Three-and-a-half years isn't an eternity, but in the land of combat sports, it can be something close. In this cruel world, fighters can age out in months. When you're talking years, you're talking eras.
Witness, for instance, the story of Chan Sung Jung, who last competed in August 2013 before missing time to an injury and mandatory military service in his native South Korea.
Since then, so much has changed. The UFC was sold, year-round drug testing was implemented, the Ronda Rousey phenomenon came and went. Upon arriving at the arena, he might have been surprised to learn his awesome Korean Zombie T-shirt is no longer welcome at the arena, banned because of the UFC's uniform deal with Reebok.
The game moves fast and leaves stragglers behind.
So 1,282 days later, at UFC Fight Night in Houston on Saturday, Jung returned as a mystery. Such lengthy breaks during a fighter's prime are nearly unprecedented in major MMA. Yet there he was, still just 29 years old and, for onlookers, frozen in time and reputation.
Would he return rusty? As if he hadn’t skipped a beat? Improved?
Anything was possible.
The answer was a combination of it all. But in the end, the Zombie did what the Zombie does, overcoming stacked odds, surviving danger, then eating his opponent's soul.
It was all so perfectly in character.
For a fight that lasted just two minutes and 49 seconds, Jung had his moments of danger, as opponent and betting favorite Dennis Bermudez rocked him twice with overhand rights, the second of them putting Jung on wobbly legs.
The trouble lasted all of 30 seconds. In keeping with his voluminous style, Bermudez reached out to continue peppering Jung. But his jab was long and lazy, and Jung slipped it and countered with a crushing right uppercut that basically put Bermudez's lights out.
Off long layoffs, most fighters will tell you they don't believe in ring rust. They'll tell themselves that too. But afterward, they will acknowledge the truth.
"I definitely felt that way," Jung told FS1's Megan Olivi in the post-fight show. "When the fight started, I was thinking, 'I'm not moving the way I remember or expected.' After I loosened up, things went OK."
Jung just seems to have a knack for generating these kinds of special moments. He is the same man who authored the first and only Twister submission in UFC history, who once scored a seven-second knockout, who won Fight of the Year awards from various publications in both 2010 and 2012.
He is a one-man highlight reel.
The comeback fight against Bermudez was no gimme. In the time Jung had been away, Bermudez had gone 5-2 and clawed his way up to ninth in the UFC rankings.
Jung had beaten higher-ranked fighters before, namely Dustin Poirier, but off such a lengthy layoff, timing becomes an issue that few are able to deftly navigate. Fight speed is always a few ticks faster than sparring and practice, and those milliseconds can mean the difference between connecting and swinging at air, of slipping punches and taking them square.
Against Bermudez, there is precious little time in which to work your way into the speed of the fight. His pace (4.27 strikes landed per minute, according to FightMetric) is unrelenting, and he complements it with a grinding wrestling game.
Bermudez brought that kind of approach to Houston too, and while he struggled in takedowns by missing all three attempts, he hammered Jung from the outside hard enough that in the post-fight interview, Jung said he couldn't remember the immediate aftermath.
That's about as Zombie as it gets.
But he's also mortal, which is to say vulnerable. Both physically and emotionally.
"I'm human too, so there were times I thought, 'Can I keep up with the game? Can I keep developing my techniques?'" Jung said in the post-fight press conference. "That's what I thought. And now I feel like I'm about to cry."
Part of that reaction is personal, based off his own difficult journey; part of it is for his homeland. Jung spent two years in the South Korean military and did so in a time of unrest in the country during the Candlelight Revolution, an ongoing, peaceful revolt against the government.
He said that because of these extraordinary circumstances, he carried dual burdens with him into the cage, but neither weighed him down enough to escape from.
As a result, he's back in the game as a legitimate contender. When Monday's rankings come out, he should easily shoot into the top 10 and restake a claim near the top.
The timing of it all is ideal. After years of dominant rule under Jose Aldo, the featherweight division is suddenly wide-open, with a compromised Aldo tenuously holding his spot at the top, an interim champion rising (Max Holloway) and a fun blend of old war horses (Ricardo Lamas, Cub Swanson) and young blood (Yair Rodriguez, Dooho Choi).
Jung can be slotted into the mix just about anywhere with the promise of action and mayhem to follow. And just like that, he's gone from invisible to contender. From oblivion to atop the world. As if this were a second life. As if he were a Zombie.