TORONTO -- The years of hard work and believing that one day he’d get a world title shot, even during difficult times, had finally come to fruition for TJ Grant.
He’d scaled the final hurdle on May 25 -- a first-round knockout of Gray Maynard. That victory, his fifth in a row, cemented Grant as the No. 1 lightweight contender. Next up: A title shot against then-UFC champion Benson Henderson.
Grant was ready and confident. He’d proven himself a worthy contender. This was his time and he was ready to claim what he always believed belonged to him -- the UFC lightweight championship belt.
But as is always the case with Grant, he wasn’t about to sit around and enjoy the spoils of his most recent accomplishment. Besides, his goal was never simply to land a title shot, Grant wants to be champion. He never takes shortcuts, and wasn’t about to start now. So he immediately headed back to the gym and began working on staying sharp and improving his skills.
There was Muay Thai and wrestling and some boxing. Then it was time to revisit jujitsu workouts. And that’s when Grant’s world turned upside down.
Two weeks after the biggest victory of his professional career, Grant was accidentally kicked in the head twice during a jujitsu training session. It truly was accidental, Grant says. There is no kicking in jujitsu.
A training partner’s foot caught Grant as he was trying to avoid a sweep. These things happen in sparring sessions sometimes, but this particular incident happened shortly after the Maynard fight. And Grant admits he got his bell rung in that contest, which likely caused the kick during training to do more damage.
It was later revealed that Grant suffered a concussion. He was forced to pull out of the Aug. 31 showdown with Henderson. former WEC titleholder Anthony Pettis replaced him.
Grant was devastated. He’d worked so hard to get to that point in his career, but he remained positive that, with rest, his opportunity would soon resurface. But just as he had come to grips with this setback, Grant began receiving attacks on his character.
He didn’t know any of his attackers personally. They conducted their verbal assaults online, accusing Grant of taking money from UFC officials to step aside in favor of Pettis. Anyone slightly familiar with Grant’s values knows he’d never do something of the sort. The accusations, however, pained Grant. And he was angered by it.
That, however, was just the beginning. After Pettis defeated Henderson, UFC officials again penciled Grant in as the top lightweight contender. He would fight Pettis for the title on Dec. 14 in Sacramento, Calif.
But who said lightning doesn’t strike twice. Another medical examination concluded that Grant would not likely be ready to fight in December. He’d made progress, but not enough to begin vigorous training. Grant was again pulled from a title bout.
And again haters went on the attack. But this time, Grant was prepared for the onslaught.
“At first I was heated, I was mad,” Grant told ESPN.com. “But now it’s actually hilarious. Since I pulled out of this fight [against Pettis] I’ve seen a couple of people write stuff and I just laugh. I mean I did just buy a new house. Maybe that’s because I got paid off, who knows. To me it’s a joke.
“I’m kind of numb to the whole situation. I’m just worrying about myself, and getting healthy. I don’t really care. I did what I had to do, I won five in a row. If I have to win another one to get a title shot, I will do that.
“If I get a title shot that will be awesome. But right now my No. 1 concern is getting healthy.”
Grant can taste the lightweight title and continues to believe his opportunity will come, sooner rather than later. He remains levelheaded. Grant does not intend to rush back into the gym until he is completely healed. Avoiding another setback is very high on his priority list.
But his patience is often tested. There is nothing easy about training for fights, but it pales in comparison to sitting around doing nothing. Inactivity is killing Grant. He has never experienced anything like it, and doesn’t want to go through this again.
It’s part of the healing process, but Grant doesn’t like it at all. He yearns for the day when he can return to physical contact. And he is slowly getting there. Grant has begun light workouts.
“I find that I have more injuries from sitting on the couch than from going to the gym and going through the grind,” Grant said. “Because my body is so used to being in shape and working all the time that when it’s not I get super tense and sore. I’m looking forward to getting back, though I am doing some light training now.”
Grant can’t say with certainty when he will actually return to the Octagon, but plans to keep a close on Pettis’ first UFC title defense against Josh Thomson. If his recovery continues going smoothly, Grant is hopeful of making his return early next year.
But he can’t make any guarantees. It’s one day at a time, and the first order of business is getting back in the gym to conduct full training. A giant smile forms on Grant’s face at the thought of returning to training camp. Grant knows when that time arrives, his sites will again be set on landing that elusive title shot.
“I really have no idea when I will return, I could be ready to fight in January,” Grant said. “But at the same time I haven’t been on the mats, I haven’t done any training for however long. So I have to get myself acclimated to training and doing all those things.
“I’ve never gone three months with literally no exercise. That’s a big change. But I am exercising now, which is helping to keep me sane. And that’s a good thing.
“I’m optimistic to get back and once I’m 100 percent, I’m training and I feel confident then we’ll ask the UFC to let’s get a fight.”