clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

UFC 194 - Jose Aldo: Confusing the wind

New, comments

How the greatest defensive fighter in MMA history keeps the world out

art stuff by Phil Mackenzie
art stuff by Phil Mackenzie

There's something animalistic about the featherweight champion of the world. He's got a bandy-legged gait and a slight slope to his neck, with that mixture between slow, almost sleepy reactions and surprised quicksilver characteristic of elite athletes. When he settles into his fighting stance, that slight wildness slips down and disappears behind closely arrayed layers of steely technique. Unless he needs it.

His most famous weapons are kicks, the ones that burst and tear the muscles of the thighs, but his best tool is his pivot. Tiny steps put his lead foot just in the right place, and then he shifts his back leg away as the opponent attacks, and their attacks stream by. Blast double leg takedowns and right hands grab ineffectually, slide off, or miss altogether. Opponents get out of position, get hit with a three piece, and then look back up to find him in exactly the same place, the best collection of deflective surfaces this sport has ever seen.

Back in 2011 a reporter asked him who he thought was the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He said: "it's me" and laughed. "If I don't say it's me, then who will? It's not arrogance, I accept the criticism."

Resonance vibrations

Building towers is difficult, and it gets harder the taller that they're made. For a super scraper like the Burj Khalifa, vibrations can run the length of a building and make it sing like a tuning fork. The danger is the resonance frequency, where the structure can shake itself apart, and so architects have come up with complicated and ingenious solutions for keeping towers steady. The Taipei 101 has a metal sphere weighing hundreds of tons called a tuned mass dampener that shifts within the upper floors to the movement of the building. When they're close to finished, some buildings spar with the forces they're going to contest with, when a crane on the upper floors swings a weight out over empty space, and the engineers test how the tower moves and flexes.

The most unpredictable challenge is in the air. Get high enough up and a breeze can slap, shove and punch; something called vortex shedding splits a gust into tendrils which wrap around a structure and knot together on the other side. Channels and curved surfaces for dispersing and diverting streams of air are carved into the skin of buildings, and the Burj's designer talked about how his tower was specifically designed to drive flows into one another to disrupt themselves. He called it "confusing the wind."

To make a super scraper requires huge foresight and preparation. They're prestige projects which can be made by only the best engineers, and they tend to be rooted in the richest countries.

In combat sports, making a great champion requires its own engineering. The higher a fighter builds a legacy, the more stresses and weaknesses start to shift and amplify, and a lot of things can go very wrong, very fast. Technical flaws will be exposed and battered at, and a lot of new titlists fail to deal with changes in directional pressure, like the mental shift from taking to holding. In the end, talent, skill, and will can bring someone to a championship, but to hold a belt for years takes much more.

Like skyscrapers, then, there's an expectation in where you tend to see great champions and a kind of predictability in where their foundations are. Big camps and careful management, and often a kind of shepherded development processes with structured competitive backgrounds.

Jose Aldo was born in Manaus, Brazil, the city at the break point of the Amazon and I don't know if he's what you'd necessarily expect to be a great champion, or more accurately, to be the kind of champion that he'd become. He always loved soccer, and got his trademark scar across his cheek when he was just a baby during the 1987 South American cup, when his family was distracted by the match and his sister rolled him into the barbeque. Soccer is still something that brightens him when he talks about in his interviews, and most of his discussions about the days in Manaus revolve around soccer, and working.

His father was a big influence"I had a very good father. We were poor, but we loved each other." He talked about being six, and going to the construction sites where Jose Aldo Sr. showed him how to build, the basics of bricks and concrete. Later, when he picked up jiu jitsu, he decided that he wanted to go to Rio and study under Dede Pederneiras, and he worked double construction shifts to pay for his ticket.

"I said I would only go back to Manaus when I was successful." Aldo said. "My mother did not believe me that I'd go to the sea. I brought her back ocean water and shells from Rio, to show her I'd made it."

