A look at the technical evolution of Brazil’s finest mixed martial artist through the lens of three pivotal bouts.
Jose Aldo’s fall from grace has been unbefitting a fighter of his caliber. The greatest featherweight in the sport’s history – and also its greatest technician (sorry, Mighty Mouse) – Aldo was unfortunate enough to attract mainstream attention at precisely the wrong moment. Namely, ahead of his now-infamous 13-second knockout at the hands of reigning lightweight champion Conor McGregor.
Following a loss to Max Holloway, Aldo’s time in the championship limelight seems to have finally come to an end. But his understated career – among the best of any all-time great – ensures a historic legacy, despite never quite finding the mainstream recognition he deserves.
It feels appropriate, then, to look at Jose Aldo’s career from the vantage of his lofty triumphs; specifically, three bouts that serve to illustrate his beginnings, his maturation, and his eventual mastery.
Jose Aldo vs. Mike Brown, WEC 44, November 18th, 2009
Prior to meeting Jose Aldo, Mike Brown seemed poised to become MMA’s next great featherweight. Two decisive wins over a prime Urijah Faber left him with little in the way of viable challengers. A win over Aldo was likely all that was separating him from a dominant title reign.
Unfortunately for Brown, he would become the sixth straight fighter (T)KO’d by the most aggressive – and arguably most frightening – version of Aldo the world would ever see.
Aldo, far from the defensive master we would come to know, was quite hittable early. He ate punches while attempting combinations and, uncharacteristically, while throwing low kicks. Low round kicks would become one of the hallmarks of his later style; specifically, his superb timing and numerous set-ups.
Even in 2009, however, Aldo was a tremendous striker, but the lack of polish was clear. His lead uppercuts frequently left him out of position, in the line of return fire. His footwork, while very good, lacked a certain precision. And he occasionally struggled to control the flow of the fight. Cutting angles was primarily done offensively, while defense was executed on a straight, backwards line.
His punch selection, at this point, was mostly limited to high hooks and uppercuts. Lead-leg knees and step-out kicks to the body offered some variety to his combinations, but there was little in the way of body punching. His renowned head movement, too, was largely absent.
In looking at Aldo’s development, it’s important not only to see what he has since added, but what he has stripped away. The Brown fight serves as an interesting point of reference due to Brown’s wrestle-boxing style. This is the precise type of fighter whom Aldo excels against, but his methods of excelling have changed enormously over the years.
Long, intercepting knees served as a deterrent for level-changes, and he threw them with startling frequency. Quick separations from the clinch were not a focus. Instead, he favored hand fighting, overhooks, and knees to the body in response to takedown attempts against the fence. With time, he would adopt a more minimalistic approach, quickly clearing his back from the danger zone of the cage any time he was pressured. Conceding offensive opportunities in disadvantaged positions allowed him to more safely leverage his striking advantage in neutral space.
Less than a minute into round two, Aldo attempted a level change of his own, leaving Brown off balance and falling to the mat. Aldo’s ground game can feel like a mythical thing at times, so universally acclaimed yet so infrequently seen, but in mere moments, Brown was completely flattened out in a vice-like back mount. Absorbing punches to the head and with nowhere to go, the stoppage was inevitable. Jose Aldo had secured his first world championship.
Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar, UFC 156, February 2nd, 2013
A time when the jab wasn’t a staple in Aldo’s game seems distant at this point, but it was not until his first fight with former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar that it became a focus of his output.
Edgar, at the time, was lauded for his boxing, but he was never the most gifted puncher. Instead, he relied on foot speed and feints to cut diagonal angles, favoring the left side, and landing short combinations; usually alternating body and head fairly predictably.
The first round of their fight was a clinic in the jab. Whenever Edgar attempted to lead, Aldo would fire a piston-like left hand as his opponent cut an angle, repeatedly landing flush. With the exception of a right hand into a takedown in the second round, secured off of a caught low kick, Edgar was never anything even resembling competitive in rounds one and two.
Aldo’s low kicks are the stuff of legends. And while the second round saw him badly bludgeon Edgar’s lead leg, they were largely absent from the opening stanza. What the Brazilian had done so well was to take away Edgar’s forward motion, by punishing his entries with jabs and crosses repeatedly to establish the threat of his boxing game, well before opening up with kicks.
