The greatest featherweight of all-time is giggling and giggling and can’t seem to stop. It’s contagious. Four years before living legend melts into postscript, his team sends him out shopping for his first suit, something tailored and custom to make a good impression for a UFC debut. The scene lives forever on YouTube and is an infectiously funny watch. Two minutes of 24-year-old Jose Aldo strutting around a department store, a giant goofy grin tugging at the burn mark on his left cheek, the poor kid from the favelas tittering at the absurdity around him. He gets measured and fitted. He chooses something simple, something classic. Black on white. Scarface from the very start.
He didn’t know what was coming, and how could he? He was never meant for the theatrics, the Twitter slights and Photoshop parlor tricks that bled into a slow McGregorfication of the game. He didn’t know how fast eight years could be forgotten, or that he would be painted a liar and a coward while being dragged to the public gallows. He didn’t know that before his greatest moment, the world would cling to the words of an Irishman, human sneer wrapped in tricolor parading around with a false belt. No, Aldo knew only that he won. And as long as he kept on winning, life was going to change.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Take it back to 2008. Seven years before the entire city of Dublin turns on him, the greatest featherweight of all-time arrives stateside as a sidebar to a reclamation project. Lion’s food for an aging lion. Alexandre Franca Nogueira, on the other hand, is the real story. He is Jose Aldo before there is Jose Aldo — an overpowering Brazilian who ruled over Shooto for the better part of a decade, gorging on a steady diet of overmatched Japanese fighters. Nogueira’s reign is over by the time he lands on the deep undercard of this WEC show, but even then ‘Pequeno’ is still a name, and names need to feast.
They sacrifice the poor kid from the favelas.
It ends, mercifully, in eight minutes.
Those were the first signs, if you were lucky enough to catch them. If not, there would be plenty more.
Aldo spends his first year in the public consciousness knocking out five men in varying degrees of outlandish fashion. He devours the WEC champion in his sixth fight, then paints his purple masterpiece on the legs of a legend in his seventh. By the time No. 8 hobbles back home, Aldo is the first man under 155 pounds to ever call himself UFC champion. Twenty-seven prodigious months to catapult an unknown Amazonian talent from sleeping on gym mats to the epicenter of an entire sport. Even Tony Montana himself couldn’t pen this script. The kid is right to laugh.
His reign rolls into a new era, and his praises are soon sung with exasperation. No champion becomes so vexing, a supreme talent who rarely lays all of his cards on the table, cruise-controlled snoozers sprinkled among snapshots of sublime brilliance. He emerges for two weeks a year then retreats back to Brazil, occasionally remerging as the lone UFC champion to go full Sandor Cleagane and say fuck the king. Injuries and arrests and retirements and PED revelations ravage his peers, and he alone thrives. One thousand six hundred seventy-five days and counting. The last man standing from a bygone era of poster curses and Powerman 5000.
It really is crazy in retrospect, how high Aldo climbed in such short order and how it’s possible he may just be getting started. Even crazier, how stardom was the only opponent to ever duck him during his rise, and now is the very thing sprouting in cartoonish surplus across the Nevada desert. Because UFC 194 was never the biggest event of the year due to Brazilian stoicism. That credit goes to the mouth of the Eire that never stops and never sleeps. Aldo’s gangster cool was always just the perfect juxtaposition for the insanity.
So on Dec. 12, when Irish green and Brazilian gold converge on Las Vegas, the world will at last see what the cult of Mystic Mac can muster. Legends, champions, and journeymen have fallen alike, one by one, before the sword of the greatest featherweight to ever grace the cage. Conor McGregor is the next contender in line, but for now theirs is a brotherhood of fifteen, and this is their story. The story of how each came to learn that when you come at the King, you often leave with a limp.
Chad Mendes (UFC 142/UFC 179): The first time I ever saw Jose Aldo fight, I think it was his first WEC fight. At that time (Urijah) Faber was still at 145 and we’d just got done practicing. Someone, I think Faber, put it on and he was like, ‘this is a kid who’s going to be tough.’ Aldo wasn’t champ at that time but just watching him fight, we could all tell he was going to be a top guy in the weight class. He was young. Super explosive. Very athletic. He was taking risks with his stand-up and was super aggressive.
