Once again it is time for me to overheat my brain by looking for weaknesses in the game of a proven champion. The Killing the King series is my attempt to counter the trend in mixed martial arts journalistic thinking that if someone has won several fights in a row they are "unbeatable" and will win on that fact alone. Of course the UFC champions have all had difficult paths to their belts and have proven themselves consistent against top level competition but everyone is human and it is through a better understanding of how they are flawed that we can ultimately come to appreciate their incredible skill which shines through in spite of these faults. Today it is the turn of perhaps the best featherweight in our sport's young history, Jose Aldo.
Jose Aldo's A Game
Jose Aldo's great strength is obvious to everyone who has watched even one round of him in action - the man is a huge featherweight who kicks like a mule. His systematic use of the right low kick to chop down his opponents results in either a one sided beating on the feet - as they try to adapt to a technique they aren't practiced enough in defending - or a highlight reel knockout as they wildly shoot or swing and eat hard punches. The story of Urijah Faber's bout with Jose Aldo, and Renan Barao for that matter, was of not being confident or competent enough in his gap closing to move through the distance to his target, and ultimately standing at range and giving the Brazilians free reign on his lead leg.
Jose Aldo uses a handful of combinations extremely well - notably the Melvin Manhoef classic of a stepping hook to the bodyand a right low kick - often preceded by a right straight lead. It is this combination which Aldo uses to pound his opponent's body with the left hook and force them to be backing up as he connects his low kick - increasing the chance of injuring their leg and breaking their balance, while drastically lowering their chances of checking the kick.
1. Aldo lunges at Hominick (normally he would throw a right straight but Hominick was already retreating.
2. Aldo begins to step forward with his right foot into a southpaw stance, as he draws back his left hook.
3. Aldo connects the left hook and begins to step his left foot forward.
4. In order to run into his right low kick, buckling the retreating Hominick's stance.
One does not need to watch Aldo's fights for long before this combination comes out - it is simply sublime from a strategic standpoint because when the right straight lead is included as the initiator it works three levels of the body and an opponent will have to be very alert to avoid or cushion all three blows. Additionally the left hook loads the hips so well for the right low kick that it is a staple of the Dutch kickboxing style. Here's Melvin Manhoef doing what Melvin Manhoef does best.
Aldo can also throw his right low kick without set up, which takes great speed and requires him to hold his hip back to protect himself from having it caught. This kick lacks the power of his running kicks but is still biting and throws his opponents off balance.`
Notice that Aldo, against Hominick, does not step forward but rather kicks straight from his stance in almost an upward motion, holding his hips back rather than turning them through.
The second great trick which you will see in almost all of Aldo's fights is the flashing of a jab to the delivery of a rear uppercut. Aldo does not have a particularly good jab and it often leaves him exposed to counters (as we will discuss later) but the swinging uppercut coming through behind it often deters such attempts. A great deal of Aldo's striking is not designed to be employed against pure striking, but rather to bait the takedown and counter the attempt. No-one has had as much success hitting knees and uppercuts while his opponent changes levels as Aldo has and that is partly because he attempts to draw his opponents into shooting or ducking.
Here Aldo shows a flashing, backhanded jab at the forearms of Manny Gamburyan and as Manny ducks Aldo brings in a low uppercut to connect with Manny's head. Manny fell where he stood and Aldo pounded him out for the finish. Aldo flashed this combination numerous times against upright strikers, Kenny Florian and Mark Hominick but it ultimately did nothing except keep them honest and forced them to limit themselves to a stand up fight.
Aldo is also excellent at drawing opponents into his knee strikes. Take for example his dismantling of Mike Brown. Aldo would throw an extremely high jab, inviting the opponent to attack underneath it, but simulteneously switch legs - lining himself up for a hard knee strike as the opponent came in.
Notice how Aldo jabs with no intention but to show the opponent an open path to his hips, deliberately missing. Simulteneously he switches his feet to add power to his left knee. In the above stills Brown stays upright and Aldo lets his lower leg flap out into a kick, below Brown ducks and eats the knee.
What does seem to let Jose Aldo's game down is his boxing. Because of his high stance - unusually high and narrow in MMA because he loves to throw switch kicks and knees - Aldo's straights are stunted and he often throws himself off balance in an attempt to connect. Aldo often either under commits to his jab, jabbing while on the retreat, as in the top two stills below (where he is countered with a nice left hook to the chest), or over commits.
The bottom two stills show Aldo leaning forward at the waist to jab at Hominick, exposing himself to a hard right straight.
Notice how far off balance Aldo leaves himself in reaching for right straights - this is a trait he has in common with Renan Barao and Gilbert Melendez.
As Aldo's fight with Hominick progressed, Hominick did a better job at standing inside of Aldo's kicking distance, where Aldo would risk being taken down or hit if he kicked. The true difficulty was to stay inside of this range but outside of the range of Aldo's looping punches. Hominick kept the perfect distance throughout the second and third round and forced Aldo to throw straights - punches which he was uncomfortable with and left himself exposed during.
Below Hominick lands a right lead as Aldo is about to jab.
As Aldo became more reluctant to throw straights from the range which Hominick dictated, Hominick was able to attack and stun Aldo with a couple of sneaky right hand leads.
Much of the second and third round were spent with Hominick connecting straights and moving away from Aldo's own, less polished straights.
Unfortunately for Hominick his lacking takedown defense and his overconfidence in the pocket got the better of him and where he was avoiding many of Aldo's wild swings back at him, he later began to out stay his welcome in punching range and get clipped with big shots.
Jose Aldo is someone who is consistently touted as one of the greatest strikers in MMA but in truth most of his biggest strikes come from baiting the takedown. If one can bait Aldo into a stand up fight his weapons are his hooks, uppercuts and kicks - but there is a whole middle range of straight punching, the traditional boxing range, wherein Aldo is decidedly less incredible. Because of his incredible takedown defense, jiu jitsu and desire to connect knees and uppercuts as the opponent dives for his legs, it seems like the best place to beat Aldo is on the feet.
When Aldo's punches are getting countered, however, he is not averse to diving for a takedown as he did so frequently against Hominick and so a good counter wrestler is certainly going to be necessary to defeat him. There is nothing about Frankie Edgar that says he physically can't beat Jose Aldo, but obviously that doesn't mean it can't play out as a one sided beat down. Edgar has never excelled head to head with opponents, preferring to use lateral movement but as Ben Henderson confirmed - low kicks will stop that movement and turn it into a head to head match. What Edgar did prove very good at, however, was catching Henderson's kicks. Edgar must have caught over 20 of Bendo's kicks throughout that fight but ultimately did nothing with them.
Edgar will also be suffering, as usual, from a size disadvantage - making it very difficult for him to box Aldo with straight punches as his straight punching distance will likely be inside of that horrible distance from which Aldo can unleash his uppercut. While a Cain Velasquez strategy of spamming takedowns to open up opportunities on the feet may somehow work it seems like that would get you in far more trouble against Aldo who actively counter strikes against takedowns. A wrestler who can treat the bout as a kickboxing match, however, willing to use his own low kicks and even push kicks to dictate where the fight will take place and stuff Aldo's kicks, might be able to open up opportunities for takedowns late in the bout.
As always, none of this could get exploited, or all of it could - and I make no predictions to the outcome of the fight. I will watch UFC 156 with as much excitement and wonder as our readers.