Jose Aldo, the King of Rio de Janeiro.
In combat sports, fans, the media, and promoters often tend to write off fighters at the first sign of any ageing or competitive decline. The most recent case study of this being with Tony Ferguson after his unanimous decision loss to Charles Oliveira at UFC 256. Ferguson who was once vaunted as the boogeyman of the lightweight division has now suffered back-to-back losses for the first time in his career. Add in his 37th birthday being right around the corner in February and it's caused doubt around Ferguson still being an elite lightweight with UFC President Dana White being uncertain of his fighting future and articles like these being the new standard when an ageing star loses.
That's not to say we shouldn't question a fighter's ability to stay competitive at a high level, especially if they show an obvious decline and are ageing simultaneously. We've seen this many times before with the likes of Chuck Liddell, Fedor Emelianenko, B.J. Penn, Luke Rockhold, Dan Henderson, Anderson Silva, Andrei Arlovski, and Mauricio Rua. All who were once champions that eventually showcased pretty apparent diminishments in their fighting skills with age and were rightfully questioned about whether they still should be competing at the highest level of the game or if they should still continue fighting at all. However, there are times as showcased at UFC Vegas 17 where we shouldn't be so quick to right off the legends of this game in their latter years. Stephen Thompson, Anthony Pettis, and Aldo all ageing stars were able to secure victories during the event against younger opponents who were looking to use their names as springboards forward.
Aldo specifically though impressed me the most, defeating Marlon Vera by a competitive but pretty clear unanimous decision win. The 28-year-old was 6-1 in his last seven fights leading into the matchup with Aldo, most recently defeating the highly touted Sean O'Malley and suffering his lone loss an extremely controversial decision to Song Yadong. The former UFC featherweight champion on the other hand was dealing with a three-fight skid that in his most recent bout, saw him get bludgeoned at UFC 251 by bantamweight champion Petr Yan. Vera seemed poised to be the young contender to notch a signature win over an ageing once-dominant champion in Aldo. We all know though that MMA is the most unpredictable sport there is and has a funny way of humbling us when we think things are set to be or go a certain way.
The King of Rio put on a bit of a vintage performance over Vera, flashing that patented devastating left hook to the liver and the low kicks that made him into arguably the greatest featherweight champion in the sport's history. Aldo also displayed his often slept on ground game throughout the fight, stifling Vera's takedown attempts from up against the cage and taking his back for most of the third round to seal the decision win. He's no stranger to facing the doubters and coming through big with a victory to silence that noise. After suffering consecutive losses via stoppage to fellow former featherweight champ Max Holloway, Aldo rebounded with back-to-back TKO wins of his own over Jeremy Stephens and Renato Moicano to get back into title contention at 145 pounds. Now with his first official UFC win at bantamweight and many would argue he should be 2-1 at 135 and 34-years old, Aldo has new life yet again in the twilight years of his legendary career. But before we look ahead to what's next and try to predict what his future holds, I think it's important we look back at Aldo's past and the story of the Brazilian legend's beginnings to really appreciate his greatness.
Jose Aldo da Silva Oliveira Junior was born on September 9, 1986, in Manaus, Brazil to a stonemason Jose Aldo and an industrial worker Rocilene Souza. Manaus is the Amazon's largest city is the countries fourth poorest state with 17 percent of the state's population living below the poverty line, according to a 2015 report from The World Bank. Aldo and his family were apart of those struggling to get by, he helped his father at work as a bricklayer to help them survive when his mother left home. His initial dreams and aspirations had nothing to do with fighting, like most Brazilian youth he grew up playing soccer in the streets, hoping to go pro one day and idolizing Argentine star Diego Maradona.
"I grew up in Manaus, the capital of the State of Amazonas. I come from a poor background. My childhood was spent on the streets, playing soccer." Aldo said in a 2010 video interview with FIGHT! magazine. "I'd play all day and dream of one day playing professionally. I was a good soccer player. I played in a few clubs and schools. I won some medals and trophies, too. My idol was always Maradona. Even though he isn't Brazilian - he's Argentinean - I was always a fan. I love the way he played."
