Jose Aldo is currently riding a fourteen-fight winning streak, with eight of those wins coming by absolutely vicious knockout. He has not been seriously tested during that time: in fact, he has only lost three or at most four rounds out of twenty-eight since making his debut in the WEC, and has never found himself anywhere close to being finished or losing a decision. I say this not to rehearse the obvious point - that Aldo is really, really good - but to emphasize the sheer enormity of his dominance since reaching the biggest stage in MMA.
It's possible that we've never seen a fighter as well-rounded as Jose Aldo, GSP included, and I would argue that we've never seen anyone with his combination of well-roundedness, explosive athleticism, and absolutely vicious finishing ability. At this point, then, one question stands out: who is capable of beating Jose Aldo? My intention here is to briefly discuss all possible challengers, with the goal of discerning who precisely has the best chance of beating him at featherweight; there are potential matchups at 155 as well, but I'd like to focus on the here and now.
Let's start with the obvious contenders first. For each, I'll give a brief rundown of when they might expect to receive a title shot, the most likely fashion in which such a fight would play out, and finally my guess at what the betting line would be, purely as a means of quantifying the likelihood of a win by the contender. (Note: -400 means that Aldo would be a 4-to-1 favorite, for example). After running through the list, I'll conclude with a discussion of what Aldo's dominance means for the sport of MMA as a whole.
Hatsu Hioki: It seems likely that Hioki will receive the next title shot (slated for July), and frankly I'm not thrilled about his chances. He has a solid standup game, and relies heavily on his long jab, straight right, and low kicks; in the clinch, he shows good takedowns and the ability to generate some offense. His top game, however, is by far his best asset: alternately suffocating and vicious, Hioki is capable of dropping heavy ground and pound, usually in order to set up a submission. I'm not familiar with his guard game, but given his build and otherwise good BJJ game I'd assume that it's solid at worst and potentially excellent (if anyone has more information, please say so in the comments). In a potential fight with Aldo, however, Hioki would be badly overmatched: his standup game is light years behind Aldo's, and the champion's speed would likely be the difference maker. It's also unlikely, given Aldo's astounding takedown defense, that Hioki would be able to implement his top game, and even if he did Aldo's own ground skills are far from meager. I'd bet on Aldo by knockout. Potential betting line: Aldo -400.
Chan Sung Jung: The Zombie's impressive wins over Garcia and Hominick have catapulted him from entertaining brawler to potential title challenger, with a title shot likely on the line (presumably to be contested in the fall) in his upcoming matchup with Dustin Poirier. Even if Jung manages to get past Poirier - and I doubt that he will - a fight with Aldo would be like a lamb to the slaughter. If Leonard Garcia was able to repeatedly tag him in both of their fights and Roop could land a flush high kick, Aldo can do bad, bad things. Given the difficulty involved in getting Aldo to the ground, it's difficult to imagine the Zombie implementing his creative submission game, either. Aldo by KO would be the pick here. Potential betting line: Aldo -600.
Dustin Poirier: I'm much, much higher on the long-term prospects of Poirier than I am of Hioki or Jung, for several reasons. First, Poirier's game is very well-rounded, especially considering his relative youth: he's been fighting as a professional for less than three years (with several amateur fights before then), but is capable of finishing both on the feet and on the ground, and possesses a deep arsenal of submissions. Second, he has the kind of explosive athleticism that's now a prerequisite for competing at the highest levels of MMA; he might not be on Aldo's level in that regard, but is still light years beyond Jung or Hioki. Third, and perhaps most important within the context of a potential matchup with Aldo, Poirier is a finisher. When he smells blood or gets his opponent in a bad position, the ground and pound and submission attempts come fast and furious. Of all the fighters currently competing at 145, I'd give Poirier the best chance of eventually dethroning Aldo, but he's still very green and ideally could use another three fights (roughly a year) to deepen his skills. Given the likely timeframe for a fight with Aldo, however, give me Aldo by decision in a fight that happens this fall; too much speed and too much experience would be the difference-maker here. Potential betting line:Aldo -300.