So Faber put it on at the gym, and we all kind of sat there and watched him crush ‘Pequeno’ Nogueira.
Alexandre Franca Nogueira (WEC 34): I first watched Jose fight in an MMA event in a favela called Rio das Pedras, in Rio de Janeiro. I didn’t know him personally, we never really spoke to each other before, but I was also there when he lost to Luciano Azevedo at Jungle Fight. I watched him closely, his aggressive style and the holes in his ground game. … After that I spoke with Luciano and he told me Aldo’s boxing had no pressure, that his strongest weapon was his kicks.
Based on some of his fights that I had already watched before — I knew Nova Uniao for a long time, and I always had good results against them — I thought I wouldn’t have much trouble taking him to the ground, that his ground game would be pretty much poor for MMA. I knew everything I needed to know.
Jonathan Brookins (WEC 36): I remember sleeping on [my coach’s] couch one day. We were watching WEC. We always watched fights before going to bed, and we saw this kid, Jose Aldo, on the TV. He did this backflip off the cage. At the time I was doing backflips off the cage, and I hadn’t been in the WEC but we were trying to get in the WEC. And I told my coach, I remember it on that couch. ‘I bet you, if I go, I’m going to fight this kid first.’ I just had a feeling.
I didn’t [see Aldo] until the day of the weigh-ins. I went to go use the treadmill early. Remember, I get up really early. I’m always the first one to the treadmill. But that day when I went to use it, he was on the treadmill before me. I was so mad. There was only one treadmill and I was just like, man, this kid… how did he get up?! I just got this notion then that he was real, real serious. I don’t know why that particular thing did it, him getting on the treadmill before me. I don’t know. But this dude, he had it in him.
Rolando Perez (WEC 38): I just knew that Jose was a black belt — and from what I’d heard, he was a good black belt. I saw his fight against [Nogueira] and he pressured, he threw punches and he stopped the guy. So I thought, okay, this could be a good fight for me. I don’t go into a fight without having 100-percent confidence. So I went in there like, I could beat this dude. I could outbox him. I could move, I could touch him up, and if I don’t stop him, I could beat him by decision.
Chris Mickle (WEC 39): The thing is, I had seen him fight Rolando Perez about a month prior. He beat Rolando in the first round by TKO or something, and I called up my manager and I told him: ‘Dude, I think I can beat this guy. I’m so much stronger.’
Two days later I got a fax from my manager. They didn’t even call me or anything. It just said ‘Jose Aldo’ on there. I remember thinking, my god, that’s fucking awesome. Then I found out they offered the fight to three other people. All three didn’t want it.
Ricardo Lamas (UFC 169): I actually remember the weigh-in (at WEC 39). Jose was right in front of me, and he was just kind of like pacing back and forth. He had his head down, and me and my trainer were kind of sitting there. And we were like, man, this guy is intense. We knew that he was a tough dude back then and I hadn’t even seen him fight yet. I still remember it all the way back then.
Mike Brown (WEC 44): One thing that was weird: I distinctly remember noticing at the time, he would never look you in the eye. That was something he did. Now he’s starting to with Conor because of this whole thing going on because Conor’s so crazy. Conor’s getting a pulse out of him. But normally he would never look anyone in the eye. We had to do all these face-offs for promo videos where we had to step to each other, look at each other in the eye, then look at the camera. But he would never, ever look me in the eye. He would, like, look off. Look at your ear, you know? I always found that interesting.
Now when people tell me, ‘I looked a guy in the eye and I could tell I got him,’ I always think of Aldo. He didn’t look anybody in the eye. He just stared at the floor, came out and fought hard.
But honestly my confidence was so high. I thought I was going to walk through him. That was just my mindset at the time. I hadn’t lost in a while and I was beating guys and I was beating guys easily. There was so much hype behind Urijah. Then it was Leonard Garcia, who had just knocked out Jens, knocked out (Hiroyuki) Takaya. That fight was really easy. So I was thinking, yeah, this is just another one of these guys. Everybody’s tough. I didn’t see how special he was at the time. But man, I felt it when I was in the cage.
