As a former stuntman, Dwight Grant had been in more frightening situations, namely making a nine-foot jump off a New York City skyscraper to a ledge below just days before a fight. But when he got a dose of reality from American Kickboxing Academy head coach Javier Mendez early in his stay at the renowned California gym in 2013, he admits to being a little shaken up.
“When I came to AKA, I wanted to go to the UFC,” recalls Grant. “I had just finished trying out for The Ultimate Fighter show and I felt like I deserved to be on the show and deserved to fight. And I saw the season play out on TV, and I said I can definitely hang with these guys. But then, I still didn’t have the confidence. Then Jav said something to me when I first got there that actually terrified me.”
“You’re good enough to be in the UFC now, and you’ll beat a lot of guys because you’re tough, but the top guys will destroy you and you’ll be stuck in the middle,” Mendez told the newcomer.
“That was the most terrifying thing,” explains Grant. “It wasn’t about getting destroyed; it was about being stuck in the middle, the idea that I couldn’t be the best and I would be beaten by the top guys. After that, I started training on my own more, training at the gym harder, and I built this confidence where I felt I could beat anybody.”
Today, the 33-year-old Grant is a member of the UFC’s welterweight roster after scoring a blistering second-round knockout over Tyler Hill on the June 19 edition of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. He couldn’t be happier, and again, it’s not for reasons you would normally expect.
“I’ve seen situations where I had one guy telling me he doesn’t want to fight me and another guy is telling me he can’t fight,” Grant said. “And then I watch those two guys fight each other. (Laughs) It’s crazy and I’ve seen it happen so many times that it became disheartening. It started to really affect me in a personal way. I started to feel like my time’s being wasted, I’m training for these fights, then they’re getting canceled for silly reasons. And now I’m in place where people have to fight me. Even though it’s more dangerous, that’s what gets me excited about it. It’s the perfect situation for me.”
Just like Northern California and AKA have been the perfect situation for the Kung Fu fighter from Brooklyn who saw his early career stagnate after he ran out to a 3-1 record on the east coast MMA scene. He needed a change, and that meant getting out of New York.
“I had been fighting in New York for so long that there was no way I could train anywhere in New York because I fought everybody from every gym, so I’m not gonna be welcome,” he laughs. Next it was off to Las Vegas, but nothing clicked there. But after speaking to a friend who had a cousin at AKA, Grant decided to give the home of the likes of Cormier, Nurmagomedov, Velasquez and Rockhold a shot. That was March 2013. By August he was living in California.
“It’s pretty amazing because I left here with a dream, and it was so sudden,” Grant said of the move. “I made the decision and I know it seemed crazy to people. They were like, ‘This guy just said he was gonna move, and now he’s living in California.’ But I was completely obsessed with becoming successful in MMA, and I made the sacrifices I had to.”
That doesn’t mean it was easy for a New Yorker to get acclimated to the Bay Area.
“I would walk super-fast, always looking over my shoulder all the time,” he said. “My friends would be saying, ‘What’s your rush?’”
That’s when he was able to walk. In New York, public transportation can get you anywhere. That’s not necessarily the case in San Jose.
“I’ve been to other countries…” Grant begins.
“And it was easier,” I interrupt.
“At least in other countries, people expect you not to understand,” he laughs. “I didn’t start driving until I got to California. People were like, ‘You don’t have a car?’ I stayed in a place that was 14.8 miles away from AKA. My friend used to give me a ride, but he had to go to Paris for two weeks, so the only way I could get to the gym was to borrow a bike and ride the bike all the way to the gym, spar with Luke (Rockhold), train with everybody else and then ride the bike all the way back.”
It was an exhausting two weeks, and not just because of the gym and the commute back and forth.
“I was not just getting exhausted, but my behind was sore from riding that bike,” he said. “During training, I wouldn’t even want to sit down. I would literally fight takedowns just so I wouldn’t land on my behind because it hurt so much.”
I can almost hear Mendez telling the troops, “Look at Grant, he’s not even taking a break and sitting down. And he’s defending all those takedowns.”
Grant can laugh about those days now, and even on the rough ones, he was embracing everything that was being thrown at him.
“The structure of the training was so great because it was like a seminar every day,” he said. “I’m taking notes on everything. As soon as I would leave practice, I would go to my phone and write down all this stuff. I would take pictures on the internet and make diagrams, all kinds of stuff just so I would be able to take it in because it was way over my head. I didn’t even understand some of the terms they were using – I had to Google it. But that’s what drew me to AKA. I know it sounds cheesy, but martial arts, for me, is a journey and the whole point of it is to become a better man and to learn and gain wisdom.”
And when everything comes together, you put it into practice on fight night. And Grant did just that. Since moving to California, he’s gone 5-0 with three knockouts, the biggest of which was delivered with the pressure at its highest. But Grant doesn’t get rattled by much. Remember, this is a guy who used to jump off buildings.
“Stuntman, professional skateboarder, I wanted to do everything,” he said. “But everything pales in comparison to the joy I get from fighting.”