The superior speed chess player

When he arrived he had a single bag of clothes, a 17-year old kid in the big city. He and his friend "Loro" survived off a $100 dollar sponsorship which Loro had picked up, not eating until late in the day to make the most out of the food they could afford. Aldo slept at the gym when he could. Hard times, but there were few better places to be for a young talent like Aldo. Marlon Sandro was one of the top featherweights of his day, alongside Hioki, Faber and Brown. Loro, who you might know better as Marcos Galvão, would later claim Bellator's bantamweight belt, only losing it to another Nova União product in Dudú Dantas, then reclaiming it again from Joe Warren. Future top 15 featherweight Hacran Dias gave Aldo a place to stay when Nova União moved gyms.

Aldo won fights in Jungle Fights, and Shooto, and made his way to the WEC, where he tore his way through the ranks and knocked out Mike Brown to take the belt that would become the UFC belt. Most of the articles and analysis were about how obviously athletic he was, but Luke Thomas cut to something less obvious - his craft.

There's a great video of Aldo being taken to buy his first suit in 2011. He looks at himself in the mirror and bursts out laughing, a kind of "Me? A suit?!" incredulous joy, like he's a kid dressed up in his Dad's work clothes.



Jose Aldo Sr never got to see his son take the championship, though. He died of pulmonary emphysema. Aldo's family's relationship with his Dad was more complicated and tangled than simple rags-to-riches tragedies. "My father had a drinking problem, and sometimes he'd get violent at home," he once admitted. "I was 14 when they separated. That morning, my mother was crying a lot. She was trying to say good bye to us, but we were kids and didn't really understand. When I got back from school that day my mother was gone. That's when I promised myself that I would never drink or hit my wife." Families are never simple, but Aldo felt he owed his father a lot. "...if today I am who I am, it's because of him. He always put me on the right track, he was a hard-working guy. I wanted to have him there, and be able to say to him: ‘you don't need to work any more, you can enjoy your life.' That I couldn't do that is an emptiness."

The cut

A lot of people were excited to see Aldo destroy his opponents as WEC champion. A lot of them would be disappointed. He finished everyone on his way to the belt, but he largely racked up decisions afterwards, and his best wins tended to come with qualifiers. He shut Urijah Faber out and smashed his leg into a mottled mess which darkened, swelled and strained at its skin like an overripe plum the next day... but Faber's stock was still lowered after two losses to Mike Brown. Kenny Florian was Aldo's first crack at someone known to the UFC audience... but Florian was drained down to forty pounds lower than his starting weight.

He fought Mark Hominick in the Canadian's home country at UFC 129. Aldo was ill coming into the bout, and his weight cut was painful. Aldo's camp is unfortunately infamous for bad cuts - in 2013, a Nova União fighter died trying to lose 33 pounds.

There's a video of the process, one where Aldo takes dips in a bath of salts to drain the last bit of moisture from his body, obviously in pain. He lies on the bed after a second bath, his face sucked to his skull and teeth protruding, and squints at the camera. "This is the last time... what is left of me will stay here. Thank God there is only 1.1lbs left." He pauses, then philosophically adds "and I will leave that to your positive thinking and cheering." Everyone in the room laughs. "I will not get in that tub again" he warns, half-serious. After a bit he goes downstairs and gets weighed. He's still over. He has to get in the tub again.

The video was meant to be the first of a two-parter, but they never released the second section. What we know is that Aldo was unable to come out to be part of a showcase of the UFC's champions, because he could barely stand.

The next day he started strong, beating a revolting hematoma into Hominick's forehead. By the fifth, he was gasping for air. Hominick took him to the ground, and started flailing desperately with ground and pound, while Aldo thrashed on the bottom. The crowd went wild until the bell rang.

