Ferguson (25-7 MMA, 15-5 UFC) reverted back to his old, elusive self in the opening moments of the clash between the two lightweights, clipping Chandler (23-7 MMA, 2-2 UFC) and landing some significant blows, particularly one to his right eye. Chandler finished the round with momentum off a takedown doubled with his ground-and-pound, but there was already swelling under his eye.
"My vision was affected," Chandler said. "Tony is awkward and long. He throws those punches from odd angles, and he ended up catching me. The eye bothered me in between rounds."
In an instant, Chandler's dreams of UFC glory seemed to evaporate. It appeared that Chandler, the former face of Bellator, had arrived a few years too late to the UFC after signing in September of 2021, spending the prime of his career outside the octagon.
After an impressive victory in his UFC debut against Dan Hooker, there were back-to-back losses suffered against Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje. Suddenly, it felt like there was an impending market correction coming on Chandler; there was no doubt he was skilled enough to be great in Bellator, but a loss against Ferguson – who entered the bout having dropped three in a row – would be a devastating result. A loss would make him drop to the bottom of the top-10 rankings, ending any shot of competing for the title or even getting a career-defining bout against Conor McGregor. But before too much doubt crept into Chandler's mind, he was back on his feet.
And then the second round started.
Chandler stepped toward Ferguson, saw an opening and laid into his opponent with a front face kick that looked more like a 60-yard field goal attempt.
Ferguson was out cold.
Only 17 seconds into the round, the fight was over.
Chandler seized the moment, nearly kicking Ferguson's head off in the process.
"It's the exact opposite of the way I planned it," Chandler said, speaking with Sports Illustrated following the victory. "The distance didn't seem perfect to me. I just threw something up the middle, and it landed. Then I felt the impact and saw him crumble.
"I never, ever thought I would have thrown a front kick and knocked him out. But here we are."
The extent of the blow was noticeable instantaneously, a vicious shot that carried with it the potential to cause significant damage. Further compounding the moment was Ferguson spiking his head as he dropped onto the mat. When Ferguson was flipped over, he was knocked out with his eyes still open, one of the more frightening moments of the sport, though it was reassuring to see him eventually stand up for the final decision.
"When I landed the kick, the moment got the better of me," said Chandler. "I started with my backflips, my celebration. Then I looked over and saw Tony was still on the ground, and that's when I decided to tone it down. My heart goes out to Tony for a speedy recovery."
A world of possibility now exists for Chandler. He thrust himself back in the mix for the vacant lightweight title. He is cutting better post-fight interviews than ever, and he has genuinely sparked the interest of fight fans. As for his future, all signs point to a showdown against McGregor, an icon of the sport.
At this stage of his immense popularity and power, McGregor only accepts fights against opponents that can sell the fight with him. There are only a rare few who fit that description, and with McGregor likely believing he possesses the type of power that will knock out the former three-time Bellator lightweight champ, this suddenly is the perfect time for McGregor to make Chandler his dance partner for his next bout.
"I've quickly become that guy, the one who's going to put butts in seats, sell pay-per-views, and brings it in the cage," Chandler said. "That's what Conor wants and what he needs. I'm just the guy to do it, and I want to fight the best on the biggest platform possible. That's why I'm here.
"My eyes are set on the title, but if that's not happening, Conor makes a lot of sense. We'll see what Dana and the boys come up with."
Knocking out Ferguson opened up new life for Chandler, and he is ready to seize the moment.
"I feel the best I ever have," Chandler said. "I have a beautiful wife and two baby boys to fight for, which gives me even more confidence to pursue God's best for my life. I feel like I'm right where I am supposed to be. I love fighting for the UFC, and I am going to do all I can to win that title."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.