Sometimes in professional sports there are moments when athletes break through to levels of stardom that will follow them for the rest of their careers. Whether it’s the walk off home run, the game winning shot, or the record breaking game, there are multiple examples of when an athlete becomes a “name” within the sport. T.J. Grant may have broken through to the mixed martial arts community at UFC 160, but his victory on that night has him knocking on the door to an even bigger moment.
With four years of service in the UFC’s Octagon, Grant was far from the first fighter that most mixed martial arts fans would think of as a major contender to Benson Henderson’s lightweight championship. Even within the hardcore MMA community there are few people who would have jumped out of their chairs at the idea of him fighting for the 155-pound strap. Still, looking at his resume, it’s clear that he has earned this title shot.
Grant made his debut at UFC 97 back in 2009 when he defeated Ryo Chonan via split decision. He initially struggled as a welterweight, where he alternated wins and losses for the next year. He was able to defeat Chonan, Kevin Burns, and Julio Paulino, but suffered defeat at the hands of Dong Hyun Kim, Johny Hendricks and Ricardo Almeida. That final loss to Almeida was his last bout at 170, as Grant elected to make the cut to lightweight and reinvigorate his career.
Since moving down in 2011, T.J. has defeated five straight opponents and finished three of them. Shane Roller, Carlo Prater and Evan Dunham were the first to fall, but the highlight reel elbow stoppage of Matt Wiman started to grow the hype train behind this fighter. When UFC President Dana White announced that Grant and Maynard would meet for the number one contender’s spot, many fans and analysts expected Maynard to be able to grind out a victory in his signature way. The exact opposite would happen, as T.J. stopped Maynard in a way that he had never been stopped before in his career.
In looking at the potential matchup between Grant and Henderson, there are a number of points to consider when it comes to what makes this a captivating fight.
The first consideration is the matchup between Grant and Henderson when it comes to grappling. Henderson has shown the ability to take many of his opponents down, but has struggled to keep them there. Grant will present a challenge to get to the mat, but Henderson will also struggle to control Grant’s scrambles over the course of the fight. Henderson showed that he has stellar defensive grappling abilities when he squared off with Nate Diaz, but he’s facing a bigger opponent in Grant who has shown off his own ability to submit opponents when the opportunity presents itself.
The next point to consider is the diversity that Grant has shown in his striking since moving down in weight. Perhaps it was the drop in size that has allowed him to hit with more power, but each of his striking stoppages have looked more impressive than the last. Henderson has never been knocked out, but Grant may have the power to test his chin.
The final point that should be brought up is that Grant’s ability to keep threatening a finish may force Henderson into fighting with a similar strategy. Henderson’s previous title challengers have been more evasive than Grant, who tends to move straight forward. While that may play into Henderson’s advantage, it will be interesting to see how he will fare under the pressure.
T.J. Grant literally punched his ticket to number one contendership for the UFC’s lightweight title at UFC 160. There’s a lot of work to be done if he’s going to take the belt from Benson Henderson, but he’s made the first knock on the door with last Saturday’s victory.