There was no way Hominick's surge had won him the belt, but he stood and started doing push-ups. This was the Machine's normal post-fight ritual to show how much he had left in the tank. Aldo stood up, and joined him... and that, more than anything that had happened previously, was disconcerting. It tugged away at the narrative of the comeback. If Aldo still had something left, then why hadn't he made the effort, with his belt on the line? It didn't make sense.

Regardless, the bad cut would define his career. Commentary teams would jump on any possible indication that Aldo was fading. "He's got his mouth open!" Rogan would shout, ignoring that Aldo almost always has his mouth open when he fights.

Gears

Aldo's most recent fights were the ones where he was pushed. Frank Edgar dropped down to featherweight after dropping a hugely contested decision to Ben Henderson, and everyone knew the narrative of the fight before it started- Edgar's boxing against Aldo's leg kicks, whether Aldo could finish him before Edgar's work rate killed his gas tank.

When the bout started, Aldo took one step to his right, shot an iron bar of a jab into Edgar's eye, and killed the idea that the fight was going to be his Muay Thai against Edgar's boxing. Instead, it was mostly going to be Edgar's boxing against Aldo's better boxing. He racked up the first two frames with shocking ease. The leg kicks that everyone feared came as punctuation points, building up attritional damage and lessening the chance of top control by coming in the last minutes of the frame. The third round was more competitive, but still the champion's.

Edgar started to surge in the fourth, as he does. He landed his own leg kicks, got grimy in the clinch with knees to the thigh. As predicted, Aldo seemed to be fading... but when the champion came out for the last round, he turned the intensity back up. He made sure that he landed flashy, eye-catching offense, like a jumping superman punch off the cage. He won the battle of images and won the round. Not the great fight that everyone had expected and hoped for, largely because Aldo hadn't let it be a great fight. Against one of the best of the UFC's best division, he kept a firm hand on the throttle.

By this point, a constructed view of the champion was struggling. Bad weight cuts were one thing, but it seemed an increasingly flawed narrative that Aldo was just too big or that he was exhausting himself. When he fought Mendes the second time, it persisted: win the early going against Aldo and the late fight is there for you. Don't let him rest.

In the early going Mendes dropped Aldo, and then accidentally poked him in the eye, and after the reset the champion was suddenly roaring forward with four punch combinations and jumping knees. At the end of the fight, when both were bloodied and it seemed like the fight was up in the air, Aldo literally chased Mendes around the cage.

By this point, people understood. Aldo was controlling the fights, responding to what his opponents gave him. He wasn't dropping late rounds because he was exhausted, but was giving them away because he could; he was doing what fighters like Mayweather, Fury and Klitschko do... but he was doing it in a far more defensively immature sport. MMA is still absolutely filled with variance, and weird outcomes are common. Aldo had the kind of astonishing confidence which enabled him to keep a grip on the flow of the fight. If someone showed that they could test him, he'd cycle up through the gears, raise his intensity and blow past them. Other than that, he gave fights what they were worth to him. He wasn't bothered by criticism.

"I don't really pay attention to that. Just like Georges St-Pierre has gone to many decisions, people idolize him. All I care about is being the champion, it doesn't matter whether it's by knockout, submission or decision."

GSP was never like Aldo, though. The way Canadian fought and what he built was characterized by tension. Saint-Pierre cinched his fears together like a cat's cradle of steel hawsers, and he didn't finish fights because he couldn't make himself take the necessary step back, and because the constriction that's who he is didn't give him the room. He'd jab, takedown, guard pass and pound until the end of the fight with an almost desperate, monomaniacal focus.

Rather than fear or tension, Aldo radiates pride. Impressing Anglosphere audiences means little to him, so he just builds and pushes aside and keeps going, and everything is internalized and fiercely protected. When it came to understanding the fight game, the kid who cracked up laughing when he wore his first suit strode straight past his peers. He doesn't care if he loses late, he just cares that he wins, and a fight isn't anything special, just a job where you do enough to win, then down tools and go home.

