Jon Jones is officially lauded as the youngest-ever Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champion, having won the title at 23 in 2011. However, a little over a year earlier, José Aldo had already captured the undisputed World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) title at 23 himself. Critically, the UFC did not feature weight classes below 155 pounds yet, so the WEC’s 145-pound division at this time was accepted as the best in the world.
The UFC would later absorb the WEC organization, and all fighters from the latter promotion were brought over to the UFC, which technically makes Aldo the youngest undisputed champion. Although the Brazilian legend remained undefeated for over 10 years, most casual fans remember him not for his myriad title defenses, but rather for a particularly shocking loss at UFC 194 in 2015, where a rising Conor McGregor knocked Aldo out in a mere 13 seconds.
Although Aldo briefly regained the featherweight title after McGregor left the division, the champion then suffered two back-to-back losses to Max Holloway, who himself had begun to show potential as the greatest UFC featherweight of all time. Following his second loss to Holloway at UFC 218 in 2017, many fans questioned Aldo’s future in the UFC and considered him past his prime.
Since his initial loss to McGregor, Aldo has gone 4-5, a stark decline from his immense streak of title defenses as the champion. Looking at the numbers alone, many fans have lumped him in with other former champions who have likewise suffered several devastating defeats in their post-championship careers. That said, upon further inspection, Aldo has in fact continued to demonstrate championship-level skills, even in his recent losses. The idea that the McGregor loss marked a precipitous decline for the former champion ignores many important factors that one can observe by carefully watching Aldo’s performances from the past four years.
Many people point to the fact that Holloway finished Aldo twice in a row as a sign of Aldo’s decline. This type of analysis fails to account for the notable success that Aldo had in both fights prior to those finishes. In several of the striking exchanges, Aldo got the better of Holloway and landed devastating shots. Unfortunately for Aldo, Holloway possesses several attributes that make him a particularly nightmarish stylistic matchup for the Brazilian.
First, Holloway’s significant reach advantage forced Aldo to expend extra energy closing the distance in order to land strikes. Moreover, Holloway possesses nearly unrivaled cardio and striking output, which forces Aldo to fight at a higher pace than he is accustomed to. Finally, Holloway has remarkable durability, so even when Aldo landed shots that would typically knock his opponent out cold or at least cause significant damage, Holloway simply landed his own offense, which severely fatigued Aldo, who in contrast had been a relatively low-volume fighter even at the peak of his title reign. Although Aldo lost these fights decisively, they were ultimately against another legendary UFC champion whose style poses especially difficult problems for him.
Going into Aldo’s next fight against Jeremy Stephens, many fans favored Stephens and questioned Aldo’s current form. The former champion quickly silenced his doubters and decisively finished Stephens with a devastating liver shot. Similarly, many fans considered Renato Moicano, Aldo’s next opponent, a younger, fresher version of Aldo, but the former champion again rose to the occasion and violently finished Moicano in the second round. Despite these two wins, Aldo would soon suffer more losses, and fans once again wondered if the Brazilian was on his last legs.
At UFC 237 in 2019, Aldo fought the rising Alexander Volkanovski in a three-round bout. Aldo lost the fight in relatively unremarkable fashion, as Volkanovski neutralized his offense by tying Aldo up in the clinch and using his physical strength advantage to keep Aldo from unloading his most powerful strikes. Because many considered the fight relatively boring, it seldom gets brought up when discussing Aldo’s legacy.
Most people ignore the fact that Volkanovski went on to defeat Holloway directly after this fight and become the new undisputed UFC featherweight champion. This additional context makes Aldo’s loss much more understandable in hindsight, especially when considering that the Brazilian still managed to take Volkanovski to a decision without suffering any significant damage in the fight.
After his loss to Volkanovski, Aldo surprised everyone by moving down to the bantamweight division. Most fans expected that if Aldo ever changed weight classes, that he would move up to the heavier lightweight division. He faced the dangerous contender Marlon Moraes in his first fight at 135 pounds and lost a highly controversial split decision. Although fans argue that Aldo’s volume dropped in the third round, he still landed more significant strikes in that round than Moraes, and UFC president Dana White granted Aldo a title shot in his subsequent fight on the basis that Aldo should have been declared the winner.
In his title fight against Petr Yan, the image that most fans have is that of Yan finishing Aldo via violent ground and pound, which led the masses to criticize the referee for not stopping the fight sooner. The brutality of the finish, however, overshadows the first four rounds of the fight, in which the former featherweight champion demonstrated a high level of versatility and striking proficiency.
Aldo set his own personal record for significant strikes landed in this fight, and he managed to score several vicious body shots and leg kicks, including one that knocked Yan right off his feet. After the fight, fans and fighters alike merely labeled Aldo as someone who was “0-2” in the weight class in an effort to discredit Yan’s win, but this performance was in fact one of Aldo’s most impressive showings despite its unfortunate conclusion.
Although Aldo’s record does not necessarily reflect it, the former champion can still hold his own with the best in the world, as shown in his most recent victory against bantamweight contender Marlon “Chito” Vera. While his many years of fighting have certainly taken a toll on his body, the mixed martial arts community has largely exaggerated the extent of his decline. Aldo’s post-title run ultimately highlights the fact that a fighter’s skill level is determined by much more than their win-loss record.