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Gray Maynard ignoring critics, believes Benson Henderson isn't the division's best

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC lightweight contender Gray Maynard hoped to return from injury to a high-profile bout. Two months after he signed a contract to fight T.J. Grant at UFC 160, he got his wish.

In the closing moments of UFC on FOX 7's post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White announced the winner of Maynard vs. Grant would be next in line to challenge reigning lightweight champion Benson Henderson. It was exactly the opportunity Maynard had been waiting for.

"I thought it could be [an important fight], yeah, because we asked for Anthony Pettis and then he dropped down. And then they offered [Grant] and I thought that he was a top guy too, so we took it and we kind of knew it would be one of those types of fights," Maynard said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour.

"Halfway through the camp, you get a little bit down, a little slowed up. But [announcing it was a No. 1 contender fight] was a kick in the ass, so I was pumped."

That's not to say White's announcement was met without its fair share of criticism. Just hours before, perennial Strikeforce contender Josh Thomson made his presence felt with a resounding knockout of Nate Diaz in his UFC return, while Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez fell just inches away from stealing Henderson's strap on the judges' scorecard.

Maynard has heard it all since that night, but if you've ever listened to the man speak, you'd understand that the criticism just doesn't bother him like it does some fighters.

"There's a lot of people out there, so there's a lot of people that like Josh, Gilbert, me, and they're just, that's what they say," Maynard explained. "I don't know what to say to that. I just do what the boss tells me to and I believe I've been a top guy. I believe I've beaten the champ, but it was a draw, and I slipped up a little bit. Just trying to get back to that belt.

"There's no clear guy, though. I think Anthony [Pettis], he was. I called him out, I asked to have him, and then he dropped down. But basically after that, who else? Who else is a clear guy?"

While he may not carry the smoldering name recognition of Pettis, Grant poses several of his own problems. A winner of four straight since dropping down from welterweight to lightweight in late-2011, Grant has quietly pieced together one of the most creditable streaks in the division.

Nonetheless, Maynard believes the 29-year-old has yet fight anyone on his level.

"I'm impressed to the point where it gets me up everyday to train hard as hell to beat him. That's all I need," said Maynard. "I don't fear anything anyone brings to the table. But there's a couple things that I'm aware of.

"I don't want to go into great detail about it. He's a tough kid, doesn't have a lot of huge holes, but there's a couple small technical holes that we're trying to exploit."

Maynard, who fought just once in 2012, was initially scheduled to meet Joe Lauzon at UFC 155. However a month out from the bout, lingering injuries forced him to reconsider.

"I had to get a scope [on] my knee, there was just a lot of stuff in there," said Maynard. "I actually pulled my hamstring for the Clay Guida bout and thought it would heal up, so I kept going on it. And then by the time camp came around for Joe, my knee and my hamstring were pretty bad. So the camp was just turning out to be pretty hard."

It took some time, but Maynard finally believes he's back to 100-percent health. Now a fulltime member of San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy, Maynard is eager to get back to work and wash out the bitter taste left in his mouth from his bizarre split decision victory over Guida.

"It was definitely not my best, of course," Maynard admitted when asked for his thoughts on the fight that White brashly condemned. "It was just, it's hard to describe that bout. I don't know because I couldn't fight. That was the hardest, the guy just wouldn't do anything. So I don't know if I was good or not good. It was just a hard bout to compete in, just because I had to chase him the whole time. I know that's not my best, but it was a weird fight."

Ultimately, Maynard knows he has his hands full with Grant. But after falling so dramatically short in not just one, but two UFC title bids, he's confident about his chances.

And as for the current champion, Maynard is of the mind that Henderson isn't even the best in the division, regardless of what the record books may say.

"He's not," Maynard flatly concluded. "He's good though. He is good. Tough to beat. He's that guy that's hard to beat, but not the best.

"I think he has three bouts that could've gone either/or, that were very close. And to be honest I scored three of them to the other guy -- the two Edgar's and Gil. But it could've gone either way."