On a sunny Friday afternoon near the end of bike week in Daytona Beach, Florida, UFC fighter Melvin Guillard is signing autographs and posing for pictures for fans outside Daytona Speedway alongside Yamaha road race team members Josh Hayes and Melissa Paris.
Most of the people who sidle up to the table are probably more interested in getting signatures from Hayes and Paris, who aside from being top members of the Yamaha team are also a married couple. Hayes has already captured the pole position for that day’s AMA SuperBike race, where riders will sprint for 15 laps around the banked track doing nearly 200 miles an hour on modified 1,000-cc bikes. On Saturday, Paris will be the only woman to compete in the prestigious Daytona 200, described by organizers as “America’s most historic motorcycle race.”
“She’s going to hurt some guys’ feelings,” says Yamaha media relations manager Kevin Foley of Paris, a petite brunette with a ballcap and a streak of pink in her hair. “She’s pretty good at doing that.”
Paris goes on to take a respectable 18th-place in her race. Hayes takes third in his.
Few of the spectators here today are likely familiar with Guillard or his work in the Octagon. His only real duty at the Speedway – one of many public appearances this week – will be to hold an umbrella for Paris in the pits during the nationally televised race the following afternoon. Still, even if the race fans in Daytona don’t recognize him, the lightweight fighter is grinning from ear-to-ear.
See, Melvin Guillard has the itch.
You can see it building in his eyes during the four days he spends at the legendary motorcycle rally. Guillard admits he’s never owned a bike before, but says from time to time when he was younger he used to borrow one from an uncle back home in Louisiana. Now, after a few days taking in the eclectic sights and sounds of Daytona, surrounded by an estimated half million cycle enthusiasts – making this the oldest and largest bike event in the world – Guillard thinks it’s time to make an investment.
“Oh, I’m definitely getting one,” he says one night at dinner, cracking his trademark confident smile over the plate of a dozen oysters he’s been dying to get since he got here. “I want a cruiser, though. I’d probably kill myself on a crotch rocket.”
There’s only one problem. Guillard is worried there may be a clause in his UFC contract prohibiting him from riding a motorcycle. The idea isn’t too farfetched, especially after former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir was stripped of the title and saw his career nearly ended by a serious motorcycle accident in 2004. Guillard’s self-assured grin says he isn’t particularly worried about a wreck – he doesn’t seem particularly worried about anything, really — but he does need to check the fine print in his contract.
Now would not be a great time to run afoul of the UFC brass. Fresh off the biggest victory of his career – a first round TKO over Evan Dunham in January – Guillard is enjoying the spoils of suddenly being one of the 155-pound division’s hot commodities. A few years ago, when back-to-back losses and a positive drug test for cocaine got him briefly cut from the company, nobody was offering to fly him to Florida to sign autographs and watch motorcycle aficionados tool around a resort town on $50,000 bikes.
After working his way back into the Octagon in the summer of 2008 however, Guillard has now won four straight and seven of his last eight fights. That stretch includes victories over current top contenders like Dunham and Dennis Siver. Things, you could say, are looking up for the 27-year-old former “Ultimate Fighter” contestant who is already a veteran of nearly 40 professional MMA bouts.
“I’m at the top of the heap,” Guillard says of his UFC resurgence. “Right now I think I’m sitting at No. 2 (in the division). It’s definitely the highest I’ve ever sat after six years of being in the UFC. Overall, I think I’m No. 8 or No. 6 in the world right now, so that’s rewarding.”
There are other rewards too, of course. Guillard is in Daytona as a guest of Silver Star clothing company and Yamaha’s Star Motorcycles brand, which has already built a custom version of its Stryker cruiser for his friend and teammate Diego Sanchez. Sanchez couldn’t make this trip, he’s home still recuperating from his bloody decision victory over Martin Kampmann earlier this month, but the bike is here. It’s a glossy black beast with a gold pinstripe and personalized everything, including his recently-jettisoned nickname (“Nightmare”) stitched under a wire mesh overlay in the leather seat.
Guillard seems quite taken with Sanchez’s ride, as well as the two custom Yamaha street bikes belonging to Silver Star co-owners Luke and Charis Burrett. His is a sleek black and green number with the words “Silver Star” swirling down the side in fancy script and the company’s crown logo etched near the bottom. Charis lovingly refers to her bike as “the Buddha bunny” because it bears the image of a happy Buddha above the headlight and is otherwise covered with Playboy bunny logos, immortalizing her appearance in that magazine from February, 2003.
Charis’ bike had to be rebuilt last year after a wreck she suffered while speeding up the California freeway headed for the X-Games. The crash left a two inch scar across her shin and what she describes as “a few permanent indentations” on one thigh. This is also hers and Luke’s first time at bike week, and Charis says she’s come to tell the story of her crash and to urge female riders to make their presence felt in the motorcycle community.
“If you like riding on the back of bikes, you might as well hop on the front and drive,” Charis says.
Even among the diverse mix of people drawn to the open air market outside the speedway on Friday, Guillard and the Silver Star crew can’t help but turn some heads. It’s been this way all week. Whether they are lunching on barbecue at a place called Hog Heaven – “Put Some South in Your Mouth” the restaurant’s slogan says – signing autographs at the local Hooters or just hanging out watching a stunt bike competition up the block, people take notice. The attention they receive is all positive however and they are met with smiles at this and every other meet-and-greet they attend. That’s just how it is when you travel with a brash UFC fighter and a Playboy Playmate.
When the autographs are signed, they retire to the Yamaha hospitality tent for lunch, where Guillard excitedly approaches the table where Melissa Paris and Star Motorcycles National Communications Manager Bob Starr are talking. “Guess what,” Guillard announces, cradling his cell phone in one hand. “I checked with my agent and there’s nothing in my UFC contract that says I can’t ride a bike.”
This is good news. There are smiles and handclaps all around. Then Paris throws her elbow up on the table. If Guillard wants a motorcycle, she says, he’s going to have to arm wrestle her for it. Guillard can only laugh at that.
“Nah,” he says. “I don’t think so.”
He does want that bike, though, and at this point it seems like he’s probably going to get it.
Special thanks to the staff at GolinHarris and Star Motorcycles for travel and accommodations.