So it turns out that you don't need to win any popularity contests, carry a weighty reputation or own a Ph.D in smack talk to garner a title shot in the UFC. Keeping your head down and filling up the win column can still get it done.
Case in point: TJ Grant.
By all accounts, the Canadian is a fighter of middling renown. Yet, riding an impressive five-fight win streak, he is poised to battle Benson Henderson for the lightweight crown at UFC 164.
Grant will enter the bout as a betting underdog, but not one who should be counted out. In fact, there are a good many reasons to believe in the 29-year-old.
I believe, and I've decided to subject you to five slides' worth of opinion stating why.
Grant has long been a "good" fighter, but it wasn't until he moved from welterweight to lightweight back in 2011 that he became a "great" fighter.
Since dropping to 155 pounds, Grant has looked as impressive as anyone in the division. He's posted five straight wins, including three finishes, one of which came against Gray Maynard at UFC 160.
In other words, Grant fully looks the part of a title contender. While he lacks the notoriety of Benson Henderson's previous title challengers—Frankie Edgar, Nate Diaz and Gilbert Melendez—he may just be more dangerous than any of them.
Benson Henderson has competed in four UFC title fights. His first came at UFC 144 when he defeated Frankie Edgar via unanimous decision by the narrowest of margins to capture the championship.
His next title fight was a rematch with Edgar at UFC 150—a fight Henderson won via split decision.
Next, Henderson defeated Nate Diaz in an absolute route.
Most recently, he won a controversial split decision over Gilbert Melendez.
Going 4-0 in title fights is impressive any way you slice it, but Henderson has been treading on thin ice. With two split decisions and one very close unanimous decision, three of his four victories were very much decided by the judges.
If he keeps fighting to such close results, he is eventually going to lose. And having had three straight in his favor, he may now be due for a loss.
Of course, there is no guarantee Henderson's fight with Grant will be close, or even a decision. He has looked beatable, though. Unless he steps it up soon, he's in real danger of relinquishing his title—and soon.
Grant is the kind of fighter who goes for the finish early and often—and lately, he's been getting it. When he faces Benson Henderson at UFC 164, this will play to his advantage in two ways.
First, though Henderson is a tough guy to stop, it opens up a potential finish. After all, Gray Maynard and Matt Wiman are both tough stops, and Grant had them both on ice before the first bell.
Second, as I mentioned in the last slide, three of Henderson's last four outings have been hotly contested. When a fight has no clear winner, judges side with the aggressor more often than not. If Grant can keep the pressure up at UFC 164, he may have an edge in any type of it-could-go-either-way scenario.
MMA math doesn't work. I know that and you know that. But bear with me.
Benson Henderson twice defeated Frankie Edgar by the narrowest of margins.
Frankie Edgar is 1-1-1 against Gray Maynard, who gave Edgar all he could handle in each of their contests.
TJ Grant absolutely walked through Maynard.
Using this data, we come up with the following: because Henderson and Edgar had such close fights, and Edgar and Maynard had such close fights, it logically follows that Henderson and Maynard would have close fights.
Our MMA math "therefore statement" is then: because Grant dispatched Maynard with such ease, he should be able to do the same with Henderson, who through our equation is shown to be near Maynard's level.
Again, this type of hypothesis is always unconvincing. There is no solid information there that points to a Grant victory at UFC 164.
However, if nothing else, Grant's destruction of a guy who twice nearly captured the lightweight title shows he is a legitimate challenger himself. At least we can take this part of it seriously.
Had I told you three years ago that TJ Grant would one day challenge for a UFC title, you'd probably have laughed—or told me he would be slaughtered.
Today's Grant bears little resemblance to the one of 2010, even if his transition remains somewhat startling.
Late-bloomers like Grant often have a hard time finding acceptance as legitimately elite competitors. People are all too able to recall the days of their mediocrity, and tend to view any sort of mid-career development as a temporary hot-streak rather than a professional rebirth.
In Grant's case, that the acceleration of his growth coincided with his move to lightweight gains him some credibility, because the drop is something tangible for people to buy into. However, he still is very unheralded for the heights he now walks and the ability he now demonstrates.
The fact of the matter is, Grant is a top fighter at 155 and a legitimate threat to dethrone Benson Henderson.
I, for one, anticipate him winning.