Crouched in his corner, hand on in his head as if in disbelief, blood dripping from his nose and mouth like a metronome, Jose Aldo looked much like the guy who didn’t know when to say when.
He looked like a 40-year-old who took that one last fight and paid a brutal price for wanting to hear the cheers of the crowd one final time.
As Max Holloway celebrated his knockout victory in their featherweight unification bout Saturday in Rio de Janeiro in the main event of UFC 212, Aldo looked not so much like the unbeatable destroyer who once tore apart Urijah Faber’s leg as he did a guy who was in a place where he did not belong.
Renowned for having MMA’s most vicious kicks this side of Edson Barboza, Aldo threw not one against Holloway. Holloway said he was shocked that Aldo’s hands weren’t nearly as fast as he’d been told they’d be, despite Aldo’s pre-fight reputation for blazing hand speed.
Repeatedly during the television broadcast Saturday, play-by-play man Jon Anik and color analysts Brian Stann and Dominick Cruz referred to Aldo as the greatest featherweight of all time.
They said it before the fight, when the outcome was unknown. They said it during the fight, when the outcome was becoming apparent. And they repeated it following the fight, after Holloway had laid waste to the legendary champion as if Aldo had been no more than a sparring partner he’d discovered on a Hawaiian beach.
As the referee, his handlers and the commission members tended to him, Aldo looked completely and utterly finished.
He’s still only 30, though he looked 40, or more, in the aftermath of the destruction that Holloway wrought on Saturday. Less than a year ago, Aldo dominated Frankie Edgar, who after bursting Yair Rodriguez’s bubble last month quite possibly could get the next featherweight title shot.
This can’t be it for Aldo, though it’s a safe bet his days as a featherweight are unquestionably behind him. He’s simply too good to go out this way.
Mixed martial arts is the most unforgiving of sports, and it treats its legends as harshly as it treats its no-hopers when that time comes.
While there are notable exceptions – Anderson Silva and Randy Couture jump immediately to mind – the downhill slide roughly coincides with their 30th birthday for the vast majority of MMA fighters.
During one of Saturday’s preliminary bouts, 40-year-old Vitor Belfort, another Brazilian legend, looked very much his age. He was kindly given a unanimous decision that quite easily could have gone to Nate Marquardt. After what had been expected to be his retirement bout, Belfort gleefully said he has five more fights in him.
But Belfort, one of the great strikers in MMA history, had numerous openings on Saturday and couldn’t pull the trigger. That happens to 40-year-old guys, particularly those who aren’t allowed an extra boost of testosterone to rejuvenate them.
Aldo, though, is a decade younger and has taken far less abuse in his career than Belfort. The fact that Aldo failed to use his kicks, perhaps his finest weapon, suggests an injury that he and his team kept secret.
Perhaps the years of torturing his body to make 145 pounds finally caught up with him. In addition to the 27 bouts he’d had prior to Saturday’s fateful match with Holloway, he’d had scores of sparring sessions, and who knows how much damage he took in those?
For the past couple of years, Aldo has not-so-silently seethed at the UFC for what he felt has been its mistreatment of him. He raged when the company went to great lengths to explain to the public that he didn’t have a broken rib when he pulled out of a title fight with Conor McGregor in 2015. Aldo insisted, and still insists, the did.
He erupted when he wasn’t given an immediate rematch in the wake of his 13-second knockout loss to McGregor at UFC 194 in 2015, and pointed out how many fighters were.
What he saw as the injustices in how much he was paid, and how he believed he was treated, took an emotional toll upon him. Did that have any impact upon him? Perhaps, though we’ll never really know. But as UFC president Dana White says repeatedly, a fighter can’t compete successfully with one foot in and one foot out. He needs to be fully committed to the fight, and the lifestyle, and anything less than total acceptance of it usually results in disaster.
It was a disastrous and humiliating night for Aldo, getting bludgeoned on his home turf in front of the fans who worship him by an upstart kid who trash-talked him during the bout.
The knockout loss to McGregor was tough for him to swallow, but it was just one of those things. A one-punch knockout loss can happen to the best of them, but getting broken down over several rounds and then pounded out like happened Saturday is a much more worrisome event.
He’s so talented and so tremendously prideful that he won’t take this loss lightly. He’ll most likely come back and put together a run at lightweight, and he could even wind up with another crack at his old nemesis, McGregor.
But even if he wins another title, Saturday’s defeat will have lasting consequences. What he accomplished in his 18-fight winning streak over 10 years can never be taken away from him, but getting knocked out twice in a span of three fights, once when he was 29 and another time when he was 30, can’t be ignored.
He’s still the greatest featherweight of all time, but drops a few notches in the debate of the greatest fighters ever. It’s hard, if not impossible, to now argue he deserves to be in that conversation with the likes of Jon Jones, Demetrious Johnson, Silva and Georges St-Pierre as the elite of the elite anymore.
He’s still a good fighter; heck, he’s probably still even a great fighter, and it’s likely he’ll prove that as a lightweight.
The mystique, though, is gone. He’s beatable. He has weaknesses. He’s got work to do if he wants to get back to a championship level.
Hopefully, the loss to Holloway will disabuse him of the notion that he is good enough to take on a world-class boxer. He’s not, nor was he ever good enough. They’re different sports that require similar, though different, skills.
One of his complaints about the UFC was that White wouldn’t allow him to box. Now, he has no reason to box.
He has every reason, though, to collect himself, correct what has been plaguing him and chase a lightweight title. He’s more than capable of doing that, even in a class as loaded as the UFC’s lightweight division.
He was beaten in a fight, but it’s important to note that Jose Aldo is a beaten man only if he chooses to be. If he wants to come back from this disaster, he can.
He needs to get himself healthy, shut out the outside distractions and commit himself to greatness. Anything less won’t be nearly enough.