Over the past three years, the lightweight division has become one of the deepest and most competitive weight classes under the UFC banner. A collection of the world's best 155-pound fighters have been locked in a heated race to compete for the division's top spot, and the action has produced some of the most memorable bouts in the history of the weight class.
While the names in the upper tier of the divisional hierarchy have remained the same for the most part, one new addition to the list is former welterweight turned lightweight beast TJ Grant.
Since dropping down into lighter waters, the Nova Scotia-based fighter has been on a tear through the division, racking up victories in each of his four showings at 155 pounds. The 29-year-old Canadian's success has put him within striking distance of a title shot, but Grant understands it is a journey he must take one step at a time.
Nevertheless, he's feeling better than he ever has inside the Octagon and believes everything is coming together at the perfect time.
"I feel like I've made a lot of improvements as a fighter in that time," Grant told Bleacher Report about dropping down to the lightweight division. "It's great to be able to go into a fight and believe in your size. At 170 pounds, it was always in the back of my mind that I was undersized. I always felt like I could compete but it was different.
"That weight is kind of lifted off my shoulders now, and I feel like I'm coming into my athletic prime. I'm feeling good, and I'm starting to develop experience in mixed martial arts. I have 25 fights now, but I never had a really in-depth college wrestling background. I never had boxing matches or any of that. The whole thought of competing and being inside the Octagon; I'm really starting to find my groove. Things are starting to slow down a bit in there for me, which is key."
The next obstacle on his path up the divisional ladder will come against perennial contender Gray Maynard at UFC 160 on May 25 in Las Vegas. While defeating "The Bully" has proved to be no easy task, Grant is looking forward to mixing it up with the AKA-trained fighter next month inside the Octagon.
"There is a lot at stake in this fight," Grant told Bleacher Report. "I'm looking to make a statement. I'm not really too concerned with what could come after this fight. I'm only concerned with doing my best and putting my all into this one to have a good performance.
"You never know what [Maynard] is going to be thinking. He might come out and try to floor me or try to take me down and grapple with me. I'm not too concerned, I just have to prepare and be ready for everything. I don't really know what his game plan is going to be. Personally, I think he'll probably try to take me down, but we'll see.
"It's going to be a battle," Grant added. "I know that he's hungry and he wants it. I can tell you that I want this fight and it's huge for me. I'm not going to be afraid or intimidated by Gray Maynard and what he's accomplished in the past. He's just going to be another opponent. I'm looking to go out there and put a hurtin' on him."
While Maynard has been considered one of the top lightweights for the better part of three years, it is new territory for the Cole Harbour-based fighter. Grant used an impressive performance against gritty veteran Matt Wiman at UFC on Fox 6 in January to launch himself into the Top 10 rankings in the 155-pound weight class.
With Grant's and Wiman's respective track records, many had assumed the bout would be a tedious and drawn-out affair. But with a tenacious attack and a series of brutal standing elbows, Grant salted the former TUF alum in the final seconds of the opening frame. The victory was Grant's breakthrough performance, and he feels everything went as planned.
"Wiman is tough, and he's always going to make it a fight," Grant said. "I'm not going to shy away from a fight, but I felt the path of least resistance was to use footwork, create angles and not to put 100 percent on every shot. I wanted to just beat him down and look for the openings as they came.
"The second you make it into a dog fight, things change a bit. I'm not going to say I couldn't hang in that department, I'm just saying that gives Matt Wiman opportunities to scramble and that's really his strong point. I went my way, and it all worked out for me."
Immediately following his performance against Wiman in Chicago, Grant found himself in a position to fight the best the weight class had to offer. The first name that came his way was savvy veteran Jim Miller, but due to personal circumstances, Grant was forced to turn the fight down. With the desire to fight another top opponent, Grant was excited when the bout with Maynard became a reality.
"The UFC offered the [Jim] Miller fight a couple of days after the Wiman fight," Grant said. "I have my firstborn coming next month, and I had to turn the fight. It was just cutting it too close, and I didn't want to miss the birth of my child for a fight. I felt like that decision might hurt me, but other than Gray Maynard, there is no one who is above me in the rankings without a fight booked. I wasn't sure if Maynard was really available for a fight, but it all worked out. I'm happy to get the fight."
Shortly after UFC on Fox 6 in Chicago, the lightweight title picture took an interesting turn. Newly christened No. 1 contender Anthony Pettis decided to vacate the position in order to drop down to featherweight and challenge Brazilian phenom Jose Aldo for his 145-pound crown.
The UFC then tapped Gilbert Melendez, the final man to hold the Strikeforce lightweight strap, to challenge Benson Henderson at UFC on Fox 7 in April. With Pettis gone and Melendez getting an immediate title shot, the normally crowded title picture has opened up, and Grant believes this turn of events has created an interesting opportunity.
"I feel like it's anybody's for the taking with what's been going on lately. [Anthony] Pettis and [Frankie] Edgar dropping down made things wide open. Plus you have Benson Henderson at the top, and he's a tough cookie. There are a lot of tough guys in the division, but I really feel like the landscape is changing. I'm just looking to go out there and make a big statement in this fight.
"I hoping something like that happens," Grant responded when asked if a victory over Maynard would get him a title shot. "I also understand this is a business. I just watched Johny Hendricks win a lot of fights consecutively against top-five opponents, but it wasn't until he beat [Carlos] Condit until he actually secured a title shot. We are going to see what's happening. I'm thinking about Gray right now, and I'm going out there to put on the best show possible.
"Hopefully I'll get the win, and after that I'm ready to fight anyone. Put me in there with Benson or whoever is going to get me that title shot. My ultimate goal is to win the title, and I'll do whatever I have to do to get there."
Much like the previously mentioned Hendricks—who only started calling out Georges St-Pierre when the title shot he sought continued to elude him—Grant has chosen to avoid trash-talking for the sake of self-promotion. He doesn't believe chattering in interviews or public posturing is necessary to accomplish his goals.
At the same time, Grant also understands his unwillingness to kick up dust will most likely force him to take a longer route to the championship. While this will create more work for Grant inside the cage, if he can continue to fight his way into the win column, Grant believes it will be impossible for the UFC to deny him a title opportunity.
"I don't think you have to be out there calling out guys," Grant said. "I'm a real person and that's just not my way. If that's who you are and that suits your character, then go ahead and do it. If that's the case then I don't really care.
"A lot of people talk about the way Nick Diaz carries himself, but he's a real dude. He walked into Montreal and fought the champ. He did it his way, and you can't really question the fact that he's real and he is who he is. He's not putting on a show for anybody. If people do that then I respect it.
"I'm a real person and I'm not going to sell myself or how I do things. I let my work speak for itself, and I'm going to keep going out there and putting on good fights. I feel like I have an exciting style. I'm not the most flashy guy in the world, but I'm a hard-nosed fighter who likes to mix it up. I don't shy away from any aspect of the fight. I believe that's enough.
"It's definitely a longer road, but it's the road I choose to take. I'm not going to talk my way into any fights, and you can't deny me if I keep winning."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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