The most interested observer of UFC 164’s main event between Anthony Pettis and Benson Henderson was probably T.J. Grant -- the guy who was supposed to be standing opposite Henderson before getting sidelined with an injury.
Conspiracy theorists remember the circumstances in winking detail: Pettis was to fight for the featherweight belt against Jose Aldo in Brazil on Aug. 3, and Grant was to face Henderson in Pettis’s hometown of Milwaukee four weeks later.
Then Pettis hurt his knee, and had to pull out. A couple of weeks later, Grant got severely concussed in training, and Pettis -- who recovered quicker than Vegas specialists could have predicted -- was summonsed to take Grant’s spot. The whole thing seemed very tidy, but the UFC was able to put together a highly coveted rematch between Pettis and Henderson.
Now that those coincidences are behind us, and most realize that the circumstances were as real as they were convenient, the question becomes: Does Grant get the next crack at the 155-pound belt? Or is the tidal wave of Sunday morning matchmakers carrying Pettis back towards Aldo?
Grant spoke to MMA Fighting on Sunday and says he heard the immediate rumblings of a potential Aldo/Pettis superfight. Though he can understand the exhilaration that a match-up like that would drum up, he likes to point out that he’s an exciting fighter himself.
And, in the world of meritocracies, he deserves his shot.
"I’m pretty sure Aldo is a little banged up as well right now," Grant said. "My opinion -- I’m a fan, and I love watching UFC fights. I watch all of them, whether they’re people I’m potentially fighting or not, I enjoy it. Pettis against Aldo is an exciting fight.
"But, hey, I just won my last fight in two minutes. I knocked the [Gray Maynard] out. I knocked the guy out before that [Matt Wiman]. I feel like I’ve earned it. I feel like I’m the guy. I’ve been in the UFC a long time. I’ve never really gotten the push that I feel like I need but I’ve also built a lot of experience in fighting and haven’t been in the spotlight, which is nice too. But I’m ready to be there and I’m ready to go out there. Give me the opportunity man. I feel like I’ve earned it."
Grant got a concussion in mid-July while training for his title bid with Henderson, which he says haunted him all summer long.
"I’ve begun some light workouts and I’ve had no setbacks in that regard," he said. "You know, it’s kind of weird, concussions affect a lot more than just having a headache. I couldn’t play with my kid for more than a few minutes without being exhausted and being really nauseous. That was early in the summer. I feel like the worst is behind me and I’m just getting better. I know concussions affect your mood, and I’m a lot happier now. They’re all good signs."
Though he has begun do light workouts without contact, he thinks he would be ready by UFC 168 in late December, and if not for then, then anytime from January on.
"There was a little bit of contact with Joe Silva in the past week," he said. "Just seeing where I’m at and how I’m feeling. I’m starting to feel a lot healthier. It’s just been a crappy summer not getting to be a normal human being. Watching the fights this weekend, I wasn’t that disappointed anymore - I’ve already had that emotion go through me. I’ve already dealt with that. I’m just ready to get out there and start working my way back to get healthy."
And as for fighting Pettis, rather than Henderson, he sees the obvious positives in a clash like that.
"[Pettis]’s a killer -- he’s a finisher, and he goes for it," he said. "And I’m not saying Benson doesn’t either -- he’s a top dude. I feel like if Pettis came in healthy and his knee wasn’t affecting him, I thought he’d win the fight. I’m just excited because that’s the type of guy that I want to fight, the guy who’s willing to go out there and find out who’s better. We don’t need two or three rounds to figure that out. Let’s go out there and do it. I’m not trying to sound like a [Quinton] Rampage Jackson, but why do you need five rounds when you can sort it out in the first two or three minutes?
"That’s what I’m all about. Just going out there to fight. There’s a lot of strategy and everything, but I ain’t trying to win rounds punching a guy against the fence."
There are, of course, circumstances. Not only is Aldo/Pettis being looked at as a potential blockbuster, but both guys are hurt. Aldo is out for the rest of 2013 with a broken foot that he suffered in his title defense against Chan Sung Jung, and Pettis heard his knee "pop" against Henderson. He left Milwaukee’s Bradley Center limping on Saturday night.
A lot will be determined upon learning the extent of Pettis's injury. If the news comes back that he’s out for an extended period of time, Grant says that would be open to other match-ups in the meantime.
"If it’s an ACL or something like that, that’s nine months to a year," he said. "I’d probably be looking to fight. I’ve been hearing my name a lot. Josh Thomson obviously wants to fight me, and you can’t fault the guy for that. And you know what? That’s another guy I’d like to fight because he’s exciting and he brings it. We’ll see what happens with Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez, too. I’ve been a big fan of Gilbert’s for a long time. He’s been fighting since before I ever got in the UFC. Those guys all come to fight. But Pettis is the guy I want. I feel like I’ve earned my position. If he’s going to be on the shelf for a while, and I’ve got to fight somebody, it would be those other two guys.
"Again, I’m not specifically calling them out," he said. "I want a healthy Pettis, and I want a healthy me, and I want us to get in there and do battle."