Erik Koch: Koch is another potential challenger on whom I'm very high. He could potentially be slotted in to face Aldo this summer, though I think it's more likely that Hioki gets the shot, or he could be tapped for that match in the fall or sometime next year. Simply put, the more time the better: Koch has only recently made the jump from prospect to legitimate top-10 contender, and while he's made enormous strides from his first fight in the WEC to his last performance against Brookins, he's still raw. Though he may not possess the athleticism of his stablemate Anthony Pettis, his skill sets are quite similar: unorthodox, powerful kickboxing, solid clinch work, excellent takedown defense (with the exception of the Mendes fight more than two years ago), and a good if not spectacular ground game. Out of all of the fighters I've mentioned here, Koch presents the most interesting challenge on the feet for Aldo: he's long and rangy, and knows how to emphasize his reach by means of the jab and his kicking game. It would be fascinating to see whether Aldo could use his speed advantage to close the distance. Still, if the fight were this summer, I'd take Aldo by submission or ground and pound TKO; next year, I think Koch would have progressed enough to weather out a decision loss. Potential betting line: Aldo -350.
Frankie Edgar: Although he's slated to receive a rematch with Ben Henderson this summer, there's still a good chance that Frankie makes the cut to 145 at some point in the future. Out of all the potential challengers to Aldo's throne, I think Edgar has the best chance of beating him right now. He has the cardio to really push the pace - the one area in which Aldo's shown even a sliver of weakness in the last several years - and his technically sound movement could make it difficult for Aldo to stalk him down and land his strikes. Moreover, Edgar's ability to mix his strikes and takedown attempts gives him a legitimate shot of putting Aldo on his back despite the champ's preternatural defensive skills; although Edgar hasn't shown much of a top game, successful takedowns would be essential to breaking up Aldo's rhythm on the feet. While there's a clear path for Edgar to win that fight, I don't rate his chances too highly: the real difference-maker, in my opinion, would be Aldo's use of low kicks to first redirect Frankie's movement and eventually take it away altogether with cumulative damage to the legs. Additionally, for a fighter as hittable as Frankie, the power in Aldo's strikes could easily spell disaster. Potential betting line: Aldo -200.
It should be clear at this point that I don't believe Aldo can be beaten by anyone currently capable of making the cut to 145. Should he move up to 155, I think the monsters of the division, most notably Henderson and Maynard, could physically overpower him. Henderson in particular would be a nightmarish matchup on the feet in terms of his ability to use kicks to control the range, and he could match Aldo's speed and explosiveness with a much bigger frame. Even then, I'd still have Aldo as a favorite over Maynard and probably even money with Bendo. At 145, however, there's nobody who fits that profile, and barring the meteoric rise of a new prospect the belt is his for the foreseeable future.
The more interesting question, to my way of thinking, is precisely what the past and potential future dominance of Jose Aldo tells us about the current state of MMA. I touched on this earlier, but I'd like to go into more specific depth: that dominance is a function of several factors. First, Aldo is possibly the most well-rounded fighter in MMA. He possesses technically sound boxing skills, vicious step-up knees and kicks, preternatural takedown defense, an explosive wrestling shot, and the ground skills to get the better of Kenny Florian, a well-respected black belt. Second, I'd argue that he's the best athlete, in the sense of speed and explosiveness, currently competing in MMA: the other contenders would be GSP and Jon Jones, but neither of them appears to be operating in a different gear in the way that Aldo does when compared to his opponents. Third, Aldo is a true finisher, with a prime-Shogun level of killer instinct; he was battling a serious illness during the Hominick fight, and still put a beating on him, while Florian survived only by following the most conservative possible gameplan to a T.
What's more striking, however, is that Aldo's finishes aren't a product of the wild, unorthodox techniques that someone like Jones uses to set up his more conventional top game and submission attempts. Instead, he throws everything from his low kicks to flying knees with picture-perfect technique, and his finishes are a product of that repeated technical perfection (see the excellent Bloody Elbow Judo Chop on his low kicks, for example). Aside from the speed with which it was thrown (something you could say about any Jose Aldo strike), the knee that nearly decapitated Mendes was nothing special: it's a pretty standard Muay Thai technique that any competent instructor will have you practice hundreds, if not thousands, of times a year.
What is special about it, however, is the context in which Aldo threw the strike: Mendes had his back, but Aldo broke wrist control, spun, and then delivered the knee flush to Mendes' chin. That sequence incorporates a transition from clinch-grappling to striking in the space of a heartbeat, and transitions of that kind are the core of what makes modern MMA a sport in its own right, rather than a simple amalgamation of different styles. Aldo's ability to generate knockout offense from any position, especially during those fleeting transitional moments, makes him the perfect fighter for this day and age of MMA, and truly puts him in a league of his own.