By the time Aldo had started to really work the legs, Edgar was struggling desperately for answers to the champion’s outside boxing. Where the challenger found renewed success was in abandoning the lead entirely, and instead committing to counters and low kicks of his own from the third round onward.
The fourth was Edgar’s round, as he secured a rare takedown and largely out-landed a coasting Aldo. The third and fifth each seemed to go the Brazilian's way, punctuated by two moments of raw dynamism: a front kick to the face in round three, and a flush Superman punch in the fifth that snapped Edgar’s head back.
Some, to this day, argue that Edgar won the final three rounds, but this take has aged very poorly. As good as Edgar was, Aldo was on a different level.
Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes II, UFC 179, October 25th, 2014
Just under two years after his decisive victory over Edgar, Jose Aldo would put on what should come to be known as his most masterful performance; at both his technical and athletic peaks, against his most dangerous and gifted challenger to that point.
Chad Mendes is, in no uncertain terms, one of the greatest featherweights of all time. And seemed completely unmatched outside of the championship picture. A true freak athlete, Mendes’ speed and power were blistering. His double leg takedown remains one of the most imposing ever seen in the sport, and his striking evolved to an unthinkable degree under the tutelage of Duane Ludwig. At the time of this fight, it would have been reasonable to claim that Mendes was one of the UFC’s best counter-punchers.
He was also fearless. From the opening bell, Mendes pushed forward, kicking low, jabbing, throwing in combinations, and looking to counter Aldo’s own jab. Where Edgar’s featherweight title shot had been contested in bursts from the outside, this fight was defined by the exchanges.
The then-champion has long had a reputation for passivity. While in control, he is content not to take risks, and many questioned if he had lost the animosity that marked his early years. Viewers quickly found out that this wasn’t the case; it simply took a fighter of Mendes’ caliber to show that although Jose Aldo plays with his food, he roars at his predators.
An early left hook briefly floored Aldo. Excellent footwork kept him off the fence, but it became apparent that, if he wanted the benefit of open space, he would have to fight for it.
A beautiful one-two landed flush for the Brazilian as he marched forward, only to soon be met with another hard left. The control of space seemed to be decided entirely by who was winning each furious exchange. With under a minute left in round one and his back to the fence, Aldo opened up with a four-punch combination in response to a low kick. As Mendes circled out, Aldo walked him down and smashed a knee into Mendes’ chin as the American failed on a takedown attempt.
They stood, and the champion continued to push the pace. Almost immediately, they exchanged, and a right-left hook salvo came over the top of Mendes’ jab, flooring him. Mount came soon after, but an escape followed just as quickly. As the buzzer sounded, Aldo appeared to throw a two-punch combination after the bell, badly staggering his foe.
Both men continued at this hellacious pace for the next two rounds. Combinations on top of combinations, counters on top of counters. By the third round, Mendes had started to repeatedly find a home for his right uppercut, setting it up with level changes, and jabs which forced the champion to slip directly into the path of his right.
Long strings of punches to the head and body punctuated the Brazilian’s constant advance, as he ramped up his aggression even more in the third stanza. At one point, an uppercut and a pair of left hooks left him stunned, but he quickly shot a right hand behind Mendes’ ear which sent him stumbling off balance.
In the fourth, the American finally pulled it all together. Right uppercuts repeatedly snapped Aldo’s head back, and return fire seemed to miss its mark. The champion had, once again, taken his foot off the gas.
In the fifth, Mendes charged forward, landing biting left hooks through his opponent’s guard, before a beautiful double leg secured his cleanest takedown of the fight. Unfortunately for him, the position was largely stalemated against the fence. And when Aldo returned to his feet, he seemed to have found his second wind.
An uppercut and a cross came for Aldo, then a vicious knee to the body. Mendes attempted the same right uppercut in anticipation of a dip, but the Brazilian slipped to his left and countered with a right straight. For the last half of the round, Aldo’s counters left Mendes hesitant to lead, while Mendes’ own punches struggled to find a home. When the buzzer sounded, there was no doubt.
Mendes provided enough different looks to bring the very best out of Aldo. But given enough time, the minute adjustments of the champion made the difference. He had figured it out.
It was a beautiful bout, full of grit, determination, and masterful skill. This was the fight which best encompassed who Jose Aldo was. Who, to those that followed his career, he will always be.