Ironically though it was Aldo's start in soccer that guided his path to mixed martial arts. Because of his playing style, it wasn't uncommon for the future featherweight champion to find himself in frequent fights on the streets. This led to Aldo joining a Capoeira class when he was 14-years-old which then would lead to him finding jiu-jitsu at Marcio Pontes's gym, a fellow Manaus native who wanted to help out poor kids from his neighborhood who were in similar situations to Aldo's. The reasoning for Aldo's switch from capoeira to jiu-jitsu came for a pretty simple reason though, as he told MMAFighting's Guilherme Cruz in a December 2015 interview.
"I wanted to train jiu-jitsu instead of capoeira because the mat was soft," Aldo said. "It was better than training capoeira on the hard floor. I started reading jiu-jitsu magazines, reading about the world champions, and becoming one of them became my goal."
That goal would be fulfilled after Aldo made the eventual move from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro to train with coach Andre Pederneiras at the now famed Nova Uniao gym. He wouldn't make the move to Rio without sacrifices though, having only the clothes on his back and the ambition of making something of his life through martial arts. Aldo ended up sleeping on the same mats he would roll on daily, staying at and living at the gym in Botagofo. The sacrifices would pay off and at 17-years old Aldo would go on to win the gold medal in the purple belt division at the 2003 Brazilian National Jiu-Jitsu Championship. With his dream ultimately completed in becoming a jiu-jitsu world champion, Aldo sought out the next chapter of his martial arts journey. The inspiration would come for him in the form of former UFC heavyweight title challenger and MMA legend Pedro Rizzo. He became enamored by the Vale Tudo style of fighting and started training under the tutelage of Rodrigo Ruas, the nephew of UFC 7 tournament winner Marcos Ruas.
After winning his professional debut over Mario Bigola via a head kick knockout in just 18 seconds in August of 2004, Aldo's future in MMA looked promising but another big obstacle would come into the way of his path to becoming a future legend of the sport. The Novia Uniao gym would move their location from Botagofo to Flamengo and Pederneiras wouldn't continue the arrangement of allowing Aldo to sleep and live in the gym anymore. With really no options of anywhere to go but potentially moving back home to Manaus, Aldo found a godsend in the form of fellow Nova Uniao teammate Hacran Dias. In that same 2015 interview with Cruz, Dias talked about why reached out to help Aldo.
"I asked him where was he going to live, and that's the part that touched me the most," Dias says. (h/t MMAFighting) "I'll never forget what he said. He said, 'I don't know. I don't have a place to go.'"
Dias was living with his mother, Julia Dias, and his younger brother at the Santo Amaro favela, located three miles away from Nova Uniao's new address. It was a tiny little house at the top of the slum, small enough for three people to live, but - hearing of Aldo's situation - they still managed to find room.
"I told him I'd figure it out, call my mother and find a place for him," Dias says. "We lived in a small house at the favela, so I asked her if Aldo could stay with us for some time. I told her I had a friend that had nowhere to go."
Living in the favelas of Santo Amaro presented another challenge for Aldo and some danger as well. The violence and crime that happens in Brazil's favelas have been made almost famous by their depiction in various films and shows, but the dangers it's residents face daily are very real. In a 2009 piece by The Guardian's Tom Phillips, he depicted some of the violence he saw first hand living in Rio at the time and specifically in Santo Amaro.
When I moved to my new apartment in Rio de Janeiro in August, I was warned about the neighbours: the elderly insomniac who enjoyed waking up the rest of the building with screams that her apartment was vibrating, the lively north-easterners who put on loud dance parties each Sunday.
I was not told, however, that a few months after moving in, I would return home from lunch to find two bullet-riddled corpses on my doorstep, as I did last week, just a few days after drug traffickers had shot down a police helicopter.
Located on the fringes of Rio's glamorous south zone, Catete is one of the city's most beautiful bairros. A place where history drips off the buildings. My Lonely Planet guide describes the local park as "a quiet refuge from the rest of the city".
But young drug traffickers control the neighbourhood's most notorious favela, Santo Amaro. "We were told that certain elements were hiding in Santo Amaro," the commanding officer Lieutenant Teixeira, wearing wrap around shades, said to me. "The criminals greeted us with shots and in the confrontation two unfortunately died." He didn't sound upset.
