The curious, and frustrating case of Jose Aldo

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Despite being universally celebrated as one of the greatest fighters on the planet, Jose Aldo remains one of the most enigmatic figures in MMA. Standing alone as the UFC’s first and only featherweight champion, the boy from Manaus, northern Brazil, overcame the most-humble of beginnings, to emerge as the force of nature we see today.

On the verge of his seventh consecutive title defence; a re-match with Chad Mendes at UFC 179, in Rio De Janeiro, he owns just about every conceivable record there is to be had at 145lbs and, at just 28, has already assured his place in the pantheon of exalted champions. Yet, even in the light of his undoubted brilliance, there is a lingering feeling that, somehow, his greatest self has failed to materialise.

When the UFC absorbed the WEC four years ago this month, it was his arrival which was anticipated with most excitement, and rightly so. As the erstwhile organisation’s final featherweight kingpin, Aldo had come to the attention of fight fans by obliterating all eight of his opponents under its banner, and by doing so with a ferocity and panache rarely seen to that point.

So, it was forgivable to assume the trend would continue on the biggest stage of all, but that’s not been the case. Granted, the record is telling, and all six challengers to his crown have been vanquished, though with varying degrees of decisiveness. Which, in a nutshell, is the problem. It’s hard not to feel that he’s now just going through the motions, and arguably stagnated in the process.

Consider the facts; only two of his six title defences have come inside the distance, and he has spent just a second shy of 122 minutes in the Octagon. Contrast that with just over 61 minutes during his eight fights in the WEC, one of which, against Urijah Faber, lasted the duration. Something has changed.

To date, the most visceral evidence of his singular talent is still his double-knee knockout of Cub Swanson, at WEC 41, a mere eight seconds into the first round. Yes, it might be the increased levels of spotlight, competition and pressure that come with being in his vaunted position, though the theory fails to hold weight against what little we know of him.

In his UFC debut, Aldo took on Mark Hominick at UFC 129 in Toronto and, for the first time, fought for 25 minutes. Although he thoroughly bludgeoned the Canadian in the opening three stanzas, he faltered in the championship rounds, and for a brief moment in the fifth, it looked as though Hominick would pull off the mother of all comebacks. He didn’t, and Aldo was correctly rewarded the unanimous decision.

While he is yet to be troubled close to the same degree since, it was the first clear cut sign he was far from invincible. His struggles to make 145lbs are well established at this point, but before Hominick, nobody had survived long enough to exploit what is a decidedly shallow gas tank.

Kenny Florian and Frankie Edgar did reasonably well in attempting to do so, but similar to Hominick, their fates were sealed in the first 15 minutes, while Ricardo Lamas was simply out of his depth.

Only Mendes and Chan Sung Jung have been disposed of inside the time limit. Aldo’s performance-fence-grabbing notwithstanding-against the former was only eclipsed by the manner in which it was celebrated; vaulting himself over the fence and straight into the crowd, where he was hoisted high to bask in the Rio pandemonium, much like so many of his soccer-playing brethren have before him. The victory over the former is slightly offset by the fact the Korean Zombie’s shoulder was hanging independent of his body before Herb Dean stepped in.

This unbridled domination has not captured the imagination in the same manner the tenures of other all-conquering champions have. When Anderson Silva was in his hey-day, fans, in spite of being almost certain of the outcome in advance, continued to tune in because something outrageous was bound to happen, the same cannot be said for Aldo.

He has unquestionably failed to evolve over the past four years; perhaps, most obviously, because he hasn’t had to, but it might just be because he hasn’t tried to. Tucked away in the Spartan confines of the Nova Uniao camp, the familiar formula has endured; a flat-footed, forward marching assault, predicated on pulverising leg-kicks and garnished with smooth combinations. The only discernible development was the five takedowns landed on Chan Sung Jung.

Curiously, even refreshingly, he does not fit the mould for what the UFC would envision as a quintessential champion, and he has stayed a peripheral figure. His grasp of English, at least on the surface, remains rudimentary, he’s scarcely seen or heard from between fights and, the lack of social media spats or marketable rivalries with his contemporaries have not conjured the type of sideshows the brass tacitly crave. This is only compounded by a transparent indifference to the media and frequent injuries.

Yet, he is now the sole Brazilian champion on the books; over the course of his reign, Anderson Silva, Junior Dos Santos and Renan Barao have all been usurped. Thus, at this juncture, to not suffer the same loss of traction they have in the Canadian market, Dana and co. are most likely crossing fingers and toes that he puts Mendes to the sword.

If Aldo does prevail in the Ginásio do Maracanazinho on Saturday night, what comes next is unclear. Given the landscape of the division, a plethora of further re-matches are probable. And then, of course, there’s Conor McGregor, who, like him or hate him, has breathed fresh life into the status quo. Maybe he’s the bespoke nemesis to coax something unique out of Aldo. Maybe he’s not. But the Irishman will be sitting cage-side in Rio, as the antagonist-in-chief, and their paths are inextricably linked.

Naturally, Mendes must be negotiated first, and for the sake of avoiding the tedium that tarnished GSP’s latter monopolisation of the welterweight division, in spectacular style. Even the slightest indication that the best is yet to come would suffice.