"I won't lie, I am a little bit surprised," Henderson admitted on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I think most people had Gray winning, most people picked Gray to win. Not only did T.J. prove everybody wrong, but the manner and the fashion in which he did it, pretty impressive performance for him."
Grant needed just two minutes to knock out Maynard at UFC 160, penning the latest chapter in an unbeaten run at lightweight that virtually no one in the UFC expected, least of all Henderson.
"I was already kind of mentally preparing for [Maynard]," Henderson said. "And now I've got a new guy to mentally prepare for.
"I don't know a whole lot about T.J., to be honest. I know he's, what, 5-0 at 155 now. He used to be a '70 pounder. From what I've seen of him, just the little promos and hype and stuff, doesn't seem too flashy but just one of those guys, a grinder, good fundamentals, solid. It's going to be my job to learn all about him the next month or so."
So it goes for Henderson. Already among of the most active of the current crop of UFC champions, "Smooth" eyes his next challenge just a month after conquering his latest, when he defeated longtime Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez in Melendez's backyard at UFC on FOX 7.
Following the closely contested contest, Henderson proposed to his girlfriend Maria Magana in the center of the Octagon. The heartwarming moment was broadcast on national television, but quickly became drowned out by booing San Jose fans peeved at their hometown fighter's loss.
"I actually didn't notice at all," Henderson reflected. "I was pretty in the moment, pretty tunnel vision. I had my heart beating, freakin', 100 miles an hour. But didn't even notice at all. I was just focused on making sure she said those three little letters. For me it couldn't have been any better. It was the perfect moment, perfect time, everything around it was awesome."
The strange dichotomy of the scene, a well-intentioned gesture overshadowed by vocal fan unrest, served as a bizarrely fitting encapsulation of Henderson's reign as UFC champion, which began with a close decision against Frankie Edgar and has grown increasingly polarizing with each passing victory. Only against Nate Diaz, who Henderson unrelentingly dominated for 25 minutes, did the 29-year-old emerge unscathed in the court of public opinion.
"People tend to kind of gloss over that one, but whatever, it's fine. I don't really care," Henderson said of the criticism he receives for winning close decisions.
"I think a lot of it is stylistic match-ups. Actually what's going to happen, I think, sadly, is that a lot of guys, they're going to do the Frankie Edgar gameplan. We thought that Gilbert was going to be super aggressive, like hyper aggressive -- come out and go get me, and be after me the entire time. But if you watch the fight, he was a lot more elusive. He was bouncing around, kind of waited for his shots.
"We think, actually, a lot of our fights are sadly going to be that way because guys are going to see, as far as gameplan-wise, how to beat us."
For years Henderson was considered among the most exciting fighters in the lightweight division, a mantle he wore proudly. His natural inclination is still to compete that way, so it frustrates him to continue putting on these types of performances.
"The closest fight was probably that Frankie Edgar second fight. Some guys are going to stick to that gameplan. They're going to try to do what he did," Henderson explained. "Be elusive, be in and out, not give me a whole chance to come forward, get my hands on him. If I can go forward and get my hands on somebody, like Nate Diaz, I'll do that all day long. Trust me. I like to put on entertaining fights, I like beating the crap out of people, but if they're not conducive to that, then it is what it is. I've got to do what I've got to do to get the ‘W.' If they don't want to come forward and scrap, just throw down the way Nate and I did, then what am I going to do?.
"It's stylistic match-ups. Somebody like Nate, who's a fighter's fighter, who walks forward and gets after it, him and I brought a heck of an entertaining show. Gilbert, I think his camp is very smart. Hats off to him, he's a tough fighter. I got nothing bad to say about the guy. [He just had] a little more of a Frankie Edgar gameplan, and it made for that same kind of close decision."
Other than B.J. Penn, no lightweight fighter in UFC history ever fully established themselves as a pay-per-view star. Henderson's résumé has the makings of the next major 155-pound draw, yet the constant discussion regarding his decisions has seemingly slowed momentum on that front, which made it unsurprising when UFC President Dana White announced that Henderson vs. Grant may headline the debut UFC event on FOX's new athletic vehicle, FOX Sports 1.
If that booking comes to fruition, it would mark the third straight non-pay-per-view title defense for Henderson. However, where some fighters would protest, Henderson welcomes the idea.
"I feel secure as a UFC champ. I think I get the same recognition," Henderson said. "Obviously, (Georges) St-Pierre and Jon Jones, those guys ... we're talking about guys who've kind of crossed that mainstream. Maybe I haven't crossed the mainstream yet. It's cool with me. Whatever, I don't necessarily fight just for money. I've proven that a bunch of times, choosing not to fight on pay-per-views. Dana White and Lorenzo (Fertitta) asked me, ‘Hey, do you mind fighting on this FOX card?' ‘I would love it. No problem.' In my contract I do have pay-per-view points, but when I fight for FOX and those guys, they want me on there to be an ambassador for the sport. I have no problem with that.
"I actually love fighting on a bigger stage. I love having a bigger audience, a broader audience besides just the core demographic of males 18-34. ... The last fight, what was it? 5.5 million people? You can't beat that, that kind of a stage, that kind of an audience. FOX Sports 1, you know how big of a deal FOX is going to make that? FOX is going to promote the crap out of that. It's going to be a huge stage. It's going to be ginormous, so I would love to fight on the card."
UFC officials have yet to confirm whether Henderson will indeed headline August's inaugural FOX Sports 1 event. According to UFC President Dana White, four match-ups are currently under consideration for the card's main event, with Henderson vs. Grant among them.
Nonetheless, Henderson knows his next title defense will mark an important moment in his career. Henderson's critics grow increasingly vocal with every tight decision, so this time around, he's not going to give them the chance.
"I don't think I need a finish. I think I just need to have a great performance," Henderson finished.
"As long as I have a great performance, it'll all take care of itself."