HOUSTON — Two days after federal health officials rescinded most masking and distancing recommendations for fully vaccinated Americans, more than 16,000 fans packed Toyota Center for UFC 262 on Saturday, nearly filling the arena for the first time in a year and attracting fans across state lines in search of a full-capacity event to relieve their pandemic fatigue.

Toyota Center usually hosts the Houston Rockets, who had 3,803 in attendance for their win over the Los Angeles Clippers the night before.

Outside the arena Saturday, long lines sprouted from the entrances more than seven hours before the main card began around 10 p.m., with some fans standing in heels, others wearing cowboy hats, UFC shirts and at least one pair of American flag dungarees.

Six friends traveled from Louisiana because UFC 262 was the closest full-capacity sporting event they could attend. One couple considered flying from Seattle to Jacksonville, Fla., for UFC 261 last month. They came to Houston for Saturday’s fight instead.

Those who joined them witnessed Charles Oliveira’s ascension to the lightweight throne after he scored a shocking knockout victory over Michael Chandler. He fills the void left by former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who retired after unifying the divisional belt in October.

A rapturous crowd chanted “U-S-A!” in the first round, during which Oliveira survived a barrage from Chandler, an American favored by many. But early in the second round, the crowd roared when Oliveira caught Chandler with a left hook and pounced. The Brazilian pummeled Chandler before referee Dan Miragliotta called the fight 19 seconds into the round.

Elsewhere on the main card, Beneil Dariush dominated Tony Ferguson in their lightweight bout in the co-main event. Rogerio Bontorin and Katlyn Chookagian won unanimous decisions over Matt Schnell and Viviane Araujo, respectively.

UFC 261, the promotion’s first full capacity event in more than a year, brought more than 15,000 fans to VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville last month. UFC President Dana White called the scene “insane” and hailed the event as a reason to reinstate normalcy, even though coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths were slightly up in Florida over the two weeks preceding the event. A quarter of the state’s population had been fully vaccinated at the time, and medical experts said large indoor gatherings carried added risk.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cited the accessibility and efficacy of vaccines in the CDC’s Thursday announcement relaxing past recommendations. But she reiterated that those who are not vaccinated remain at risk for mild or severe illness and death and should still wear masks.

Neither infection rates nor CDC advisories mattered to some who attended UFC 262 in Texas, where 40.7 percent of the population had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Saturday. Close to a third of the population (32 percent) has been fully immunized. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have decreased in Harris County, where Houston is located.

The governor’s push to reopen the state in March irked local officials, who saw his lifting of the state’s mask mandate and the loosening of capacity restrictions as reckless. But White saw the same thing that excited some fans who traveled from more restrictive areas to attend Saturday’s event: freedom.

Kevin and Lena Wise considered traveling from Seattle to Jacksonville for last month’s event but opted for UFC 262 instead. Neither has been vaccinated, although they planned to receive their first shot before they left. They wore black masks around their wrists Saturday.

“We haven’t been to a sporting event or a concert or anything in over a year, so yeah, we were psyched to come out here with full capacity,” Kevin Wise said.

Wise wasn’t alone. Many attendees did not wear masks Saturday, including Oscar Ysassi.

Ysassi traveled from Victoria, about 120 miles southwest of Houston, to attend the event with friends. He has been fully vaccinated for nearly two weeks and feels safe enough to shed his mask as he eases back into “normal life.”

“It’s nice to see a whole bunch of people again,” he said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been out to a big ol’ gathering like this where there’s a bunch of people. I think the last time was about a month or so before covid actually started. I kind of miss it. … It’s awesome to see.”

That elation morphed into stimulation for fighters, who fed off the crowd’s chants and howls.

“I really, really miss everybody. Especially for my style, every time I connect some good shots, they [say,] ‘Ohhh!’ It motivates me to keep going,” said Edson Barboza, who landed 98 significant strikes in his knockout win over Shane Burgos. “Especially when I connect, I feel the ripple, it keeps pushing me. That’s different. When you have nobody there, you don’t feel this push.”

Flyweight Andrea Lee hails from Atlanta, Tex., a city of about 5,500 people near the Arkansas border. She defeated Antonina Shevchenko in the prelims, earning raucous cheers before the full crowd settled in.

“Man, I’m excited to have the fans back. The energy was there for this fight,” she said. “My last fight in Vegas, I just felt like there was no energy. I felt flat. I think not having the crowd there really played a part because I feed off of the energy of the crowd and, man, tonight it just felt so good.”

The UFC next has full-capacity events scheduled in Glendale, Ariz., (June 12) and Las Vegas (July 9). But after two packed events, White still feels limited as the promotion explores locations for future pay-per-view events. He said he will only go to cities that are “100 percent open.”

“Vegas is rockin’ and booming. You come to Texas, you go to Florida, people are living normal lives. But you start thinking about where we take this thing next, a lot of these states are still really, really closed down,” he said.

“It’s all going to depend on how the rest of the country and the rest of the world plays out over the next six to eight months. I could see us doing Texas and Florida again this year if stuff doesn’t change.”

Read more: