It's strange talking to T.J. Grant. For a fighter who has lost out on not one, but two golden opportunities, he's in pretty good spirits. And for an athlete who is facing the worst injury situation of his career, he's in pretty good shape. Yet, that's his reality. He's done his best to manage everything that's gone wrong without it overrun and derail his still-promising career.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Grant told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "I'm in great shape. I'm kinda just treating my body like I'm getting ready for a fight, like I'm trying to be in the best shape possible minus the sparring at this point.
"I'm feeling pretty good. My goals are to get back in there this fall. It's kinda beyond my control, but I think just being in this state for so long, I know my head's good, but I've been having some issues with my neck and I want to make sure I can get everything sorted out and reset my body. It's been in state for so long that I don't know if it's my brain's telling my body there's pain or there's inflammation or what. Hopefully I can get this fixed up in the next bit."
Grant suffered a concussion in training in July of 2013, which forced him out of a title bout with then champion Ben Henderson. The UFC tried to give him what he had earned since dropping from welterweight to lightweight with a chance to face new champion Anthony Pettis at UFC on FOX 9 in December of that year, but Grant couldn't get the medical clearance.
As it stands, he doesn't know what's next. He told Helwani a return on the October 4th card, which takes place in his hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia, would be ideal, although increasingly impossible.
Grant says like any other lasting injury, some days he feels great. Other days, he doesn't. The key for him is that things are at least trending in the right direction.
"I've been feeling pretty good for a while. If you don't feel normal - and there's definitely been days where, do I feel normal? No - but when I feel good, I feel good. I'm getting pretty close to feeling 100 percent normal, but still a little bit of a hurdle. Actually, I'm going down to Atlanta to see some people. They'll be the same people that Sidney Crosby went down and saw when he had his injury. I'm just optimistic. That's all. That's about it."
Grant says the star NHL player reached out to him after hearing of his issues. They both come from Halifax and are close in age. Grant says he'll visit the concussion specialists in couple of weeks.
In the meantime, though, he's good enough to exercise. Sparring on the feet is out, he claims, but just about everything else is in.
"I can train balls out fitness and all that stuff. I have no ill effects," Grant says. "I roll jiu-jitsu. I hit pads, all that stuff. I get my heart rate through the roof. I'm fine. I'm in great shape. For me, it comes down to...it's just weird. When you don't feel normal, you just don't feel normal. That's kinda where I'm at still. I want to make sure I'm 100 percent. When I am, I'm definitely going to get back in there.
"I was optimistic throughout. I thought I was going to be able to fight at the end of the summer. That didn't happen. I had some issues with my neck and shoulder that were kinda going on for a couple of years. I think when this happened, I think the few things kinda just mixed together. It's all tissue related and I'm hoping to get it fixed soon. I've been doing my part, so hopefully I can get back in there soon."
Thinking back, Grant wondered if this has been a problem of accumulation? Has he had a number of concussions before and didn't take them seriously? At this point, he isn't discounting that possibility, but it's impossible to be sure.
"I got knocked down once in a fight. We've all probably got our bell rung multiple times just being kids, rough kids growing up. I've never had any type of headaches or nausea or any of that stuff. So I'd say that's my first recorded concussion, but as a fighter, it's hard to really put a number on the amount of them."
Grant isn't in his twenties anymore, but is still viable enough as an athlete to train and compete at the highest levels. Well, if he can get medically cleared, that is. But the layoff has been beyond trying. He knows losing out on a number-one contender status is devastating. Having not one, but two title shots taken away is something he may never recover from. He still doesn't know when or if he'll ever return.
That all naturally leads to the question: has he at least thought of retirement? In a candid response, Grant says he did.
"Yup, I did. I probably did that a lot over the winter. It just got frustrating. I just tried take it one day at a time. I love fighting. I don't know what my life would be without somehow being involved in the sport. There were just times where you have all these really negative thoughts and you're bitter and all this other stuff. I feel pretty good. It's all in the past. Still, my health comes number one and my family and all that, but fighting is definitely a huge part of my life. I definitely don't want to go out on that type of note.
"It's been a really different year. When I'm watching the fights, I'm a fan, too. Whether I'm potentially fighting a guy in eight weeks or just watching him on TV, I'll just sit there and enjoy the fights. I'll give my thoughts and everything like that. I just kinda try to take a step back. I can't help but be in the situation I am to look around and....I try not to be bitter. I always look at these guys that are having success. I wouldn't say I'm jealous. I just feel like I can do their job as good or better than they can. That's all I want to do. I just want the opportunity to go out there and do what I want to do. I try not to cry over spilled milk and all I can control is myself, my attitude and what I'm going to do the next day. That's really all I can do."
As for what's next, well, that's anyone's guess. Grant's in shape, for the most part. He's not quite healed, but believes he's making progress. He'll be seeing specialists soon to help facilitate the healing process. And like any other fighter, he's marking out his calendar. He's looking at dates and cities. He's even helping on the P.R. end of things when UFC debuts in Halifax, whether he's on the card or not.
The lightweight fighter is even thinking about who he wants to face next. He's not picky. He just wants to get back in there, pick up where he left off and do what he absolutely loves to do.
"I'd like to fight a high profile opponent. I've been out for a while. Beggars can't be choosers, but I'd love to fight a [Donald] Cerrone or I know Nate Diaz is out. Those two guys would be awesome. I know Khabib [Nurmagomedov]'s out till I think the new year. But there's a whole bunch of other guys that are worthy.
"Like I said," Grant notes. "[I'm] not really that picky, man."