A year ago at this time, TJ Grant had just earned a yeoman’s decision over Carlo Prater, to the attention of almost nobody. He was 2-0 since moving down to the lightweight division, but there was a colony of contenders well ahead of him in what had become the UFC’s most competitive weight class.
That’s when the pride of Nova Scotia began crashing through all the obstacles in his way.
Grant, a perennial undercard name to this point, surprised many by beating the brakes off of Evan Dunham at UFC 152 for three rounds. That performance was good enough for fight of the night honors, and set him up for a confrontation with the surging Matt Wiman. This was a bout of classic matchmaking: It was two heads of momentum coming together on national television, with an unspoken understanding that top ten status was on the line. Entering the fight, Wiman had won five of six, and had just derailed Paul Sass a couple of months earlier in Nottingham.
Once again, most didn’t see Grant coming. And once again, Grant forced our eyes open with his poised no-nonsense dominance, this time finishing Wiman in the first round by letting his hands (and elbows) go. It was the first time Wiman had been finished since catching that famous flying knee from Spencer Fisher at UFC 60 in his promotional debut.
Grant, the soft-spoken redhead from the remote northeastern town of Cole Harbour, had arrived. That TKO was how he kicked off 2013.
The thing is, Grant’s encore at UFC 160 in May was better still, even if the stakes were sliding. When he battled Gray Maynard in Las Vegas, the promise was that the winner would get the next crack at Benson Henderson’s title. However, this promise was somewhat qualified, aimed more directly at Maynard, who had hovered as the No. 1 contender since defeating Clay Guida. Maynard was guaranteed a shot with a win. For the lesser-known Grant, Dana White later admitted, he needed to win and do it emphatically to get his chance at the gold.
So what did Grant do? He won. Emphatically. He came in and knocked the bluster from Maynard early, before pursuing him around the cage and delivering power shot after power shot until Maynard slipped to the floor for good. A little more than two minutes into the biggest fight of his career, Grant emerged as the No. 1 contender in a weight class that hadn’t exactly budgeted for woodwork contenders. If his approach seemed quiet, it’s because we weren’t listening. Grant pulled the trick of dawning on everybody slowly and all at once.
His impressive victories over Wiman and Maynard at the halfway point of 2013 is good enough to stick him at the top of this list. Now 5-0 since moving from welterweight to 155 pounds, Grant has earned his shot at Henderson and presents himself as a more than capable challenge.
You know what that means? He’s a win away from becoming fighter of the year.
No. 2: Vitor Belfort. What can you say about Belfort, who at 36 years old has become one of the game’s more divisive figures, yet keeps drawing X’s over guys' eyes? To close out 2012, he jarred Jon Jones’ arm off its moorings in an otherwise one-sided fight. That was what it was. In 2013, though, he kept Michael Bisping from getting a title shot by headkicking him senseless, and then followed that up with a spinning-heel kick KO of Luke Rockhold. With the new mohawk as his warrior’s mane, the old lion roars on.
No. 3: Josh Burkman. In some ways, the World Series of Fighting couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. Jon Fitch, who was ranked No. 8 on ESPN.com’s welterweight rankings heading into his fight with Burkman, was a unique sort of UFC castoff who was supposed to rule his new terrain. That would have only served to show the depth of the UFC, that an expendable piece could be king elsewhere. Instead, it took Burkman 41 seconds to make a case that the face of the WSOF promotion was there all along. And how impressive was that choke?
No. 4: Pat Curran. Speaking of faces of their given promotion, Pat Curran -- together with Michael Chandler -- has become exactly that for Bellator. Curran hasn’t looked back since his 2011 loss to Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight belt. As a natural featherweight, he’s gone 6-0 and now sits among the best in the world at that weight class. So far in 2013 he’s held court, too: a hard-fought victory over Patricio Freire, followed by a first-round submission of Shahbulat Shamhalaev. At 25, he’s only getting better.
No. 5: Glover Teixeira. Teixeira has won what feels like 85 fights in a row (19 to be exact), and is 4-0 in the UFC. This would have most people in his position calling for an imminent title shot. Teixeira, on the other hand, is happy to just keep knocking the guy in front of him down. Adding Quinton Jackson and James Te-Huna this year to his long casualty list is enough to inflate the imagination as to what challenges he could present Jon Jones. By the end of 2013, we might just be in the shotgun seat to find out.