Aldo avoided the violence and the gangs, even though he was often recruited and asked to join, but he never budged and stayed on the path martial arts had laid out for him. After winning his first seven fights by first-round stoppages, Aldo would lose the first fight of his career to Luciano Azevedo via submission in the second round in his hometown of Manaus in November of 2005. The defeat almost derailed his entire career and had him doubting his future in the sport. There weren't many opportunities for fighters under 155 pounds at the time and with the UFC and Zuffa's purchase of PRIDE, Aldo didn't see many options for his chances to make real financial progress for a featherweight fighter like himself. But the opportunity would finally come for Aldo in the form of the World Extreme Cagefighting and at WEC 34 on June 1, 2008.
Alexandre Franca Nogueira was his opponent in that bout, a former Shooto lightweight champion who was a near two-to-one favorite over Aldo. The bout was expected to provide Nogueira with a solid showcase in his WEC debut, but Aldo had other plans and dominated the fight, eventually finishing "Pequeno" via a second-round technical knockout. The win would be life-altering for him and begun his ascension as arguably the greatest featherweight of all-time. He would win his next 15 fights in a row, the WEC featherweight title over Mike Brown at just 23 years old, become the first-ever UFC featherweight champion, and beat names like Urijah Faber, Frankie Edgar, Chad Mendes twice, Cub Swanson, Chan Sung Jung, Kenny Florian, and Cub Swanson. His leg kicks would become one of the most feared weapons in the entire sport and his status as one of the pound-for-pound best was unquestioned. Quite an accomplishment for a kid from Manaus who once played soccer in the streets hoping to become the next Brazilian sports icon, which he did... just in a different fashion than he could've ever imagined.
A quick-witted, brash, loud-mouthed Irishman though would make his presence felt on the UFC's featherweight division after debuting with the promotion in April of 2013 and become Aldo's biggest rival. Conor McGregor would reel off six straight wins to start his UFC career and earn a chance at Aldo's featherweight crown at UFC 194 on December 12, 2015. A date that will forever live in infamy when looking back on MMA history and especially on Aldo's legacy. McGregor tormented Aldo during the buildup to the fight which saw an unprecedented world media tour for the matchup's promotion. The bad blood built throughout the tour and McGregor's mind games were in full effect. He tormented Aldo like no other opponent had before and had clearly gotten under the skin of the featherweight champion. The highlight of the tour coming in McGregor's hometown of Dublin, where he exclaimed to Aldo, "You're looking at the King of Dublin ya, you're looking at him!", before brashly picking up the champion's belt to a raucous reaction from the Irish crowd.
Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese general and philosopher has a famous quote on the art of psychological warfare saying "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." This is precisely what McGregor did to Aldo in the pre-fight theatrics he pulled off and to his credit, it worked. The display by McGregor was an all-time masterclass in mental manipulation and how to rattle an opponent. We all know how the rest of the story goes and it wasn't the fairy tale ending Aldo had hoped for. McGregor would send the Brazilian champion and his featherweight throne crashing to the canvas in just 13 seconds, after landing a pull left-hand counter on the first punch he threw, capitalizing on Aldo's over aggression and knocking out the reigning champ.
The loss was a devastating one for Aldo and I feel his legacy has been overshadowed sadly because of the punch McGregor landed during their bout on that fateful December night. There is a generation of fans who were introduced to him from the viral knockout loss to his featherweight foe. An enormous portion of the current MMA fan base and even some in the media, I don't think really quite appreciate the greatness that Aldo accomplished in his run from 2009-2014 because of the loss. Some have defined him by that defeat to McGregor and the fact he's gone just 4-5 since hasn't allowed people to see Aldo in his purest and best form. Add in the fact that among those losses are back-to-back third-round stoppages to former UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway and a one-sided unanimous decision loss at the hands of current UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and the evidence for Aldo possibly not being the greatest 145-pound fighter of all-time has a pretty credible case.
But Aldo also has had some very solid wins during this recent stretch too, stopping both Jeremy Stephens and Renato Moicano. He then dropped down to bantamweight and has seemed to have found new life at 135 pounds, technically losing a split-decision to Marlon Moraes in his divisional debut. However, most people saw Aldo as the rightful winner of the contest, including the promotion who essentially treated the fight as a victory for him and awarded him a title shot against Petr Yan at UFC 251. Aldo would lose that bout and take a beating from Yan before being stopped in the fifth round but had some nice moments early on in the fight. With this most recent win though over Marlon Vera and now seemingly being viewed as having a 2-1 record in the division, Aldo is right back in the title mix at 135 pounds.