Perez: With Jose Aldo, you don’t understand until you experience it. I took the fight on short notice. I only had about two weeks to train, so I didn’t really get to train for Jose and what he could do. But in the past I had a buddy I liked to train with. He fought in the WEC too. His name was Ed Ratcliff. Ed was one of the fastest guys I’ve ever trained with. Hands and kicks, and he had a karate style so he threw all kinds of spinning kicks and everything. So I was used to speed, because I’d seen guys like that. But I never fought anyone with that kind of speed and confidence. He fought with more confidence that any other guy I’d fought.
Brown: Jose was only [23 years old], but I don’t think I ever thought about how young he was. I actually thought he was older. Honestly. I actually remember it now, there was a rumor that people would say: ‘That’s bullshit. He’s not even that young. He’s 28.’
I literally remember hearing stuff like this, and being like, ‘man, you know, maybe he is older.’
Mickle: I knew he would be quick, but he was quicker than I could have possibly thought.
The different angles he took, you couldn’t see his hip movement until his kicks or punches were already there. They were just so fast, and when they did hit you, already two or more were hitting you. So you had to be able to block everywhere instead of just one spot. Most guys, you just have to worry about their left hook or something. But with Jose, you’re not worried about his power. You’re worried about his speed, because he’s going to hit you on the same spot — or roughly — at totally different angles. It’s six or seven times before the average person hits two or three at most.
Manny Gamburyan (WEC 51): It’s very deceptive. You don’t know if it’s the right hand coming, if it’s the uppercut, jab, or it’s a crazy right leg kick. He freezes you. It’s just the way he fights. It’s his timing. He’s just one second ahead of you.
Kenny Florian (UFC 136): It’s the beauty of how mixed martial arts is changing the art of striking. In Muay Thai, depending how things are unfolding, your lead leg dictates the amount of strength you’re going to get out of your leg kick. Guys will open up that lead leg, then throw that rear leg. What it does, it allows the kick to rotate all the way around but gives the guy who’s going to receive the kick a tell. So as soon as you see them open up that foot, you know that kick is coming.
Jose keeps his foot pointed forward and still generates an insane amount of power. So there’s no tell. You can’t read his kicks, which makes it so difficult when combined with the actual speed he generates. So it’s very hard to check those kicks. We saw with Urijah Faber, he was limping for months.
Faber: That was actually the most pain I’ve ever been in, because it was all soft tissue.
The ones that landed, it was a different kind of kick than I’d felt before. Normally if you get caught with a kick like that in practice, you stop and, you know, shake it off and get the limp out before you start sparring again. But man, those kicks. We were having a little trouble reaching each other and I think he just decided to use that weapon. And it got nasty, dude. I remember sitting down after the second round having, like, a softball-sized welt right on my knee. I couldn’t bend my knee and I just remember looking down like, holy shit.
Mendes: I fought on that same card, I’m almost positive. That was the one here in Sacramento and I think I fought Anthony ‘Cheesesteak’ Morrison. I took that fight on short notice, but I got to train with Urijah actually quite a bit and prepare. And at the time, Urijah was the man. We had watched Jose and we knew that he was a tough, tough guy, but we didn’t really know what the hell was going to happen. And just watching that fight go down, man, that was a tough fight for any of us from Team Alpha Male to watch.
Urijah was our leader. He’s the guy who recruited us all in and was someone we all looked up to. And he had never really been beat like that before. I remember seeing his leg about two or three days after and it was just… it looked like somebody took a baseball bat and just hit it over and over and over again. I remember Faber telling me then: ‘This is the guy who you’re going to end up fighting. This is a guy you can beat. I know it.’
Faber: Looking back, I remember actively having to hobble after him at one point. Like actually having to limp. I was just… for me it was like, alright, how am I going to hit this guy? So I just switched stances and kept trying to hit him with the right hand. Even when he kicked me to the ground, I can’t remember exactly how I went down, but I couldn’t bend my leg at all. Like, I really [couldn’t] use my leg on the ground either. I felt like I was going to pass out from the pain by the time I did the post-fight interview.
I’ve never been hit with a bat. But I think [that experience] would be kind of like how it feels to get hit with a bat. Like somebody aiming at you with a bat. That’s the best way to describe it. Over and over and over.
