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For Uriah Hall, Saitama was a destination and an arrival

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Esther Lin, Sportsfile

Homecomings can be a little bittersweet, especially in the twisted, merciless game of MMA, where every fight is an intersection of loosely controlled fate. It was nearly seven years ago to the day that Gegard Mousasi, in the midst of a 15-fight winning streak, stunned Ronaldo Souza with an upkick knockout at Dream 6. That happened in Saitama, Japan, on Sept. 23, 2008. It remains one of Mousasi’s most incredible knockouts — not to mention one of a hundred iconic moments that happened at the Saitama Super Arena over the years. In fact, since "Jacare" debuted in the sport in 2003, a span of 12 years and 30 fights, that was the only time anybody has finished him.

Mousasi returned to Saitama on Sept. 27, 2015 for UFC Fight Night 75. His opponent, Uriah Hall, was not a gimme, but he had the kind of fangs that wouldn’t necessarily faze an unsmiling emoticon like Mousasi, who’d seen everyone from Melvin Manhoef (in his prime) to Mark Hunt standing in front of him. The "Dreamcatcher" was a 5-to-1 favorite to beat Hall. And in the first round, that’s what he did. He nonchalantly outclassed Hall for five minutes, in the effortless-seeming way that Mousasi does. It was so one-sided many thought it could have been called a 10-8. The Japanese were golf clapping, but it was a laugher.

Then six seconds into the second round Hall planted his right foot on the "A" in Fight Pass, and with crooked knee spun a back kick into Mousasi face, just as Mousasi was changing levels. Mousasi went careening backwards, and Hall casually blasted him with a flying knee right in the breadbasket. Moments later, Hall had scored what has to be considered an upset of the year contender. Mousasi, who won 5:05 of a fight that went 5:25, caught a dream. He didn’t know the Netherlands from Neverland. He never saw it coming.

Neither did anybody else, though we all knew it was there. As RJ Clifford wrote in four words on Twitter, presumably about Hall, it felt sort of like boom…"blue chip to contender."

At last.

Hall, the boogeyman of The Ultimate Fighter 17, has finally arrived. It took two-and-a-half years and something extraordinary to make that the case. This wasn’t Nodar Kuduxashivilli, it was Gegard freaking Mousasi, who never saw a monster that didn’t amuse him. Hall passed his greatest test to date. He purloined all the mojo in Japan, and rolled it neatly into his carry-on.

What a strange ride it’s been for New Yorker Hall, who is now 31 years old. His expectations were so high it was nearly impossible to meet them.

You might remember that season of TUF because of the ambulances they teased in the previews. Those were for Adam Cella, whom Hall tee’d off on with a spinning hook kick just 10 seconds into the action. It was a cinematic knockout, the kind that just don’t happen in real life, and it left some people a little squeamish afterwards. Notably Hall himself. Exacting that kind of violence on a fellow human being became a conflict of interest for an otherwise gentle fellow. UFC president Dana White may have been in raptures, but Hall experienced remorse.

It didn’t stop him from literally breaking Bubba McDaniel’s face in the next fight, though, or from defeating Dylan Andrews to reach the finale. But it did stop him — or at least make him hesitate — when he fought Kelvin Gastelum in his first official UFC fight. What a thud that thing was. He lost. And it cost him mightily in his next fight against John Howard, when he dropped a cousinly split decision in Boston that had everyone — including White, who hyped him like a big-budget horror film — wondering if he had the stomach to do his job.

Yes Hall retired Chris Leben in a poetic TUF generations bout, but it was a pretty pedestrian decision he won against Thiago Santos, and defeating the church singer Ron Stallings — who stood in against Hall for the injured Costa Philippou on short notice — feels like it shouldn’t count. Nor did he look like a world-beater in yet another split-decision loss against Rafael Natal his next time out.

It seemed Hall was simply never going to recapture those brief moments in 2013 when he unofficially sent dudes to the hospital in a reality television setting.

Until Japan.

The Hall that landed that beautifully-timed, impossibly executed spinning back kick is the one that everyone knew existed, but nobody knew whether or not we’d ever see again. That kick delivered him from the dead middle to the top ten. It landed him back to where he was before he had officially gotten anywhere, and now it’s left to see where it goes.

How quickly these things happen. How slowly.