The words coming out of Melvin Guillard's camp to describe him are "intelligent," "smart," "explosive" and "charismatic."
Mike Winklejohn throws out the one that everyone in Albuquerque, N.M., hopes will stick -- that is, "contender." The rest is dressing.
Guillard has been through plenty of ups and downs in his life, and at just 28 he's learned enough to treat them all as equals. There was a time when "waste" and "screw-up" were words used to describe him, too. But as Guillard gets set for his headlining bout against Evan Dunham at the UFC's "Fight for the Troops" card in Fort Hood, Texas, on Jan. 22 -- a fight he happily rose to the occasion for after Kenny Florian got injured -- there's an air of being "the young, yet wiser assassin."
What's changed? Quite a bit, actually.
Besides training with Greg Jackson, Winklejohn and a well-known "cast of phenoms" that he now considers family in Albuquerque, Guillard has definitely picked up a few things in fighter-friendly patience and discipline. But really, the biggest difference between the beleaguered 2007 Guillard who was suspended upon testing positive for cocaine and the 2011 Guillard who comes into the Dunham fight riding a three-fight win streak boils down to one thing: accountability.
"Man, the drug suspension, those were the lowest times in my life," he said. "I used to blame my past drug use on my dad's death or whatever. But [now] I blame myself. When I was out there doing drugs and partying, it was because Melvin wanted to. I wanted to have fun. It had nothing to do with my dad's death. I don't want to live my life blaming my dad's death on my downfalls, it didn't have anything to do with it."
Guillard's father died at 44 of cirrhosis of the liver, after a life of heavy drinking. If you've read interviews with the Louisiana native that took place even as recently as 2009 just before he fought Nate Diaz, you know that his current attitude represents a change in demeanor. For the longest time Guillard blamed his clouded judgment on losing his father, with whom he was very close.
These days -- though he says, "I always honor my father, who is there in the front row of all of my fights" -- Guillard admits it was just an excuse.
"People love to see me do well," he said. "So, I would be slapping everybody in the face, including myself, if I was to go out there and continue to be a loser."
The Melvin Guillard of 2011 has proved himself a winner (25-8-2) and has stopped making excuses for his actions -- a trick made easier when his actions have become unanimously positive, both in and out of the cage. He says he has been clean since finishing his rehab stint in 2008. Though he still retains the excitement of his aggressive stand-and-bang style, he has become a more well-rounded fighter since his freelancing days of head-hunting. He's also been brought down to earth by training with the likes of Rashad Evans, Donald Cerrone and Jon Jones on a daily basis in New Mexico.
"Back in Houston I was one of the best guys in the gym and I didn't have anybody pushing me to make me better," he said. "Now I have a team to help me get better. I know a lot of people give a lot of credit to Coach Jackson, but you've got to direct some credit to Coach Winklejohn, too. That guy has brought the best out of me.
"I mean, with me throwing knees, like with the Waylon Lowe fight, we planned that. He was like, 'I want you to give me a highlight reel with the knee.' I went in there and threw the knee. He's helped me so much with my hand and feet coordination, like just really putting it together. I've always had the talent, but I never really put it together. Since I've been with him I feel like I have."
So much for Jackson fighters being boring. Winklejohn, who welcomed Guillard to Jackson's after the Nate Diaz fight in 2009 (Guillard's last loss), says the idea was to use Guillard's speed and power, while tapering his aggression (a little) and giving shape to his natural feel for improvisation.
"That would be exactly it," Winklejohn said. "Melvin's been real aggressive -- he'd either hit somebody or get caught doing something that wasn't beneficial, and now he's just being smart about what he does. It's played out in the last three fights.
"His fight with Dunham is going to be a stand-up war in that sense, in that we're going to make it that way," Winklejohn said, adding that they believe Dunham will have to labor to take Guillard down. "And Melvin, we believe, is just too quick at gaining the angles at hitting, striking and moving."
Dunham is coming off a controversial split decision loss to Sean Sherk in a fight which many thought he won. The southpaw wrestler presents a stiff challenge for Guillard, who himself won a split decision against the hard-hitting Jeremy Stevens in his last fight, showcasing a shifty stick-and-move style. Dunham (11-1) says he's always been a fan of Guillard's, but it's a matchup he thinks favors him.
"[Guillard]'s a super-aggressive, very athletic, hard-hitting guy," Dunham said. "You just have to be careful with a guy like that. You can't let him touch you. So you just have to play smart. If you let him get in there and just start winging then bad things can happen."
Dunham knows what's at stake in his first-ever fight as a main attraction, in a division that just got more exciting and doubly competitive with the integration of the WEC's 155ers. While he says he likes his chances of winning a second Fight of the Night honor in row, he has to play it smart.
"I think overall I'm a better mixed martial artist than he is and so I'm going to use that to get my victory," Dunham said. "Both of us like to push the pace, and we both like to impose our will on the other person and it's just going to come down to who's more successful at that. We're both exciting guys, and neither one of us is going to back down so, it's going to be a great fight."
That it will happen in the unique setting of a military base, in front of troops, is exciting for both guys. During Guillard's stint in Albuquerque to train, he is staying with Staff Sgt. Chris Molina and his family, who have taken him in "with open arms." Guillard has the added motivation to win as a tribute to his billet family in New Mexico.
"He'll be in my corner on fight night," Guillard said. "He'll be dressed in his full Army gear, and he'll walk me out."
That's when we'll get the first look at a very confident Melvin Guillard in the new year.
"My ultimate goal in 2011 is to win the championship," Guillard said. "If they don't give me a title shot, I will go undefeated in 2011 just like I did in 2010, which will put me at a six- or seven-fight winning streak. If I don't get that title shot, I won't be down and out -- it'll come to me. And that's the one thing about me is I'm patient. I used to be real impatient. Now I'm just like, when it comes it comes. And when it does I'll know I earned it."
Chuck Mindenhall covers MMA for ESPN.com and is a features writer at FIGHT! magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at @ChuckMindenhall.