Brookins: By the second round I was just, like, almost trying to jump over those leg kicks. Every time there were coming, I remember being terrified. My god, man. I remember before the fight somebody telling me, ‘Jon, you need to defend the leg kicks. The kid kicks the leg.’
I had only been in ‘x’ amount of fights and my thoughts on leg kicks, I remember saying: ‘leg kicks don’t hurt.’ That was my response to this guy.
Florian: I didn’t get full feeling in my legs back for months. He was kicking the inside of my leg, which affected the nerves in my legs so much that it took about a full two months to really get feeling back. It actually [became a game]. I would swipe my hand on the inside of my leg to see if I could feel it, and I just couldn’t feel it. I literally could not feel my fingers rubbing against the skin of my leg because the nerves were dead.
So for two months I would just, like, swipe my leg all the time to see if the nerves were there. Finally, after a couple months, they did come back. But, I mean, it was that kind of power. He not only doesn’t have a tell to his kicks and generates an insane amount of power, but he’s also very fast, and he even keeps the foot pointed. When you keep the foot pointed on a kick, it ensures you want to kick with your shin and not your foot. That’s why it really feels like you’re getting hit with a baseball bat. He doesn’t kick with the foot. He kicks with his shin.
Brookins: It was unbearable pain. I’d probably say easily one of the most painful moments of my life was the freaking days after the fight.
The hardest weapon in your body that you could throw, if you’re throwing it right, would be your shin. At this velocity and speed and projection and all the weight behind it in your leg, that’s easily the most damaging weapon if used correctly. And that dude (Aldo) will, like, cut your muscle. He’ll cut it to where you’ll bleed inside of your leg internally — to where, to this day, man, my knee will still swell up and have fluid in it. It still has cartilage all out of place because Jose ripped so many of the muscles in my leg. So much blood was draining into my knee after the fight that they kept having to syringe the blood out of my knee for almost two months.
Faber: He actually hit me with a jump knee, which — I didn’t feel it until later, but if you watch the fight he hit a jump knee that hit me right in the sternum. It knocked me down for a second then I stood right back up like nothing happened. But after my leg stopped hurting about four weeks after, then my sternum hurt for, like, almost two years. I’m not even sure what happened.
Gamburyan: I don’t know if you guys know anything about soccer, but I am a big-time fan of Brazilian soccer.
England, they’re a very fast team. When they play Brazil, somehow Brazil slows them down and makes them play their game. I don’t know how it happens, but it’s the same thing with Jose Aldo. Even if you want to fight fast, or anything like that, he makes you go on his pace. It’s magic, or it’s just that he’s gifted. I don’t know.
Lamas: Jose kind of reads people as they’re fighting him. He kind of studies the way that you’re moving and what you’re doing.
Not many guys sit back and watch you, the way you move, and study you like that. Not many guys do that at all.
Florian: It’s these little minute adjustments that he’s constantly calibrating with his head and his body that put him in such a great position.
His distance control is tremendous. That means that he’s just always in a perfect range. If you creep in, he creeps away. If you creep away, he creeps forward. He always puts himself in position to strike but not be taken down, and that really is the art of striking for MMA.
Mendes: Up until him, I’d pretty much just completely out-horsepowered everybody I’d [fought]. Now all of a sudden here was a guy who we were pretty damn even. I remember feeling it. Getting in on his legs and just feeling that explosiveness and that strength and speed, [feeling] someone who was pretty similar to myself. I think that, more than anything, surprised me.
Florian: I hate to talk about it, because I think one of the easiest things to do analysis on is say, ‘he’s athletic.’ Everyone says that. But man, is that fucking kid athletic. It’s just, the speed and power and explosiveness in that kid is on another level. It’s one of those things, like we just said, you don’t know until you experience it firsthand. He may very well be the best athlete in the UFC. You look at him, he has no wrestling pedigree. But no one can take him down. It’s not like he’s doing super technical counters with his wrestling. He’s just utilizing his ability to run away from you or to lead your shot, or the ability to limp-leg out with, like, insane speed. It’s wild. It really is.
