I don't love the way Jose Aldo fights. I certainly don't dislike Aldo or his style of fighting, but it's not close to being anywhere near my favorite. I know that's abrupt and upfront, but it's worth getting right to the point.
It's also worth acknowledging Aldo is an incredible talent. He's incontestably the best featherweight ever, even if he loses to Chad Mendes on Saturday at UFC 179. He's deserving of placement at the very high end of pound-for-pound rankings. The Brazilian absolutely rates headlining pay-per-views and the collection of featherweight scalps he's amassed in his reign over the division is, quite literally, without equal. His reflexive decision-making skills are arguably the best in the sport. On occasion, he's capable of sublime and devastating offense.
Aldo, though, has garnered something of a false reputation.
Whenever he competes, we are told by fans, media and other personalities in the MMA community that Aldo is not only a pound-for-pound great (true), but an offensive machine (false). The fact is when we think of today's Jose Aldo, we should think of a fighter who places as much emphasis on defense as offense, if not more toward the former.
Consider two arguments. First, the numbers. Whether we are discussing stat leaders irrespective of weight class or just isolated to featherweight, Aldo does not especially stand out on offensive terms.
In terms of knockdowns, Aldo has only two. He does rank fifth among featherweights for significant strikes landed, but that figure is aided by the long duration of his bouts (Aldo is number one among featherweights for longest total fight time and longest average fight time). Moreover, Aldo doesn't even rank in the top ten among his 145-pound peers when it comes to strikes landed per minute or significant strike accuracy. He is also not in the top 10 in terms of overall strikes landed.
Yet, Aldo is number two all-time among featherweights for significant strike defense (behind, coincidentally, Mendes). He is also number five when it comes to those who absorb strikes the fewest.
What about grappling? Is Aldo in the top ten for takedown or submission attempts? No, but he is number two all-time among featherweights in terms of takedown defense.
Second, there is a conventional opinion that Aldo's deadliness has declined since moving from the WEC to the UFC. There might be some validity to that. It's true he's facing significantly tougher opposition, which impacts his ability to be more openly offensive. It's also true as Aldo matures, he makes himself less open to counterattack.
What few consider, though, is Aldo's deft use of open spaces. In the WEC, that was limited due to the smaller cage. In the UFC, he has an incredible amount of space to work with against charging opposition. If you try to walk him down, he circles out at long angles. If you press him against the fence (itself, a difficult task), he quickly creates separation and scrambles away. If you try to blitz him, he uses huge swathes of the Octagon to thwart the attack.
From there, he resets the fight. Aldo's UFC fights, in fact, are filled with resets. He constantly uses negative space to stymie any attack or forward progress from his opponents, only to then use that same space to reset the fight on his terms: standing across from him, being picked off by leg kicks, jabs and hooks to the body. That's not the sum total of his offense. His has good takedowns from the clinch and loves opening up with combinations when he gets opponents to put their backs along the cage. But the visual of Aldo posing off against weary fighters inching their way towards him is more than just a little common. It's arguably the centerpiece of his offense. It's his fight on his terms. He can use his explosive power to hurt in bursts while moving away from everything else thrown at him.
If all of this sounds like some roundabout way of decrying more defensively-minded fights or fighters, it's not. In fact, if MMA needs anything, it's fighters with a healthier respect for and ability to showcase defensive fundamentals. Defense is a skill and watching expert skills applied against opposition who aren't ready to accommodate them is something to behold. Aldo's fights, by most estimations (including mine), are not bad. They're good by any reasonable standard, but, for me, lack competitive energy relative to his championship peers. That's by design. Aldo's game isn't just lording his skills over theirs, but completely muting them.
It should further be noted Aldo is something of an unusual case as it relates to defensive fighters. There is a traditional assumption those who trend toward defense do so out of necessity. Why be defensive if you have the offensive arsenal to wield, especially in a sport like MMA where winning is much more predicated on offense than, say, boxing? Aldo is a strange case of a fighter who is highly capable on offense, but as he matures, only selectively applies it.
The problem is how Aldo is continually misrepresented by fawning acolytes. He is a defensive fighter capable of extreme, if intermittent, violence. He is not an offensive juggernaut, tearing through the featherweight division with an assault of attacks in all dimensions of the game. Presenting him as such at this juncture in his career isn't a reflection of the facts as much as romanticism about his WEC campaign.
Before we conclude, let's also take a moment to underscore what is not being claimed here.
For starters, Aldo doesn't need to change the way he fights. This article isn't a call to action. What he does works. He doesn't owe it to anyone else to do anything different.
Second, if Aldo's blend of ferocious, if occasional, violence mixed with superb defense appeals to you, that's fine. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Aldo is careful. He's intelligent. He's mindful of when to and not to apply offense. It's probably narrow, but there's an entertainment market for that.
Third, though, is the attempt to tie in the appreciation of the aesthetics of Aldo's fighting style as a proxy for fight game erudition or one's allegiance to the sport's hardcore community. It is neither of those things. An understanding of MMA does not preclude one from having a variety of tastes. That's true both on a principled stance as it is temporal. An engaged fight fan's interests alter over time. That's true both in linear and cyclical ways. Understanding Aldo's brilliance while not being enraptured by it is not a mutually exclusive exercise.
The only matter not up for debate is Aldo's resume. It's about as close to being above reproach as a fighter in the modern era can get. Any scrutiny of what the Brazilian has accomplished as a function of one's dislike for his style is a non-starter.
So, get out there and adore Aldo. Or don't. Just be aware of what kind of fighter Aldo actually is. From there, it's up to you to decide whether that's appealing. For me, it's not my favorite and that's perfectly OK.