At still only 34-years old maybe some of the recent talks or calls around Aldo's retirement have been premature, evident by his win over Vera. But if Aldo wants to once again become a UFC champion and win a belt in a second division, adjustments will need to be made and what's old might be new again for the Brazilian legend. In his nine fights prior to the McGregor matchup, Aldo threw a total of 114 leg kicks and averaged 12.7 kicks thrown per fight according to stats compiled from UFC Stats. He had five fights with 10+ kicks and two fights with 20+ kicks thrown during this span, while also averaging 11.55 body shots thrown per fight. There was a clear blend of Aldo's two best striking tools, his left hook to the liver and his right low calf kick. He was committed to throwing both in unison and it made opponents have to deal with multiple weapons striking, while also fearing the takedown even more with Aldo's incredible takedown defense and jiu-jitsu as the backbone of his arsenal.
Those numbers have drifted off a bit though for Aldo in the nine fights after that knockout loss to McGregor. In those nine fights, he has thrown only a total of 59 leg kicks and averaged 9.8 kicks thrown per fight. Aldo has had only one fight with 10+ kicks and 20+ kicks thrown during this span, but now is averaging a whopping 19.7 body shots thrown per fight. He's fell increasingly in love with his boxing and exchanging with opponents in the pocket, behind little footwork or head movement and no other real threat of any other striking weapons. The lack of balance between attacks to the leg and attacks to the body is a bit of an indicator of Aldo's recent lack of success. Although Aldo's last two fights against Yan and Vera have shown that maybe the vintage fighter that dominated the WEC and UFC in the early part of the 2010s still has some fire left. In those fights, Aldo went 1-1 obviously, but he threw a total of 27 leg kicks in both bouts which is a promising trend for him going forward. Especially in terms of still competing at a high level and potentially recapturing a world championship one last time. Aldo reiterated these feelings ahead of his fight with Vera, telling reporters the following before UFC Vegas 17.
“I feel now like it’s the restart of my career,” Aldo said. (h/t MMAMania). “I feel like it’s the first fight of my career. … I’m not feeling any pressure because I always fight with great fighters. I just keep training hard and get ready for my next opponent. I’m not feeling any pressure.”
“What keeps me motivated is the victory,” he continued. “I’m training hard because I want to be a champion at my new division. That’s my motivation every day.”
The win with Vera will now give Aldo at least the opportunity to continue to fight towards that goal of becoming the UFC bantamweight champion and continuing to showcase his greatness against a new era of talent. Now I could sit here and talk to you about Aldo's title chances or a potential fight with the former UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. But the win signified something bigger to me, which is that as fans and media we should appreciate the legends of this sport, especially while we still can and while they're still competing, let alone winning at high levels. I totally understand and respect the fact that every fighter has their day where their time comes, in a similar way that every living creature faces their inevitable death one day.
The decline is not a matter of if, but when and in some cases such as the likes of Chuck Liddell or B.J. Penn in the past, I have no issue with people wanting to call for those individuals retirements given their obvious signs of competitive decline and circumstances. But with someone like Aldo who is still winning and competing at a relatively high level, while only really losing to the elite of the elite currently, I don't think we should be rushing to usher him out of the sport and to his eventual retirement. We should be appreciating the fact that still at 34-years old Aldo is finding a way to win and showcase his greatness against a new generation of fighters. More importantly, Aldo's story is one that encompasses everything great about the sport of mixed martial arts and the opportunities it can create for those that might not have ever had them otherwise.
For a poor kid from Brazil to go from the streets of Manaus to sleeping on grappling mats with no money to his name, to living in the dangerous favelas of Santo Amaro and overcome all of that to become a world champion, I think is the definition of what makes life beautiful. The fact Aldo beat all of those odds and then on top of it beat the odds yet again to become a world champion is a story that should be celebrated as what some would call the American dream. Aldo will eventually retire as all the great fighters did before and will do after him, but in a society and generation that is constantly fixated on what's next and polluting the current moment by distractions of the future. Hopefully, Aldo's win can be a lesson learned on why time is so valuable and appreciating the here and now while we have it is the most precious thing in this life. He might never become champion again, but at least for this moment and for the people of Brazil, UFC Vegas 17 was a reminder of why we should appreciate the King of Rio's presence while we have the ability to still do so.