If there’s one thing that’s always welcome in the UFC, it’s fresh championship-caliber talent. While it’s always fun to watch dominant champions successfully defeat their challengers time and time again, when that group of challengers begins to run thin, fan interest in any particular title contest can wane.

For this reason, the recent ascent of T.J. Grant into the UFC’s 155-pound title picture has been especially interesting. A former welterweight, Grant dropped a division after putting together a 3-3 UFC record at 170 pounds. Since his transition to lightweight, Grant has won four straight fights, most recently defeating Matt Wiman in impressive fashion in January. His performance has earned him a spot on the main card of this weekend’s UFC 160 event against fellow elite lightweight Gray Maynard, the winner of which will likely get the next shot at champion Benson Henderson’s belt.

Grant’s success at lightweight has justifiably not only garnered him a lot more attention than he was getting before, but also landed him the fifth spot in the UFC’s lightweight rankings. One wonders, though, if Grant truly has what it takes to capture the title, or even get past Maynard, who has been ranked near the top of the weight class for years.

Although Grant rose to prominence among UFC fans after his first-round knockout of Wiman, he was not previously known for his striking acumen. In fact, just three of Grant’s 20 victories have come by way of knockout or TKO. The primary way Grant has found success in MMA has been through his grappling, which he has used to submit 13 of his opponents. There’s a catch (no pun intended) to that statistic, though: Grant has submitted just one of his 10 UFC opponents. What’s more, hoping to coax a tapout of Maynard, a three-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler with just a single professional MMA defeat (and not by submission), is no easy task on its own, not to mention the fact that Maynard’s own ground-based game could stifle any of Grant’s choke or armbar attempts altogether.

There’s more to consider about the Grant/Maynard fight, though. Grant’s four consecutive lightweight victories, while very impressive regardless of his opposition, came against fighters that all fall outside of “contender” status. Maynard, meanwhile, has fought five straight bouts against opponents who were either the reigning UFC lightweight champion, had previously challenged for the belt, or were strongly being considered for a title shot. Each of Grant’s five professional losses have come via decision, as have eight of Maynard’s 10 professional victories, so Maynard could likely employ a takedown-and-control style of offense to grind out a win on points. It’s certainly not a guarantee against Grant, but it’s been a strategy that has largely worked for Maynard throughout his career.

If Grant hopes to come out a winner against “The Bully,” he’ll need to do the same thing to Maynard as he did to Wiman—finish him on the feet in the first round. The only area where Maynard has shown any weakness is in his striking, but that’s even a bit of a stretch to assert. His lone professional loss came literally at the hands of Frankie Edgar, who finished him by knockout in the fourth round of their second title fight. That finish likely had just as much to do with Edgar’s solid boxing skills (and formidable conditioning) as it did any holes in Maynard’s stand-up, and Grant has not yet proven he can hang with the sort of elite talent “The Answer” has faced and beaten in recent years.

A victory over Maynard on Saturday would rightfully place Grant in line for a shot at the lightweight belt, especially if he’s able to finish “The Bully” inside the distance. Grant has shown a wealth of skills during his UFC tenure, and his knockout of Wiman and placement against Maynard have certainly served to motivate him to continue to improve in all facets of his game. The one area where Grant has a clear advantage over Maynard is in their ages (Grant is 29 compared to Maynard’s 34), so while Maynard’s athletic prime might be coming to an end, Grant is only now just reaching his. The Maynard we see on Saturday night might not be the same Maynard that fought Edgar in their two championship fights, and if Grant has trained appropriately and executes his team’s game plan, he could very well walk away with a win.

Grant/Maynard is a difficult fight to predict for all of these reasons, but both men have more than shown that they deserve to be in Saturday’s title eliminator. Maynard, in this case, represents the “old guard,” those fighters who have hovered around the title picture for a few years without quite capturing the belt. Grant, on the other hand, is the “new blood,” one of those formerly lesser-known fighters who has recently begun to make a name for himself. Their fight at UFC 160 should be a good one, and its result will offer definitive proof of whether Grant truly is the lightweight contender many think he is.

Photo: T.J. Grant (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.