Dana White stood at the dais, black suit, black shirt, the post-fight press conference after a long night of fights in San Jose coming to a close.
The usual assortment of “What’s next?” questions had been lobbed at the UFC president by the assembled media, and one by one, White deflected them with his trademark non-answers.
Good question. I’m not really sure. We’ll have to see.
As soon as Gilbert Melendez finished answering the final question of the night, White set the stage for the next UFC lightweight title fight.
“Gray Maynard is ranked No. 3. TJ Grant is ranked No. 7," he said. "Those guys are going to fight at UFC 160 on May 25th. The winner of that fight will fight Ben Henderson next. There you go; you got one.”
“It caught me and my team completely off guard,” Grant told FOXSports.com. “It just goes to show you that the UFC has faith in us to go out and deliver a really good fight. Not a lot of fans really know who I am yet. I’ve had some fights televised lately, but Gray hasn’t fought in a long time, and there have been a lot of other guys coming up in the division, so to be given an opportunity to get out there, it shows that they have faith (in us).”
In a division where impressive performances are a common occurence and new contenders seemingly emerge with each passing event, the 29-year-old Canadian has made a slow and steady climb up the lightweight rankings without much fanfare.
That isn’t to say he hasn’t put forth some impressive performances of his own as of late.
Last September at UFC 152, the Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native spent 15 minutes trading blows with Evan Dunham in a back-and-forth affair that electrified the crowd at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Grant won the bout by unanimous decision, and the duo took home Fight of the Night honors for their effort.
Four months later, he extended his winning streak to four with a first-round knockout win over veteran Matt Wiman at the first UFC on FOX show of 2013. Just as he did with Dunham, Grant took the center of the cage early, found his range, and unleashed a torrent of strikes, finishing the former Ultimate Fighter contestant with a series of vicious standing elbows.
Despite consecutive breakout performances, Grant has remained “under the radar” and overlooked in the lightweight division.
“When you’re not on the pay-per-view, you’re not getting the same level of promotion,” opined the proud new father, who will be making his first main card appearance when he takes on Maynard this weekend in Las Vegas. “But whatever, man. I’m here — I’m in the UFC, I’m in a good position in my career, and I’m happy. I’ve been able to fight on the prelims, and a lot more people have been starting to watch those, so I’ve been fortunate in that regard.
“It’s going to be nice to fight on a pay-per-view and fight after the ‘Baba O’Riley’ intro,” joked Grant, referencing the highlight compilation set to The Who’s classic that plays in the arena before the main card begins. “I’m always in the seats after my fights watching that, ready to watch the pay-per-view live. This time I’m going to watch it back in the dressing room, nervous … just like always.”
Jokes aside, the laid-back lightweight doesn’t mind being the relatively unknown half of Saturday’s title eliminator. In fact, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m kind of unsung, but that’s the way I like it. I don’t need a pat on the back," he said. "I don’t need to post on my Twitter or Facebook about how much working out I’m doing because I’m doing that every day; that’s everyday life for me. I like to just go about my business, and put in work. I don’t need to tell everybody about it.
“I feel like that while the fans don’t know a lot about me, if I go out there and fight the way I like to fight, I know a lot of doubters will be silenced with an exciting performance. I feel like I kind of have to win some fans over, but I’m not putting too much emphasis on that because I feel like if I just do what I’m supposed to do and what I’m trained to do the rest will take care of itself.
“I know that if I do my thing the way I’m supposed to, it’s going to be an exciting fight.”
While a main-card fight with a potential title shot hanging in the balance is a new experience for Grant, it’s old hat for Maynard.
He dominated Kenny Florian in a similar situation at UFC 118, and came up short in a pair of classic championship battles with Frankie Edgar, battling to a draw with the then-champion at UFC 125 before suffering the first and only loss of his career 10 months later at UFC 136 in Houston, Texas.
“The Bully” has been out of action since earning a split-decision victory over Clay Guida in an awkward, uneventful contest last June. Despite the layoff and a change in camps, Grant is ready for whatever Maynard brings to the table on Saturday night, and he’s ready to meet him head on in the center of the cage.
“He does what he does really well,” said Grant. “He’s aggressive, he comes forward; he’s got that punching power and that wrestling, and you’ve got to respect both of them. He’s been at a new camp, and AKA is world-class – one of the best teams in the world – so he’s probably been improving as a fighter during this time. I’m expecting the best Gray Maynard that has ever come out, and I’m sure he’s expecting the best TJ Grant.
“I can guarantee that this is by far the best I’ve ever felt going into a fight, and the most improved I’ve ever been in between fights. I’m excited. I just want to get in there and have some fun.”
Fighting in the main card will certainly up his profile, but don’t expect anything to change for Grant going forward.
He’ll continue to train with his long-time coach Scott MacLean and the team at Fit Plus Martial Arts in Dartmouth, and there won’t be any sudden bursts of activity from his social-media feeds.
If he earns a victory over Maynard and sets himself up for a lightweight title showdown later in the year, the under-the-radar contender from Canada’s East Coast will just keep doing things the way he always has, and let the fans and the spotlight find him whenever they’re ready.
“I’ve got a tough test in Gray, and if I get through that, I’ll enjoy it for a few days, and then it’s on to the next one,” said Grant. “If I get the result I want, and get the fight with Benson, I’ll have a little bit of fun, but then it’ll be back to work.
“I kind of said from the beginning that I was just going to be myself, represent myself the best way I can, go out there, fight my heart out and do my best. When the UFC gets behind you 100 percent is when you become a superstar. I’m not in this sport to become a superstar, but I am in this sport to become a champion, and the two seem to go hand in hand."
“Hopefully, I can string enough wins together that the promotion and all that other stuff will take care of itself.”