Brown: It’s his hips. He’s got great balance and great hips. That’s the term we use in wrestling. The ability to keep your hips squared to the mat and not go over, you know? He’s got it.
Florian: I could not have hit a better shot against Aldo early on. It literally could not have been quicker or better timed. But he does things that don’t make sense. I mean, he bounced off that cage. His hip strength, he feels like a middleweight. He really does. It’s hard to equate that because I’m not sure how much of it was due to my lack of strength in that fight or how much was due to his strength, and I think it’s both, but I know when someone feels strong. He really felt strong.
Mendes: I can understand because I have the exact same thing. I don’t hardly ever get taken down at the gym. It’s all about, in wrestling you’re taught this at a young age: if you get taken down, you don’t let the momentum stop. Once the guy takes you down and he stops the momentum, he has complete control and it’s so much harder for you to have to work to try to get back up.
So that’s one of the things that, Jose, he was never a wrestler. Being as athletic as he is and not having that (background), he doesn’t want to be on the ground. So as soon as anybody ever takes him down, his goal is to keep momentum going, pop back up and keep going. I pretty much do that same thing. It’s just about keeping the ball rolling, and he’s just really good at doing that.
Florian: It’s also his knowledge of cage wrestling. He’s so good at digging his feet into the cage.
There’s like, almost a little mini-moat between the mats and the cage. It dips down. No one talks about that, and it’s something a lot of guys now are aware of. A lot of people don’t want people to know about that because it is a very strategic thing that guys are using now in fights. It really evens the playing field. There was a time when the cage was a disadvantage for a lot of strikers. Now it becomes an advantage.
He was one of the first guys to utilize it very well. He sticks his feet inside of that little hole and it’s almost impossible to remove his foot from there, because it’s grooved. His feet can sit inside that groove and you cannot pull the guy’s feet away from that cage, even if you have your hands locked to a certain extent, because it just gets stuck in there. You really have to get good liftoff, and it’s hard to kind of get liftoff tied up against the cage. He spreads his legs really far, and he has that foot stance up against the cage. He puts his feet in the groove and he’s not going anywhere.
Lamas: It’s kind of deceiving.
When you look at him, he doesn’t look like a huge guy. I just think the muscle he has is just very compact, so he’s a strong guy.
Florian: It’s a special thing. And if you want to get in on his legs, you have to worry about defense, his back knee that he’s very well known for and people forget about. Also his uppercuts. He times his uppercuts very well. He throws them very loopy, but he throws them in such a manner that you’re going to run right into it if you try to change levels and get in on his legs.
Hominick: It’s pure Dutch-style kickboxing. He throws that lead hook then the outside low kick. You look at Pedro Rizzo, Marco Ruas, they come from a long list of top strikers with those combinations, the Dutch style.
I’ve been in over 25 kickboxing bouts, over 30 MMA bouts, and I would say that’s the hardest I’ve been hit.
Florian: He kind of has that ability like Anderson Silva where the more you get nasty, the nastier he gets. He’s forced to come up with more tricks, because Jose is content to cruise and do just enough to win. He’s that talented.
If you go in second gear, he’ll go in third. If you go in fourth, he’ll go in fifth. He does just enough to get the better of you. And I think that’s why he doesn’t wow you with stuff. He does nothing you haven’t seen before, so in people’s minds, it’s not, ‘oh my gosh, look at that crazy wheel kick he throws.’ No, Conor throws those. Aldo, he’s throwing leg kicks. He throws a jab. He throws a one-two. He hits you with an uppercut. It’s all stuff you’ve seen before. But I think it’s always in the simplicity, the beautiful execution of simplicity that actually makes him a genius.
The fact that you know what’s coming and he still gets you with it. He’s not a guy who’s super creative necessarily, so I think that’s why people aren’t wowed by it — he doesn’t have the sense of urgency to go out there and risk it. That’s frustrating sometimes for people watching Jose Aldo. But you see when he’s pressured, when he’s forced to show those skills, you see what Aldo is all about. When Cub Swanson ran at him in WEC, he hit that double knee. When Chad Mendes really threw bombs on him and was in his face, we saw what Aldo was capable of. He had to step up his level, so we saw one of the best fights of all-time.