Jose Aldo claims the Brazilian Navy got him here. And, really, who am I to argue with the results? At UFC 265, Aldo put on yet another masterclass in total technique: using movement, from his head to his toes, feints, jabs, leg kicks, bodywork, and so much more. Performances like the one against Pedro Munhoz are why fans and even analysts consider Aldo the GOAT despite being a .500 fighter since his loss to Conor McGregor.
Granted, I’m not here to talk about a GOAT status that I suspect is sometimes tongue-in-cheek. But the reverence for what Aldo is doing is very real. Everything we know about the aging curve, peak performance, and weight cutting have been subverted by his recent work. As such, it pays to give his fights a closer look.
Against a brawler like Munhoz, he had a tall task. Aldo, after all, has never been a hyper-technical counterpuncher. Not because his counterstriking skills were never there — they’ve always been — but because there’s rarely been a calibration element to how he digs in for offense. His probing jab can be pressure enough, which explains the contradiction in his obvious power yet lack of brutal knockouts in recent years. As my colleague Phil MacKenzie once said, Aldo’s fight philosophy is “pay attention to what you have to, and no more.”
For Aldo, this is the way. It has and hasn’t paid off. Even if you’d be willing to die on the hill (like me) that he should have won the Marlon Moraes bout, that’s not a matchup Aldo should cut so close. Is Brazilian Navy Aldo a new mythical creature? I don’t think so. But I’m also not convinced otherwise.
Round one: fine, let’s talk calf kicks
What is with MMA? Why do specific techniques have their own fanbases? Yes, calf kicks are an effective strategy. But no, it’s not MMA’s latest quantum disruption machine. Calf kicks are no different than any other kick. They can be maximized or not. Sure, they’re harder to defend, but that doesn’t mean fighters are defenseless.
Are my eyes deceiving me or is that José Aldo easily checking a calf kick? pic.twitter.com/AzR5qEb9qJ— Lucas Bourdon (@lucas_bourdon) August 8, 2021
This seemed to be the story early on. Interestingly, this doesn’t even capture the first calf kick Aldo checked, which I thought was the spiffiest. The first calf kick Munhoz threw, Aldo actually angled his lower body like an air vent. Nothing fancy, or revolutionary: just a simple re-aligning of body positioning. Calf kicks weren’t the issue. Nor is it even worth talking about. Aldo is good at checking/defending kicks of all kinds. Why would calf kicks be any different? Didn’t we have this discussion a year ago?
Anyway, part of Munhoz’ issue in the first round was his approach. Throwing a spinning kick is totally fine. Unlike Nick Diaz, I’m pro “spinning shit.” The problem here is that Munhoz kept throwing it, and throwing it. If you couldn’t land a harder-to-defend, quick strike like a calf kick, how on earth was a spinning kick gonna do the trick?
To be fair, there wasn’t a whole lot Munhoz could do. Not only was he at a reach disadvantage, but Aldo’s counter movement was stellar. I don’t think it’s his best trait, but it’s the part of his game that opponents have to penetrate first if they stand a chance. Just as Aldo has trouble calibrating the velocity of his entries, I sometimes wonder if it affects his calibration of an opponent’s entries as well. Notice how Aldo’s head movement is so good against combinations, even against the fence, but he can be routinely caught with lead punches.
Munhoz caught him good with a simple lead right hand. It was his best punch of the fight (his second best being a left hook in the second round that was also a lead punch).
Round two: the value of upper body movement
Aldo’s lead hand has always been busy. I’m not the technique nerd to break down specifically what it all means for specific strike selection. I just know that movement is, well, movement. More movement typically generates more reactions. Less movement generates less reaction. That doesn’t more movement is better than less movement, and vice versa. UFC Champs like Kamaru Usman and Charles Oliviera are not subtle movers. Nor does this binary way of looking at movement mean there aren’t gradations. Eyes aren’t responsible for vision. The brain is. The more noise you can throw into the movement microwave — be it heavy or light — the harder those movements are to predict or stop.
Here, Aldo’s upper body movement was stellar. He’s developed something much closer to that Juan Manuel Marquez base: moving his body (especially his lead shoulder) to invite bad entries, and counterpunch in combination. It hasn’t always been there. You wouldn’t be able to find it all against Chad Mendes. Against Moraes, Aldo seemed to chase a little more than he was used to. Against Volkanovski, he chased less with his feet, but seemed to chase a little more with his punches. It was the Yan fight where Aldo seemed to settle into a more confident rhythm with his upper body. Despite losing, it was one of his best performances in ages.
This kind of pullback motor of his created a lot of opportunities in this round. Much of it led to Aldo penetrating the body. And much of that led into the offense that stung Munhoz in the next round as Aldo finally softened him up to crack Munhoz’ high guard with ease. I don’t think Aldo is the kind of fighter who needs some grandiose lightbulb moment, but if he did, it was there in that second round. Despite the second round being Aldo’s most active, he didn’t need to throw everything into every punch. Many hands make light work, and for once, Aldo found that perfect medium in high volume and high velocity without bridging the gap with only raw fury.
Round three: easy money
If you didn’t look at the stats, you would never know Aldo threw less strikes in the third round versus the second. He was just so on point. The joy of an Aldo fight is very similar to that of an elite boxer. Win or lose, a high level of technique is always on display. Watching Aldo is also watching a history of fight craft unfolding. So many other fighters, even elite ones, have to jailbreak their way out and sometimes fight through technique. That’s simply not the case with Aldo. As he gets older, that history keeps growing — as if he’s weaponizing his scholarship.
It’s hard to package up everything that happened at UFC 265, and believe that Aldo found a new gear. Munhoz is a good fighter. But his performance was lacking. But I think the Yan fight revealed the fighter we can continue to expect in the future: a great fighter letting the worst parts of his game deteriorate so that a better fighter can emerge inside a lesser body. I don’t think it’s enough, but finding out the answer will be a joy to see unfold, win or lose.