Justin Van Heerden had reached a fork in the road in early 2021.
He held a 6-4 professional MMA fight record, but the 27-year-old was ready to take his career to the next level. And when an opportunity to train with UFC world featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski emerged, Van Heerden couldn't say no.
The South African-born athlete was invited by Volkanovski's coach Joe Lopez to undertake a grueling two-day trial at Windang's Freestyle Fighting Gym.
He took the opportunity with both hands, and was asked to return on a permanent basis. The only catch? Van Heerden, his partner and their young daughter were settled in Brisbane.
"I needed to find that next thing to ensure that I continue to get to the destination I want to. Things were a bit up in the air for me and I feel like I had plateaued at my (previous) gym," Van Heerden told the Mercury.
"Joe wanted me to come check out the area, see if I gelled with everyone and made sure it's something I wanted to do before making this crazy decision to come down.
"After the trials, I went back to Queensland and five days later, they told me I was successful and they wanted me to join the team. I sat down my partner because it was a big thing to pack up and move: my daughter was only four months old. But my partner provided me with that final push to do it."
Van Heerden's family moved two months ago and he trains full-time in Windang. It was a gamble that proved worthwhile.
"Everyone I've met and deal with on a daily basis is incredible and it's ridiculously beautiful down here," Van Heerden said.
"I immediately felt a boost across the board with the work that I was already doing, with Joe's coaching and training daily alongside Alex. There is so much knowledge and experience in the room, you can't help but get addicted to the work ethic that Alex puts in. You see how hard he's pushing and you think 'he's the world champion in my weight class. If that's the level I aspire to get to, this is the work that needs to be done'. It's been an instant level up for me to be here."
It's also proven to be a surreal experience. In his first week, Van Heerden went toe-to-toe with Volkanovski.
"It was his first time sparring me and it was the first time I'd gone a round against him, and you're trying to figure things out. Five minutes later, he had an answer for everything that I was doing. He had broken me down completely," he said. "In that five-minute period, he'd already made an assessment and I was thinking 'what the heck is going on'? I couldn't put anything together, and that's when you realise that's the work that's been done for years and years. That's why he's the world champion."
That's when you realise that's the work that's been done for years and years. That's why he's the world champion.- Justin Van Heerden
And while Volkanovski boasts a 22-1-0 UFC fight record, Van Heerden has been inspired by his mentor's generosity outside the cage.
"The biggest thing for me, outside of being able to train with someone like that, is his time. He will be in camp training, he's grinding it out, but he's still there coaching the other guys," he said.
"He will help you out with things. If you say 'hey, I'm finding trouble with this, what can I do?' And he will give you 15 options of how you can adjust things and make it better. He's just completely selfless, even if he's just gone a crazy session and is probably absolutely wrecked and just wants to go and relax. But he'll stay back and be like 'what do you need to do? Let me show you this, let me show you that'.
"It's a pretty awesome character trait to have and it speaks volumes of the kind of person he is."
Van Heerden will look to put some of those lessons into practise when he fights Michael Barber in Melbourne this Friday night. The featherweight bout is part of a full card at Eternal MMA 59
It will be the South African-born athlete's first fight since November, when he beat Toby Meech with a first round, rear naked choke.
Van Heerden was then set to take on Ryan Gray the following month, but the fight was canned due to Covid.
Van Heerden, nicknamed "The Springbok", has already had three bouts called off in 2021. Two of those fights were meant to be against Barber. Covid again ruined the first bout, but it was their last cancellation that caused friction between the pair.
A late withdrawal in the Eternal Bantamweight Grand Prix on the Gold Coast saw organisers ask Van Heerden at the last minute to fight in the bantamweight class, meaning he had to drop weight quickly.
"I was cutting weight with the team's dietitian because it was obviously more than I'd usually have to drop in a very short timeframe," he said. "I got to a kilo or two kilos off, but we got to a point where it was not going to be a good thing. You can push yourself through and make weight, but it's going to have a detrimental effect on you. So Joe made the call that that was enough and it didn't work out."
The situation also meant that Van Heerden's fight with Barber was postponed. Instead, they will now meet in Barber's hometown, setting up a tantalising bout on Friday night.
"Naturally there was frustration and emotion on his end. It all blew up on social media and he went out of his way to say a bunch of things," Van Heerden said.
"But I'm looking forward to it. I've put in the work. My plan is to get there and do what I need to do, get the win, get this past me and go onto the next thing.
"After this fight, I'd like to get at least another three or four fights in this year. I'd like to get on a decent win streak and get my record to a 10-4 scenario, and see what options come my way."
And, of course, Volkanovski will cheer on Van Heerden when he fights in Melbourne. The world champion himself has been impressed by the 27-year-old's work ethic.
"Justin was welcomed as part of the team and it's not just about the skills, it's about being a good training partner too. You've got to be helpful because we have a family vibe. You need to be that type of guy who will always put their hand up to clean the gym and do all of that type of stuff," he said.
"Justin has all of that, and he's got some skills as well. He's got a few fights under his belt and he's got that drive. He brought his whole family down here so he's obviously hungry, and he's committed to what he does. And that goes a long way."