Before last night, T.J. Grant had never been on a UFC main card of any sort. From his debut against Ryo Chonan at UFC 97 all the way to his UFC on Fox 6 clash with Matt Wiman, he was stuck on the preliminary card for an extraordinary 10 fights in a row. Note that he debuted in 2009, so Grant has largely spent his career in the "dark match" category. His status as an "under the radar" was more than justified given his lack of time on the televised broadcasts.
Grant made the absolute most of his main card debut against Gray Maynard, knocking the former #1 contender out in just a shade over 2 minutes to earn both a "Knockout of the Night" bonus as well as a title shot vs. Ben Henderson. The Canadian improved to 5-0 at lightweight and notched the biggest win of his career. It's a win that proved once and for all that T.J. Grant is undeniably one of the best 155ers in the world and that he can beat the elite of the division.
Not only was this a "statement" performance from Grant, he once again won as the betting underdog. Out of his 5 lightweight fights, he closed as the underdog in all but his win over Carlo Prater. Otherwise, he was not favored to beat Shane Roller, Evan Dunham, Matt Wiman, or Gray Maynard.
What makes Grant's rise to the top so astonishing is a combination of his relatively middling and unimpressive results at welterweight combined with his substantially improved striking. At welterweight, Grant alternated wins over Ryo Chonan, Kevin Burns, and Julio Paulino with losses to Dong Hyun Kim, Johny Hendricks, and Ricardo Almeida. His losses to Stun Gun and Almeida in particular weren't very close as he was repeatedly taken down and posed no serious threat as a striker.
According to FightMetric, Grant was taken down 20 of 23 attempts at welterweight, an unsightly 87% success rate for his opponents. Two of Grant's wins came when neither Paulino nor Burns even attempted a takedown. As a lightweight, Grant has only been taken down 4 times out of 15, and 3 of those came against Evan Dunham, who he was able to defeat with his now incredibly dangerous stand-up. Before the switch to 155, Grant had only won 2 of his fights by KO/TKO and the majority of his wins had come via submission, which isn't surprising given his BJJ brown belt. His striking game has been refined significantly to the point where he's knocked out Matt Wiman and Gray Maynard in consecutive fights, becoming only the 2nd fighter to finish either man.
In the past two years we've seen T.J. Grant develop into one of the most complete fighters in arguably the best and deepest division in the sport. He possesses a high level submission game, a damn good chin, dangerous Muay Thai, very good punching power, and is noticeably stronger at 155 than he ever was at 170, where it's fairly clear now that he was undersized. Grant is now one win away from claiming the status as UFC lightweight champion, and he may very well have the skills needed to dethrone Ben Henderson. I eagerly await Henderson vs. Grant and have no doubt that this will be an incredible championship fight between two terrific talents.