Big Buck's won his fourth Ladbrokes World Hurdle in great style at Cheltenham.
Ruby Walsh went to the front just before the home turn with Oscar Whisky, Thousand Stars and Voler La Vedette all seemingly cruising in his slipstream.
However, the first-two mentioned weakened quickly when push came to shove and it was left to the Colm Murphy-trained mare to give the champion a race.
And that she did, as Andrew Lynch was still motionless jumping the final obstacle, yet Big Buck's just kept on finding more as Walsh applied the pressure.
The four-time champion, winning his 16th race in succession, is one of the all-time greats of the sport and he was one-and-three-quarter lengths ahead at the line.
Smad Place ran on well for third and was a further seven lengths back from Voler La Vedette.
Cross Kennon and Five Dream, Big Buck's stablemate, made the running with Big Buck's unusually quite close up from early on.
Mourad forced the pace some way out with Big Buck's moving into second place and Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars waiting in the wings.
Big Buck's had those under control but then Lynch played his cards late on the Colm Murphy-trained mare Voler La Vedette.
The two horses switched positions on the run to the final flight with Big Buck's moving out to the centre of the course and Voler La Vedette to the nearside rail.
There was still all to play for on the final slog up the punishing hill but Big Buck's had been there so many times before that he was not going to surrender his record, even against such a worthy opponent.
The win was as much a relief as joy for Nicholls, who had seen several of his horses run disappointingly since Rock On Ruby won the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday.
Walsh said: "He's an amazing horse. We went a good gallop and sprinted off the bend when he got to the running rail.
"The way Paul's horses had been running they were starting to doubt but boy this lad is good.
"I rode him much handier than last year - they were all speed horses, Thousand Stars, Oscar Whisky, So Young, but the only one that stayed was this lad.
"He's just a great horse and thank God I ride him."
Nicholls said: "I was getting a bit worried as we'd been totally out of form and out of luck since Rock On Ruby the other day, but this lad is all class.
"We needed to ride him like that today as we've thought for a long time that to get the best out of him we need to make it a test.
"He had to fight today but he just keeps galloping, he's wonderful.
"He's an awesome horse, the tactics were executed to perfection and it was a great ride from Ruby.
"When he was pricking his ears going to the last I knew we were in business as he keeps galloping. We had to do things differently today, we couldn't sit and let it turn into a sprint.
"He's just a fantastic horse, it's brilliant. Ruby needed that, I needed that and so did the team. It's brilliant."
Nicholls added: "He's been to Aintree the last few years and I would think he'll go.
"The only question is it is now a gap of a month rather than three weeks, so the main thing is to see how he is."
Stewart said: "The only person who is more important in the Stewart family is my wife - Big Buck's has changed our lives.
"He's got to 16 (wins in a row) and now we will go to Liverpool and see if he can beat Sir Ken's record there."
Alan King said of Smad Place: "He's run very well and I hoped he would put in a good performance.
"It was another marvellous performance by the winner. It's a good result for racing and it's nice to be a little part of it.
"Our lad is a fresh horse so he'll probably go to Aintree and we'll take him on again.
"He'll jump a fence in the autumn."
Willie Mullins said of Thousand Stars (fourth): "He has run a cracker but has probably just run too free.
"It was a spectacular performance from Big Buck's and you'd have to say he just beats what he has to.
"We'll look at the Aintree Hurdle but he had quite a hard race there so we'll see how he is, it might be Punchestown."
Nicky Henderson said of Oscar Whisky (fifth): "He travelled very well did Oscar but Barry (Geraghty) said he just didn't get home. Fair play to the winner, he's a true champion. I'd imagine we'll go to Aintree now again."