SPORTS

UFC lightweight contender T.J. Grant continues long, slow concussion comeback

10/03/2014 10:15 EDT | Updated 12/03/2014 05:59 EST
HALIFAX - Back at UFC 160, T.J. Grant showed his championship mixed martial arts credentials by earning a lightweight title shot with an impressive knockout of Gray (The Bully) Maynard.

Entering the MGM Grand Garden Arena to Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" — his usual soundtrack, chosen after seeing boxer Mickey Ward walk out to it in 2002 — the lightweight from Cole Harbour, N.S., knocked out Maynard in the first round to earn a 155-pound title shot.

The first minute of the fight belonged to Maynard, who landed some hard shots. But the rest belonged to Grant, who put Maynard down with a right to the jaw and then swarmed him at the fence. The Canadian fired knees and punches until the referee stepped in to save a dazed Maynard two minutes seven seconds into the fight.

"Huge, huge victory for T.J. Grant," said UFC commentator Joe Rogan. "What an impressive knockout, in the most important fight of his career."

The win, his fifth straight since dropping down to lightweight, earned Grant a US$50,000 bonus for knockout of the night and a shot at then-world champion Benson (Smooth) Henderson.

"Nothing but respect. But hey, I want to fight the champ, I want to be the champ," Grant said in the cage that night. "Let's do it."

Today, the euphoria of May 25, 2013, seems a distant memory.

Saturday's televised show in Grant's backyard represents the 56th UFC card since he battered Maynard. And the Canadian contender has not been a part of any of them.

Two weeks after the Maynard win, Grant was hit in the head by his training partner's foot during a jiu-jitsu session. Later in the session, he used his head to stop a sweep and was hit again.

"I don't know which one it was,'' he said of the head blows. "All I know is just when I was done training, I didn't feel right.''

Diagnosed with a concussion, the 30-year-old has not sparred since.

A proud, private man, Grant (21-5) is reluctant to do much media these days. He wants to focus on getting well, rather than rehash his medical problems.

It has been one step forward, one step back. A frustrating, bumpy road back. And while acknowledging he was "on the cusp of being able to secure my future," he is not complaining.

"I'm making improvements, basically," Grant said in an interview this week. "It's a slow process. Nothing really new to report. Getting some good direction, trying to do my best."

There is no quick fix for a concussion. Every one is different. And unlike a broken leg or surgically repaired knee, there is no set return date.

At a news conference in August to promote the Halifax card, Grant seemed more optimistic.

"I'm near the end of it, and I'm looking forward to resuming my career soon," he told reporters. "I hope to be ready to fight this fall."

Summer is over and Grant's plans have changed.

"For me, it's just really up and down, hit or miss," he said. "I'll say one thing one day and I'll feel good and the next day I won't. I've decided to just kind of take a little step back, put my career on hold and just do what I've got to do to get better."

Grant looks good, lean and in shape. He works out but doesn't spar. But some days, going to the gym turns out to be a bad idea.

"You don't really want to go roll around with people when you have a headache."

It's doubly painful because training is what he loves to do.

And there seems no rhyme or reason to it. "Sometimes you don't know what you did," he said of setbacks.

He follows his sport closely, watching every show he can. And he is grateful for the support he gets daily, often from people he doesn't know.

But he doesn't want to be a sad-story poster boy, one of the reasons he has limited interviews.

By all rights, his story should be that of a blue-collar athlete who turned himself into a hard-nosed, prickly opponent with multiple weapons, a fighter who dropped down a weight class and became a dangerous contender.

There are no airs to Grant, who knows the value of honesty and hard work. But sadly character doesn't factor into concussion comebacks.

Grant has had plenty of help in recent months, from medical experts to other athletes. Fellow Cole Harbour native Sidney Crosby reached out to share his concussion experiences.

"It really meant a lot," said Grant.

He tries to apply discipline to his recovery, for example watching what he eats — which he admits wasn't easy at the beginning when he couldn't train.

The fighter remains optimistic and has no plans to retire. But he knows he has to put his chosen profession on the side. For how long, he doesn't know.

"I'm know I'm going to get back to 100 per cent. I just don't know exactly when that's going to be."

The Halifax show represents another missed opportunity for Grant, the flag-bearer for MMA in the region.

Anthony (Showtime) Pettis replaced him at UFC 163 in August 2013 and dethroned Henderson. Grant, still not feeling right, then had to withdraw from a scheduled December 2013 title fight with Pettis.

On the plus side, Grant has the support of a sizable family. He grew up with four older brothers. His mother was one of nine kids and his father one of 14. At a recent family reunion, he discovered he had 50 first cousins.

At home, one-year-old daughter Casey keeps Grant and wife Belinda busy.

"She's awesome," Grant said of the little one. "She's tons of fun. Every day is like a new journey. She's doing something different. It keeps you on your toes."

Kids, Grant has learned, are quick learners.

"They just watch you and they see what you're doing. The next thing you know they're imitating," he said.

"You've got to make sure you're holding yourself to the highest standards, so you're not teaching them any bad habits," he said with a laugh.

Unfortunately for Grant, he also stands as a reminder of concussion — a confusing, debilitating injury that is no stranger to combat sports.

Athletic commissions routinely hand out medical suspensions to the victim of a knockout. But in a sport where you have to compete to get paid, the pressure to return to action quickly is intense.

Grant was fortunate in winning three UFC bonus cheques worth $180,000, which no doubt have helped matters although a hefty chunk of that goes to the taxman. He bought a Nissan Maxima with his first bonus cheque, for knocking out Kevin Burns at UFC 107.

Speaking last year, UFC president Dana White said concussions are monitored closely. Often fighters have to be cleared by a doctor before they can step back into the cage after a bad loss.

Injuries in training are tougher to monitor, he acknowledged.

"We can't baby-sit everybody. We can't police grown men,'' White said prior to UFC 165. "We can lay down the rules.

"If you are on a three month suspension because you were hit in the head or whatever your deal is in a fight and you go back into the gym and start sparring again, first of all you're a moron. No 2, the people who handle you probably don't care about you.''

Grant knows he is not alone.

"I'm not going to say it doesn't happen in this sport because you see it happen on every fight card," said Grant. "Like I said, everybody's different ... some people don't get symptoms. I'm just trying to deal with what I've got right now."

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