under the NCF umbrella, including eight-year-old Nathan. Nathan comes from a single mom raising multiple kids, unable to provide such luxuries as training and lessons in order to promote sportsmanship and an overall sense of belonging.
The Woodstock, IL native has responded well to the foundation's effort through great training, a positive environment and awesome Tae Kwon Do classes. He's the perfect candidate for such an unselfish and rewarding cause.
"To be able to come into a kid's life and give him a positive role model to look up to is priceless," says Felperin. "As long as the funding is there, I don't think we'll ever turn a kid away if there's good reason and we can help out their situation."
The work of O'Sullivan and Felperin over the past two years has truly helped motivate young children looking for a positive avenue to learn respect, core values and teamwork. They've been fortunate enough to gain the support and dedication of key athletes around the sport like Guida and have done their best to bring on more sponsorship and bigger opportunities for the kids involved.
They live by one sense of direction which has truly built the sole of the foundation. It goes a little something like this:
We are focused on providing direction and structure to underprivileged youth by helping them to get involved in positive extracurricular programs, with a strong emphasis on enrollment in Marital Arts classes. These programs will aim to teach them valuable life lessons and attributes such as: discipline, teamwork, character, and respect. These qualities are essential to becoming honest, confident, and hard-working individuals that can live up to their full potential. We will provide grants and funding to low-middle income families, mentally and physically challenged children, and other disadvantaged youths across the U.S, to afford them the opportunity to become a part of something special. We firmly believe that by providing these opportunities, we are preparing future generations to become better men and women, thus creating improved and more productive members of society.
You can find out more information about NCF, their involvement in the sport, how to donate and more at NextContender.org, which also provides links to their Facebook and Twitter pages.
As far as Guida is concerned, he'll continue to partake in the organization while keeping a fighter's mentality as he aims to get past former featherweight No. 1 contender Chad Mendes at UFC on FOX 7 in April.
"I feel like I'm faster, stronger and more experienced than the entire division," says Guida. "Fans can expect a more explosive, better wrestling, more well-rounded and meaner Clay Guida. The best has yet to come"
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*All quotes were obtained first hand