The model

The UFC functions as an aspirational structure nested inside a bigger one, like a fractal of the American Dream. Start from the bottom and work your way up, and bust your ass to make the way from the prelims to the main event. Fame and fortune await the ones who make it to the top. They validate the model through their success, proving that those who failed should have tried harder. If the deck is stacked and prioritizes things like being blonde and blue-eyed, then that should just make struggling to the top all the sweeter. The UFC model encourages both ambition and a kind of submissiveness. Zuffa tend to look after "their guys", who step up on short notice, or fight injured, risking themselves for the company. Fighters are encouraged to put on exciting performances, with both official and opaque locker-room bonuses. Conversely, the UFC tends to bury fighters who stick up for themselves.

The organization itself struggled in the early years, and retains some of the paranoia of a start-up in its executives, but it no longer has the same level of existential threats to worry about that it once did. Now it's incredibly rich, and the questions asked of it are harder, around whether the structures it has made are fair. This is complex. Corporations aren't moral entities, and they're primarily responsible to their stakeholders. Beyond this, Zuffa has done genuinely laudable things, like instituting medical insurance for fighters and raising basic pay.

The questions revolve around the extent to which these are breadcrumbs; easy concessions from a hugely profitable company which dominates its marketplace. From a position of enormous power the UFC has ensured that the fighters beneath it are neither contractors capable of going to other organizations or employees with the associated rights, keeping them in a sweet spot under the catch-all label of independent contractors.

2015 has been a year of dazzling profits, but also of slight pushback against the UFC hegemony and this model. There's the anti-trust lawsuit; a number of fighters are increasingly seeking free agency, some with the resurgent Bellator. There's the Reebok deal as well, which continues to stagger on with barely a single positive story to its name.

"We look like the Power Rangers"

The initial launch of the Reebok uniforms was a damp fart, mis-spelling fighter names and featuring a selection of outfits which some were amused to note resembled Uno cards. With a cut to their earnings, and faced with a visible display of promotional ineptitude, the fighters were put in an awkward situation. Some were diplomatic. Brendan Schaub cemented an early retirement, and Tim Kennedy hasn't been seen in the cage since. The champions were largely silent, but Aldo was blunt, perhaps remembering the time when he survived on a tiny amount of sponsorship money.

"They suck[...]We look like the Power Rangers."

More damningly in the eyes of his employers, Aldo is not only the only champion, but virtually the only active UFC fighter to have ever publically expressed support for the idea of a fighter's union.

"When I speak about this, I don't speak for myself. If I say this might be good for Aldo, yeah, sure it can, I would make good money, I could say that. But when I look at other athletes, like I do at my gym, they need me and Andre Pederneiras to start helping them, because that's a bad thing that they are doing to them. It gets really bad for up and comers or guys who are trying to reach the top. I'm not talking about me, I'm all right, I'm the champion and I have a high price. Aldo hasn't become the champion now, he has been the champion for years. But for the beginners, it's really bad."

The Fertittas base is in casinos, and they've had a lot of problems with unions, and the last thing the UFC wants is its fighters organizing. UFC management do not appear to like Aldo very much at all. When he pulled out of the heavily promoted UFC 189 card with a fractured rib, Dana White claimed "he was medically cleared, but he decided to not fight" and cast doubt on the legitimacy of Aldo's injury. White has thrown some of the greatest fighters in the UFC under the bus already. Even considering his past, it's difficult to think of him doing something as partisan and as promotionally maladjusted as publically accusing his most dominant champion of faking an injury to duck a fight,

Aldo did not mince words in his response: "Sometimes things get lost in translation. Dana knew I was hurt. He's not a doctor, he's the UFC president, he promotes fights. Who can tell if I'm hurt or not should be someone who knows what they're talking about. Many doctors saw what happened. He can say whatever he wants."

Partly Dana was angry because the he knew that Aldo was and remains the B-side to the real moneymaker of the fight.

