Lefko on UFC: Grant in Toronto a ‘no-brainer’

T.J. Grant . (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images)

Now that T.J. Grant has put himself into the picture for the UFC lightweight title against champion Benson Henderson, the company needs to promote him on a card to capitalize on his Canadian roots. But politics could see this fight happen in Beantown instead of Hogtown.

While the UFC 165 card in Toronto on Sept. 21 seems a no-brainer – to borrow a Dana White expression – Aug. 17 in Boston on the first UFC on FOX Sports 1 card may be more likely. The particulars of both cards have not been announced, but there are compelling reasons to place the bout in Boston.

This will be the fourth card in Toronto since the Ontario government approved the licensing of professional Mixed Martial Arts fights. The first one was an event that drew a record UFC of 55,724, but the next two, which have taken place in a venue with only a third of the size, have gradually lessened that initial euphoria. It has become the equivalent of drinking a cool beer on a hot day: The first is great, but the law of diminishing returns declines with each one.

It is now the true UFC fans who come to the cards, rather than those who just wanted to see and be seen at the first one. Tickets are much easier to come by without outrageous, exorbitant prices. Each of the Toronto cards has had a title fight, so it would seem the same thing is needed this time.

But because this will be the first card broadcast on FOX Sports 1, you just know it will have to be big to commemorate the occasion. It wouldn’t be surprising if the UFC tries to make this a blockbuster with two title fights, like launching a ship by breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow.

Grant is 5-0 since dropping down from welterweight to lightweight and disposed of Gray Maynard in a first-round technical knockout this past Saturday at UFC 160. In effect, he may have created a different thinking for the UFC if it was poised to make Henderson’s next fight in Boston, which has been rumoured. Henderson versus Maynard would have been two Americans, one the current champion and the other who has yet to feel the belt around his waist despite two shots.

Henderson is coming off of a controversial split-decision win in April over Gilbert Melendez, and many critics suggested an immediate rematch was in order rather than a No. 1-contender bout to face Henderson. Some were saying Henderson versus Josh Thomson, who scored a knockout win over Nate Diaz on the same card as the Henderson/Melendez bout, should also be considered.

But White had determined ahead of the Grant-Maynard fight that whoever won would be given the chance to fight for the title. Grant’s absolute dismantling of Maynard, which earned the Canadian Knockout of the Night honours, stamped him as deserving of the chance to fight the champion. Grant signed his presence for the title shot with his fists.

He also has put himself in a position to carry the Canadian torch when Georges St-Pierre retires. All along it had been Rory MacDonald who has been portrayed as the heir apparent to GSP as the next great Canadian, but injuries have pushed back his ambitious dreams to become a champion by the age of 24. He turns 24 on July 22 and five days later is slated to fight Jake Ellenberger on a UFC on FOX card. Even with a win he can’t be vaulted into a title shot, and independent of that both he and GSP, who are training partners, have said they would never fight one another. Something will have to give, with either St-Pierre retiring, moving up in class or MacDonald moving to lightweight or middleweight.

MacDonald’s stock has fluctuated because of missed fights due to injury and if he beats Ellenberger, who has been moving up the ranks with victories in his last two fights, his next opponent would likely be Carlos Condit, the only one who has beaten him in 15 bouts. The fight against Ellenberger will be anything but a walkover for MacDonald.

Moving from welterweight to lightweight really advanced Grant’s career. In his six previous fights in the UFC, he had a record of 3-3. He had a pattern of a win followed by a loss followed by a win in those fights and clearly was going nowhere in that division.

He fought on the UFC 152 card in Toronto last year and scored a unanimous win over Evan Dunham in what deemed to be the Fight of the Night. He continues to impress with each outing, racking up bonuses and now a title shot. It’s a feel-good story if ever there was one.

Henderson fought on that historic UFC card in Toronto, facing Canadian Mark Bocek in the first bout of the main card. He was raising his arms after the bout thinking he had won and the partisan crowd booed him and ramped it up when he was named the winner. It was his UFC debut and he has clearly evolved since that time, so his return to Toronto makes him more marketable now.

Henderson has not lost in seven successive bouts, has won the lightweight belt and has defended it three times. Granted he was a lightweight champion in World Extreme Cagefighting, but he had to work his way up again when he became part of the UFC.

Grant was born in Halifax and fights out of the city’s suburban community in Cole Harbour, N.S., the same town which produced NHL superstar Sidney Crosby and future star Nathan MacKinnon. He led the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to victory in the Memorial Cup, the equivalent of the Stanley Cup for major juniors in Canada, on Sunday, one night after Grant’s huge win. Suffice to say, the Haligonians are going through hoops of elation over these developments.

So take a kid from the same area as Sid The Kid and Nathan The Next One and bring him to Toronto where people go nuts for hockey, in particular the Maple Leafs. Grant, quiet and unassuming outside the cage but showing a different side inside of it, would be a great draw in Toronto. You know in his heart he would want to fight in his home country in a title fight. But if the fight takes place in Boston, he’s not going to complain.

Right now, Grant has no nickname, unlike his last opponent, who has the moniker Bully, or his future opponent, known as Smooth. If he wins his next fight, he will become known as The Champ. He must be champing at the bit.

Give him his due and make this fight happen in his home country, which White has called the mecca of mixed martial arts, in a true Canadiana card. Then again, the business of television and a strategic partnership might make it that it makes more sense to have it on American soil.

In Canada, Grant would be the feature story over the champion, but in the U.S. celebrating an American champion who was raised by a single parent and overcame a lot of obstacles also makes for compelling TV.

It will be interesting to see where the Henderson-Grant match is placed. This is one of those examples where the business of the fight game isn’t as easy as it seems.

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