Mixed Martial Arts - Grant faces risk of Canadian glass ceiling

UFC 160 could be the launching pad for Canadian T.J. Grant, but he'll never be top star in his own hometown writes Kevin Iole.

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T.J. Grant chuckles at the thought that he may someday become known as the most famous resident of his hometown.

Maybe in some other sleepy ocean-side town of 25,000, a statue of him would be erected in the town square and he'd be celebrated throughout the years for his athletic feats.

But Grant is from Canada and was born and still lives in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. That pretty much guarantees that, no matter what he's able to accomplish in the UFC, his ceiling is pretty much becoming the town's second-most famous resident.

Cole Harbour, you see, is the birthplace of Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, the NHL's greatest player. And while a popular championship fighter may become more widely known worldwide than a hockey player, it's a massively different story in Canada.

"You know what? Anywhere else in the world, maybe I'd have a shot," he says. "But this is hockey country. This is Canada. Not much chance of [ever surpassing Crosby]. But maybe if things go right, I have a chance to get my name on a sign here."

Since moving to lightweight in 2011, Grant has quietly rolled off four consecutive quality wins and is on the verge of a championship bout.

If he beats Gray Maynard on Saturday at UFC 160 at the MGM Grand Garden, he'll earn a title bout against Benson Henderson.

He was 3-3 in the UFC as a welterweight, alternating between wins and losses. Knowing he was going nowhere quickly, Grant made the decision after a loss to Ricardo Almeida at UFC 124 on Dec. 11, 2010, that he needed to drop to lightweight.

He's been brilliant ever since and has been more impressive with each successive outing, reeling off wins over Shane Roller, Carlo Prater, Evan Dunham and Matt Wiman.

Grant is a modest guy who will never be the loudest in the room, but even as he was up and down in his early UFC days, he paid attention and learned.

"I've enjoyed the ride," Grant said of his rise to UFC prominence. "I've had some setbacks, but I've learned along the way. To get to this point, I'm really thankful and I feel it's also the reason I've had some success. It's not just the weight cut. There were some tough lessons and it was up to me to learn from them and figure out how to get better."

Grant, 29, literally had to fight for everything he has. He wasn't a big bonus baby and didn't get into mixed martial arts with a powerful management team pushing him.

It was a long, hard road, fighting for purses of $400, where he'd spend more to get ready for a bout than he made.

To become remotely good enough to be considered for a UFC title bout, one has to fully commit his or her life to fighting. Grant did that, even though the rewards were sparse for a significant portion of his career.

"I lived poor and broke," he says. "I was living with my mother until after the Johny Hendricks fight [on May 8, 2010 at UFC 113]. It's great to be in the UFC and make some money to be able to support myself, but there were a lot of hard times. I've had to pay my dues.

"I saw a lot of my friends going to school and getting degrees and making money and doing good things. Myself, I was kind of struggling for a while because I wanted [MMA success] so badly, so I made the sacrifices I needed to make to get to where I am."

Grant's first major break came in 2009 when he knocked out Kevin Burns at UFC 107 in just his third UFC bout. He was awarded the Knockout of the Night bonus.

There are scores of tales throughout time of fighters who had nothing suddenly coming into money and blowing their fortunes fairly quickly.

When Grant won that bonus, he did like so many UFC fighters have done and bought himself a car. But it was no Bentley or Lamborghini or other super expensive luxury car.

Grant told the Toronto Globe & Mail that he used his bonus money to buy his first car, a used 2005 Nissan Maxima.

"In this sport, nothing is guaranteed so I wanted to buy a car outright that I could rely on," he told the paper. "It had good reviews. I wanted to get a good, reliable vehicle. I wanted a comfortable vehicle with luxury. I test drove the Nissan Maxima and it had low [mileage] and all that good stuff. And it's been good to me ever since."

If he beats Maynard, he'll be able to afford whatever kind of car he wants, luxury or otherwise. Maynard is the favorite, but Grant is typically undaunted.

He's not the type to boast, yet he lavishes Maynard with praise. But he also makes it clear he won't be intimidated by the moment.

He's eager to test himself against Maynard, who is one of the most accomplished lightweights in the UFC. A win will set him up not only for a title shot but for other significant fights down the line, but Grant isn't the type to look ahead.

"I've gotten where I am by focusing on what I need to do each day to get better," Grant said. "I'm not going to be thinking about Benson [Henderson] or any bonuses or anything else. I'm all about Gray Maynard right now."

If he gets past Maynard and goes on to defeat Henderson to win the title, he might ultimately become more popular than Crosby in a lot of places in the world. But in Cole Harbour, where hockey is No. 1 and Crosby is king, he'll gladly settle for a co-starring role.

If he can approach the kind of success in MMA that Crosby has had in his sport, Grant will have more than enough notoriety for one lifetime, even in hockey-obsessed Cole Harbour.

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