It must really suck to be T.J. Grant right now.

After slowly but surely working his way up the lightweight ladder, Grant was given a golden opportunity to put his name in the mix for a title shot at 155 pounds when he was matched up against two-time title challenger Gray Maynard. Although Grant had been impressive during his four-fight winning streak since dropping down to lightweight, he had still yet to beat a fighter ranked in the top 10 in the division, let alone the top five.

Maynard wasn’t exactly supposed to roll through Grant and earn himself a title shot, but “The Bully” was definitely the favorite heading into their fight at UFC 160. He acted like it when the fight began, charging forward and putting a tremendous amount of pressure on Grant from the onset. Despite getting bum-rushed by Maynard, the Canadian remained poised and landed a huge right hand that was the beginning of the end for “The Bully.” It was the biggest win of Grant’s career.

Soon after, Grant was rewarded for his tear through the lightweight division with a shot at Benson Henderson and the UFC’s lightweight title at UFC 164 in August. Grant was just a few weeks away from getting his first shot at UFC gold when disaster struck in training. An accidental kick to the head during jiu-jitsu practice gave Grant a concussion severe enough to force him out of his bout with Henderson. When Anthony Pettis replaced Grant and took the belt from “Smooth,” it seemed logical that Grant would be the next man to challenge for the strap. However, the UFC wanted Pettis to defend his newly won crown in December of this year, and despite his eagerness to get back into the cage, Grant will not be able to get healthy in that amount of time.

It’s unfortunate that a fighter that did everything necessary in order to earn a title shot is being passed over due to circumstances beyond his control. Grant has become one of the scariest fighters in the UFC’s lightweight division over the past two years, but the UFC machine has to keep churning out fights. Hopefully Grant eventually gets a shot at what he deserves, but since he’s stuck on the self, his loss has become someone else’s gain, namely Josh Thomson’s.

It’s hard to believe that even Thomson would have believed he would find himself in a UFC title fight in just the second bout of his return from an almost 10-year Octagon hiatus. After making a name for himself as one of the best lightweights in the world under the Strikeforce banner, Thomson was one of the most promising acquisitions the UFC brought into the fold when it shut down the San Jose-based promotion. However, “The Punk’s” stock wasn’t exactly at an all-time high. He had traded wins and losses in his last four fights, the last of which was a close decision loss to then Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez. There was definitely a place for Thomson on the UFC roster, but he was going to have some work to do before he was considered one of the top contenders in the division. Or at least that’s what we thought.

Thomson made it clear that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the lightweight division when he took out Nate Diaz in his UFC return this past April. He dominated the former UFC title challenger for the majority of the first two rounds before landing a picture-perfect head kick to send the Stockton native to the mat. The stoppage win was enough to push Thomson into the mix for a shot at the UFC’s lightweight title, but considering there were still a handful of guys ahead of him in the rankings, it looked like “The Punk” would have to win another fight or two before getting near UFC gold.

Then lightweight contenders started dropping like flies. On the same night that Thomson finished Diaz, his longtime rival Melendez suffered his first defeat in almost five years in a title fight against Henderson. The loss effectively sent “El Nino” to the back of the line in the lightweight title picture, and as a result, Thomson got a little bit closer to the belt. When Grant and Maynard went toe to toe a month later, Grant’s win may not have been enough to push Thomson above “The Bully” in the UFC rankings (at least right away), but it opened the door for him to bypass Maynard when the UFC came calling for a title challenger a few months later. By the time Pettis took the title from Henderson last month, the lightweight division’s reputation as a shark tank had gotten the better of itself.

Henderson, Melendez and Maynard, the three fighters the UFC has seen perform in title bouts, are all coming off a loss. Grant is stuck on the sidelines with a concussion he sustained in jiu-jitsu practice. Upstart contenders Rafael dos Anjos and Khabib Nurmagomedov are still a top-10 win away from earning a shot at the belt. Thomson is literally the only guy left in the lightweight division that the UFC can pass off as a legitimate contender for Pettis, and the truth is, Thomson isn’t a bad option.

The last time anyone saw Pettis lose a fight, it was against a relentless Clay Guida, who did everything in his power to drag “Showtime” to the mat and keep him there. Pettis had his moments, including another attack off the cage to add to his highlight reel, but Guida spent the majority of the fight in top position. It wasn’t the most popular strategy, and Pettis was active enough off his back to convince quite a few observers that the fight could have swung his way, but Guida was awarded the victory regardless.

Thomson may not be as unorthodox as Guida, but he’s had a knack for grinding out opponents in the past. That’s a skill that will come in handy against Pettis, who is quickly becoming the most dangerous striker to hit the Octagon since Anderson Silva. Thomson may feel great about his stand-up after beating up one of the best boxers in the division in Diaz, but Pettis is on a completely different planet when it comes to striking. It would definitely be in Thomson’s best interests to get this fight to the floor early and often, and after seeing Pettis tap out the practically impossible-to-submit Henderson in his last fight, Thomson needs to be equally careful on the mat.

There’s no point in sugarcoating anything: this is going to be the most difficult test of Thomson’s career. “The Punk” has over a decade of fight experience and has been in the cage with some of the best lightweights in the world, but stepping into the cage against a UFC champion represents the next level of the sport. When that champion is as explosive as Pettis is and has the knack for violence in the way that Pettis does, it makes the jump to the next level even more difficult.

Deserving or not, Thomson is getting the next shot at the lightweight title, and he’ll be looking to shock the world in December. It’s a golden opportunity for a fighter that has been working for over a dozen years to get to the top. We’ll know exactly how deserving he really was as soon as the dust settles with Pettis. For now, however, it’s tough to argue that he isn’t the best man for the job.

Photo: Josh Thomson (L) throws a head kick (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.