The favourite son

Conor McGregor invests himself into the sport at every level. For his talk of how MMA is just a numbers game and how there are no friends here, McGregor's world is one which he trusts, implicitly. It's all destiny and Laws of Attraction,  a reality that if you give yourself to it enough it will carry you as high as it can.

This makes him Zuffa's favourite son, for now anyway. McGregor came along to give them a star when they desperately needed one, and he's the best validation of the UFC's aspirational model you could imagine. He agreed to fight Chad Mendes on short notice, broke open the Irish market, and even signed on to add some star power to the rotting corpse of the Ultimate Fighter reality show. Zuffa desperately, transparently want him to win this fight and they want to be shot of their flatly rebellious and far less profitable featherweight champion.

Of course, if you look at fighters who have kept positive relations with the UFC long into their careers, they don't look much like McGregor. The chances that White is still "Uncle Dana" to Conor in four or five years are zero, and if the Irishman does take the belt, dislocation and confrontation will happen even faster. His self-belief won't be contained and he'll grow out of control fast, bucking against the constraints of a company which never brooked disagreement.

Zuffa likely know this, and they're willing to bring him close anyway. White and the Fertitta brothers are aggressive, blunt manipulators, with a brawler's confidence in their stability, and the UFC management has never been one to shy away from putting tomorrow at stake for today's profits.

Deflection

Aldo's worldview is isolationist in comparison to the challenger's: you don't take celebratory drinks with the boss and the world isn't there to carry you to better things. Instead you deflect, drive gales down appropriate channels and shed the vortices to let the winds blow themselves out. The important thing -in many ways, the only thing- is stability.

This is unpalatable stuff for an MMA audience. The sport as named came up alongside the social media boom, so the links between fans, media and fighters are still tight, bordering on incestuous, and being ignored doesn't go down well. We don't like to be blocked out. So it's hard to write about Jose Aldo. The things that make McGregor attractive to the UFC also mean that he's the one that the writers should want to win- you can make big, popular stories about manifest destiny and crazy quotes, but you can struggle to build connections to a Brazilian who turns up once a year or so, beats whoever's there over 25 minutes, and then goes home. His caustic defiance and blunt professionalism makes for a harsh, adult perspective in a world which it benefits us to make as cartoonish and exaggerated as possible.

Aldo's no crusader for truth and justice sticking up for the little man. He says what he thinks because he takes a pride in honesty and because he doesn't give a fuck. However, the willingness to speak truth to power does go against some misplaced ideas (partially caused by the UFC themselves) that he's scared of McGregor. If he thought he might lose this fight, there's no way he'd antagonize his employers like he does. Aldo's way has always been to stack up every advantage, but he also understands that his leverage is dependent on winning, and he has no thoughts that he might lose.

This doesn't mean he's going to win. He's in important technical ways a better fighter than McGregor will ever be, and that doesn't mean that he's going to win, either. Those expecting him to kick McGregor's lead leg to pulp like he did Faber's are likely misunderstanding the range at which the fight will happen; how McGregor can control the space which is in front of him in a way which Faber couldn't. Like Mendes, or Edgar, the first keys are in the boxing, and McGregor is a younger, larger and more powerful puncher. He throws at a far higher pace, and has shown an as-yet uncrackable chin.

It might be that Aldo still has something held back; maybe somewhere behind the carefully arranged baffles and strakes there's a level even Mendes couldn't push him to, and in his long marshalling of resources, he's kept back yet another gear shift. He's still young. On the other hand, after eleven years of fighting, further gears might be gone. The damage to his back, knees and ribs and the constant hum of injuries throughout his career might have been his resonance vibration, and the superstructure of the UFC's first and only featherweight champion is already a shell, exposed girders and roosting birds on the inside.

That would mean no more building in its future, and settling in place alongside the towers of the other greats. Trying to figure out Jose Aldo is guesswork, though, and guesses slide away off the surfaces he carefully constructed over the years.