Requiem For A Featherweight: How Jose Aldo Was Built To Destroy An Era…And That Era Has Passed
The greatest featherweight of our time exploded into the public consciousness with every dull thud of wincing leg kicks and video-game like counter punching. On April 24, 2010, as Urijah Faber limped around a WEC cage, his left leg purple and blue, the most popular star in the sport hobbled by a head-shaved Brazilian with a face of stubble and off-colour scar on his left cheek. Jose Aldo had arrived.
Fast-forward to just over a week ago. That same shaved head and scar now on a face clean-shaven with a goatee, marred with ugly red bruises and swelling, appeared defeated. Aldo, seven years removed from that Faber fight, had seen his legendary streak as UFC Featherweight champion end, ushering in the reign of a new champion, Max Holloway. Aldo appeared despondent, his face a mask of his own emotion and a portrait of Holloway’s brutal beating. It appeared to the MMA world that Aldo was now a thing of the past.
In truth, it was Aldo’s dominance of an era that brought about his demise.
To many, the realization of Aldo’s greatness came two fights earlier when he finished a younger Cub Swanson with a terrifying counter jumping knee on a takedown attempt. In hindsight, while the manner in which he brutalized Faber’s leg would come to represent the utter terror of fighting Aldo, it was his finish of Swanson that symbolized the inevitability challenger after challenger had to face. Because for the longest time, nobody stopped a takedown better than Aldo – and everybody’s game was built on the takedown.
In any sport there is a metagme being played, an overarching trend that evolves out of the many forces at play in the training rooms and competitions throughout the sport. In football, there was the move from power-I running attacks in the 70’s to the West Coast offense in the late 80’s, then the move from the West Coast to the spread principles in the aughts. Sports change on a high level to favor certain coaching principles, training concepts, and styles. The very best athletes of their era tend to either adapt to the metagame or be perfectly suited for it. Jose Aldo was both.
On a high level, Aldo’s career was built on perfect timing and reaction to what was around him. In a sport that began its evolution from a cage fight between misfit toys, the first dominant force Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. BJJ was a discipline that convinced the boxers, wrestlers, muai thai, and other practioners to learn some new tricks or die. As the early BJJ practioners had shown, on the mat was where most athletes made mistakes.
The next evolution of the sport came from the wrestlers who discovered how to get what they wanted, the takedown, while mitigating the risk of slick submissions. Fighters like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and Matt Hughes came to be dominant figures in MMA on the back of their wrestling pedigrees. Some used it as an offensive tool, like Ortiz and Hughes, while others utilized it to keep fights on the feet where they could bang it out, like Liddell and Henderson. But their dominance was a result of being exceptional at pursuing, achieving, or preventing the takedown.
The sport continued to evolve from the Liddell, Ortiz, and Hughes’ into fighters like George St. Pierre, Brock Lesnar, Johny Hendricks, and Benson Henderson. These fighters were better overall athletes, increasingly dynamic on the feet, and more versatile grapplers. But they still relied on the threat of the takedown, the ability to use it offensively and defensively.
Like the relationship of an alpha predator to its environment, Aldo was made to consume all other predators just like that. If a fighter relied on the takedown, Aldo made a meal of them. The stockier they were, the better. The more one-dimensional their standup, the better.
As McGregor’s coach, John Kavanaugh, surmised to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto in the lead up to Aldo-Holloway, “Aldo's style is almost perfect against smaller guys who are grappling-based. I don't believe there is a smaller guy than Aldo in the world, who is grappling based, who could beat him.” Aldo fought this very prototype throughout his career. The kind of fighter typified by the Manny Gumburyan, Faber, Chad Mendes, Ricardo Lamas, and Frankie Edgar’s of the sport.
To understand why these fighters – and why their prototype within the metagame – were prime pickings for Aldo, you need to understand how the takedown grappler makes their bread.
In the most basic sense, takedowns begin in two areas: the clinch and the shot. For a wrestler, the key is to get to their opponent’s hips. If they can get it by starting in a clinch exchange and dropping to the hips, or, as was most common during the heydays of Ortiz, Couture, and their ilk, with a relentless blast-double or single-leg, they were in business. Both can happen out in open space or near the cage.
One of the shifts in the metagame, a shift that a fighter like Aldo has led the charge, is denying wrestlers the shot – and the ability to get their hips – out in open space. Aldo was the master of this. He blazed new and exciting tactics for keeping takedown-hungry fighters off his hips. He began to use pivots (shifting ones weight on a ‘pivot’ leg) to create angles difficult for wrestlers to shoot on him clean, like a matador calmly stepping aside a charging bull. He also used the threat of his knees, which are arching, upward attacks that connect with the downward movement of a wrestlers head on a takedown attempt. This wasn’t all. If a fighter were to get lucky enough to secure a single-leg, Aldo was a master at pushing down on their head while simultaneously ‘limp legging’ the captured leg and slipping it out, as if his leg were made of butter.
As wrestler began to see their opportunities out in open space decrease, many adjusted by trying to force grappling opportunities near the cage. The same way Aldo was ahead of the game in space, his game was already kryptonite for this tactic. He rarely let other fighters pressure him, often dissuading their advances with nasty counter striking. His pivots were of further benefit here, because he could take subtle angles to move away from the cage and put his back facing into open space.
This is, ironically, the beauty of Aldo’s legacy and what will live on when we look back on it. He feasted on an entire era of fighters who built their game on the takedown. It is also why his losses to McGregor and Holloway signal perhaps not only Aldo’s shift in irrelevance, but that era of the metagame.
At the point in which the metagame evolved to broadly favor takedown artists, it then shifted in favor of fighters who could deny the takedown while also being even more of a terror on the feet. These long strikers used Aldo-like angles but also poured on the striking volume, overwhelming anyone who couldn’t meet their pace. Aldo’s success encouraged the growth of the kind of fighter who would come to threaten him most. If it wasn’t for Aldo revealing the secret to beating the powerful takedown stylists, the Max Holloway’s of the world may not have evolved accordingly.
Ironically, Aldo ushered in the kind of changes in the metagame that would precipitate his own downfall. In so doing, he displayed the incredible ability to both dominate the competition of his era and the broader style that dominated that era.
Though Aldo is not done just yet, only time will tell if we get another fighter who was so perfectly suited to annihilate an entire era of fighting. With his latest defeat, if it feels not only like the loss of a great champion but a part of the sport, it certainly is.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.