LAS VEGAS -- TJ Grant knew that a strong performance against tough veteran Gray Maynard on Saturday would make him a legitimate title contender in the UFC lightweight division.
But little did he suspect that his decisive first-round technical knockout of the cagey veteran would get the attention of the Punch-Out king himself.
Grant used a relentless flurry of fists and knees to score the win over Maynard at 2:07 of the first round of their UFC 160 bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, earning the next shot at 155-pound champion Benson Henderson.
In doing so, he also made a fan of legendary knockout artist Mike Tyson, who helped put an extra $50,000 in Grant’s pocket.
Tyson, who attended the fights, was in the room with UFC president Dana White and co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta after the show when White declared Junior dos Santos’ knockout of Mark Hunt the winner of the evening’s Knockout of the Night award.
“Tyson's like, 'What? No way. That other kid [Grant] won,'" White said. "Me and Lorenzo were like, 'Alright.' What, are we going to say no to Mike? I wasn't going to argue with him."
With the help of his famous new fan, Grant completed a remarkable journey that’s brought him to the brink of a title shot. A native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia (best known for producing Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby), Grant won his fifth-straight fight since making the decision to drop down to lightweight two years ago after a middling stint at welterweight.
“I just never lost faith in myself,” said the 29-year-old Grant (21-5). “I always knew who I was and what I was capable of; it was just a matter of having it all come together.”
When White announced on April 20 that the winner of Saturday’s Maynard-Grant fight would get a title shot against Henderson, the fighters got plenty of brushback from fans and media alike. White made the decision that evening on the heels of an event in San Jose in which Gilbert Melendez came a whisker from taking the Henderson’s title and Josh Thomson scored an impressive knockout of Nate Diaz.
As far as White was concerned, though, Grant’s performance at UFC 160 justified the decision.
"I wanted to make sure the next contender for the title was putting on great fights," White said. "Obviously, Josh Thomson just had a great performance against Diaz. I wanted to see something good tonight. I wanted to see something special. And I saw it tonight. [Grant] is getting the next title shot."
Grant, for his part, never took exception to the online reaction over the title-shot news. He knew the only thing he could do was go out and make believers out of the skeptics. Which is precisely what he did.
“It didn’t bother me at all,” Grant said of the controversy. “Coming into this fight, I was able to block out all the other things that were out there. I knew I had to beat Gray Maynard, someone who’s incredibly fast and skilled. I knew if I went out there and fought the way I always do, you know, I had the best preparation of my life coming into this fight. I wanted to come out and make a statement, but I also had to just go out there and fight my fight.”
It certainly helped that Maynard, who twice came close to defeating then-lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in a pair of memorable bouts, abandoned his usual methodical approach and came out swinging. Maynard, a three-time NCAA All-America wrestler at Michigan State, appeared to lack respect for Grant’s standup skills, and he tagged Grant a couple times in the early going.
But that only served to have the effect of waving a red flag in front of a bull, as Grant charged forward and took control of the fight.
“Gray is not a guy I wanted to go to the ground with, and I saw he didn’t move his feet too well so I knew there were openings,” said Grant. “I wasn’t necessarily looking for the knockout, I was just looking to connect to the face. I felt good things would come from that.”
Those good things include the bout’s aftermath. A date isn’t yet set for the Henderson-Grant bout, although White indicated it’s one of several potential fights being considered for the main event slot of the UFC on Fox Sports 1 debut card in Boston on Aug. 17.
“This is like a dream come true, but the dream isn’t over yet,” said Grant. “There is still work to do. I know what Dana said. I want to fight Benson Henderson for the title. Nothing but respect, but I want to fight the champ.
“I’ve watched all [Henderson’s] fights because I’m a fan of the UFC, but I’ll give the same answer I gave before the fight: I don’t ever look past my opponent. I’m going to enjoy this for a couple days, then I’m going to go back to work and do my job. I know what type of champion Benson Henderson is.”
Far be it from us to suggest what Grant do with his free time, but we wouldn’t blame him if he dusted off an old Nintendo and played a few rounds of Punch-Out.
More UFC 160 coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Glover Teixeira gets quick win in front of hero Mike Tyson
• Will Velasquez-dos Santos III actually deliver?
• Original Ultimate Fighter Forrest Griffin retires
• Slideshow: Check out photos of UFC 160 right here