The reality of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement will fully sink in when a new lightweight king is crowned at UFC 262 this weekend.
Months of limbo, with Dana White desperately clinging to any slither of optimism that his dominant champion would stick around, were finally put to bed in March.
And so now a new era begins without the Russian’s vice-like grip over his 155-pound rivals.
Michael Chandler (left) and Charles Oliveira (right) will compete for the lightweight title
Oliveira has spent most of his career in the UFC with Chandler predominantly in Bellator
Michael Chandler vs Charles Oliveira for the lightweight belt is a fight you’d have found extremely long odds for a year ago.
But the technically gifted Brazilian locks horns with some good old American muscle in the main event on Saturday.
One of them will have their hand raised, belt wrapped around the waist and a guaranteed showdown with either Dustin Poirier or Conor McGregor as their first title defence.
Chandler and Oliveira are chalk and cheese in almost every way. Stylistically, their ability with a microphone shoved in their face, even the way they dress is polar opposite.
And when you examine both men’s route to the biggest fight of their lives, the ride has been very different.
Chandler, now 35, knows he must make hay while the sun shines. Few fighters above his age manage to claim the title, particularly in lighter weight classes.
Chandler won the lightweight title in Bellator with a KO win over Patricky Freire (left)
But he’s ticked every box so far. In January, sharing a stage with McGregor and Poirier in Abu Dhabi, he looked the part and spoke incredibly well too.
You get the feeling that if the UFC could cherry pick a winner on Saturday, Chandler would be their man.
He’s all-American, looks like a champion, sounds like a champion and possesses KO power. Tick, tick and tick.
The stunning UFC debut win over Hooker, a first-round knockout, was mightily impressive and earned him this opportunity.
Hooker went five brutal rounds with Poirier and had previously notched wins over Al Iaquinta, James Vick and Paul Felder so for Chandler to blitz past the Kiwi made fans stand up and take note.
Of course, many MMA enthusiasts already knew all about Chandler. He made his name in Bellator, making his debut for the organisation back in 2010, the same year Oliveira fought in the UFC for the first time.
Chandler defeated Benson Henderson for a second time before moving to the UFC
He won his first nine fights with a mixture of KOs, submissions and decisions, winning the lightweight tournament in the process.
But then the first skid of his career arrived, split-decision defeats by Eddie Alvarez and Will Brooks was followed by a TKO defeat by Brooks in their rematch.
Chandler is nothing if not resilient and turned his fortunes around, winning back the vacant belt from Patricky Freire before defending it against Benson Henderson.
Another setback was around the corner and a doctor’s stoppage against Brent Primus four years ago in New York saw the belt escape his grasp again.
Undeterred, he won it back from Primus the following year before Patricio Freire beat him with a first-round TKO in 2019. Chandler followed up his last defeat with wins over Sidney Outlaw and Henderson before the UFC came calling.
With every run of victories punctuated by a disappointing defeat, fans had no idea what to expect from Chandler against the best of the best in the UFC.
Chandler knocked out Dan Hooker back in January to make a statement on his UFC debut
Oliveira (left) and Chandler (right) are polar opposites in almost every sense
So his KO of Hooker came as fascinating boost to his profile. He is supremely confident of the match-up with Oliveira, telling MMA Fighting: ‘Oliveira’s going to get his clock cleaned.
‘I walk out into a packed arena in Houston, Texas, 19,000 red, white and blue-blooded Americans chanting my name, rooting for me.
‘I go out there and I get in Charles Oliveira’s face immediately and he will realise and feel from the first exchange, from the pressure I put on him, he will immediately start to second guess himself.’
Chandler continued: ‘He will immediately start to overreact. He will immediately start to worry about his legs. I’ll go to his head. I’m going to go to his legs.
‘I’m going to go to his body. I’m going to mix it up. A punch is going to land, he’s going to get his clock cleaned.’
But Oliveira has received his education from the school of hard knocks. He was only 20 when he stepped into the famous octagon for the first time.
Oliveira was just 20 when he made his debut in the UFC and is still going strong
There have been ups and downs for the Brazilian, seen here being submitted by Anthony Pettis
After two submission wins, Oliveira’s mettle was tested for the first time, winning only two of his next seven encounters.
That kind of form has seen the UFC cut fighters from the roster before but there was never any doubting the young man’s ability. Picking and sticking to a weight class was another issue.
The 31-year-old has missed weight four times so far in the UFC and had to compete at a catch-weight as a result.
In recent years, he seems to have fixed those problems and the last mishap was back in 2016.
After his poor run of two wins in seven, the rollercoaster continued for Oliveira, winning four before losing four of his next six between 2015 and 2017.
Oliveira has enduring losing streaks and improved as a fighter now entering his prime
Oliveira, pictured submitting Darren Elkins on debut in 2010, is superb off his back
Then something clicked. The Sao Paulo-born fighter stormed to eight wins in a row, capped off with victories over Kevin Lee and Tony Ferguson.
He is more than deserving of his title shot having grafted hard, fighting 27 times in the UFC alone.
Oliveira is unassuming outside of the cage and his glasses and slender frame make him look more like creative bod at an ad agency than world class fighter.
But he is a killer on the ground and spent his twenties working relentlessly, taking the setbacks and overcoming them to reach this point.
And while Chandler is the antithesis of his opponent this Saturday, both men have overcome bucket-loads of adversity to reach this juncture.
It will be fascinating to see which of their paths finishes with UFC gold.