Just a year and a half ago, Gray Maynard found himself in a career spot from which few fighters fully recover.
Maynard suffered an agonizing loss to then-UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in October 2011. The bout was a rematch, necessitated by a roller-coaster, 25-minute draw 10 months earlier.
In both fights, Maynard came within a hair’s breadth of taking the title. But a third UFC title shot in the same division after coming up short the first two times is a rare thing in a fast-moving sport.
The three-time All-American wrestler at Michigan State knew he faced a mid-career crisis.
“I got pretty down, I’m not going to lie,” Maynard said in a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports. “I knew I had to step away for awhile and take stock of where I was at in my career. You only get so many chances in this business and I knew it was going to be a long road back.”
Less than two years later, the 34-year-old Maynard is on the precipice of his third title shot. He meets up-and-coming Canadian T.J. Grant on the pay-per-view main card of UFC 160 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 25, with the winner getting the next shot at Benson Henderson’s lightweight championship.
“I decided I was going to go on in my career and let the chips fall where they may,” Maynard (11-1-1) said. “I’m a competitor, it’s what I’ve done all my life.”
The lightweight's soul search led to a change of scenery. Maynard left the Extreme Couture gym in Las Vegas, with which he had long been affiliated, and joined the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif.
There, under the tutelage of head trainer Javier Mendez, he trains alongside a who’s who of MMA’s best, from UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, to former Strikeforce champs Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold and Josh Thomson, to veteran Jon Fitch. They’ve enabled Maynard to re-think his entire approach to the sport.
“I don’t want to call myself an old dog, but I’ve learned some new tricks,” said Maynard. “I had hit a plateau in my career. My skills had taken me as far as they were going to take me without a new approach.
“What they do at AKA is take those skills you’ve always had and make you re-think how you put all the ingredients together. It’s kind of hard to explain if you’re not there, but they see things in a way I had never seen things before. And when you work with guys like Cain, like DC, like Jon, and on down the line, it’s like each of them is a coach in his own right.”
It goes without saying that the title-shot news, which was announced by UFC president Dana White at the UFC on FOX 7 post-fight news conference in San Jose after Henderson defended his title against Gilbert Melendez, was welcome in both fighters’ camps.
For the veteran Maynard, it was the little boost he needed to ward off the mid-training camp blues.
“It was definitely that little something extra,” Maynard said. “It came right during the point in camp when you’ve been at it for awhile, but you’re still not close enough to see the finish line in sight, so that news put a little more spring in my step.”
Grant, for his part, lives four hours ahead of the West coast in Nova Scotia, so when the news came in late, he didn’t get much sleep.
“It was exciting, really exciting,” Grant said. “I heard about it and I really didn’t get any sleep that night. None of this means anything if I don’t beat Gray, but I can’t get too caught up in thinking ahead of myself. But when I heard the news, yeah, it was great.”
But the decision to award a title shot to the Maynard-Grant winner didn’t come without a measure of brushback. No one’s denying either fighter’s skills: Maynard is ranked No. 3 in the latest MMAFighting.com lightweight rankings; Grant, who is 4-0 since dropping down from welterweight, is ranked No. 8. But the announcement came the same night as Henderson vs. Melendez, a split decision which many feel Melendez won; and on the same night as Thomson’s victory over Nate Diaz, the first time the latter had been knocked out in the UFC.
Both fighters heard the critics, and both have pointed responses.
“I can’t control any of that,” Maynard said. “There are guys who have gotten title shots with a lot more than one loss on their record. There’s a new champ, I’m in a new camp. Sometimes things break your way, so you have to take advantage of the opportunity when it comes along.”
Grant might be the second-most famous athlete from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, hometown of hockey superstar Sidney Crosby, but he’s not yet a mainstream name in UFC circles. At 20-5, the 29-year-old Grant is putting together a nice run at lightweight, with quality victories over Evan Dunham and Matt Wiman in his past two fights.
The way Grant sees it, a win over a fighter the caliber of Maynard should be all he needs to convince fans he’s worthy of a shot at Henderson’s crown.
"I haven't had the time in the spotlight that some of the other fighters have had,” Grant said. “In this sport, all it takes is one fight to turn people's opinion around. You get judged off your last fight in this sport. If I beat a guy like Gray Maynard, who's so well-respected and has been around a long time, that will get people's attention."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @davedoylemma
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