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Jose Aldo’s legendary status alone shouldn’t be criteria for leapfrogging worthy contenders

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Jose Aldo (Cynthia, MMA F)

No one should have been surprised when on Monday, the news came down that Jose Aldo would be granted the opportunity to dethrone UFC bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo at UFC 250 in May. While the promotion generally follows a meritocratic model, it has in recent years shown more willingness to stray in instances where there is more money to be made or interest to be generated in alternate ideas.

From the UFC’s perspective (i.e. a financial one), it makes perfect sense that it would want Aldo to headline the event in São Paulo, Brazil, rather than another top non-Brazilian contender. In effect, geography dictated the decision.

Problem is, there is not one but three contenders with more compelling cases than Aldo. At the time of this writing, Aldo currently sits at No. 6 in the division, a ranking earned mostly through his past work as a featherweight. To date, he has competed exactly once as a 135-pound fighter, a bout in which he lost to Marlon Moraes at UFC 245. Even in the moment, it was a close, disputed result. And even in the moment, UFC president Dana White indicated he was open to basically ignoring the outcome to promote Aldo-Cejudo.

“I think Jose Aldo won the fight,” White said in the UFC 245 post-fight press conference. “Most of the room thought he won. If [Cejudo] wants Jose Aldo next, we could do it. I don’t have a problem with it. I’m sure people would want to see it.”

Aldo is a legend, so of course many MMA fans will want to see it. That’s not in question. What’s in question is, is this fair to the rest of the division?

While Aldo was plying his trade as a featherweight, many bantamweights were working hard to progress toward a possible title shot. And three of them have built excellent cases that they deserve to be promoted in that slot.

Aljamain Sterling has won four in a row, and six of his last seven. During his four-fight streak, he hasn’t lost a single round, capped by victories over Pedro Munoz and Jimmie Rivera. Peter Yan has gone unbeaten in his six UFC bouts since joining the promotion, and has consecutive wins over Urijah Faber and Rivera. Cory Sandhagen has won five straight, including back-to-back victories over Raphael Assuncao and John Lineker.

These stretches of success are no small thing. They span anywhere from 19 months (Yan) to two-and-a-half years (Sterling). That time represents training sessions, weight cuts, injuries, time away from loved ones. Blood and sacrifice. Shouldn’t that mean something? And if so, shouldn’t it result in true consideration for the sport’s ultimate opportunity?

Instead, it seems this decision was predetermined based upon factors outside of fighting. Popularity is something that is always going to factor into business decisions, but there has to be a point where adoration is trumped by résumé.

If Aldo had gone into the Moraes fight, and impressed in a clear victory, that would give the UFC much firmer cause for its decision. Instead, he looked OK and lost. While no one was ready to write him off afterward, neither did anyone walk away from the match thinking he was the heir to the bantamweight belt.

Whenever ex-champions jump weight classes, the potential for divisional upheaval surfaces. Jon Jones, for instance, could move up to the heavyweight class right now and immediately be installed into a title bout. But such things should be handled on a case-by-case basis. By comparison, the most impressive heavyweight streak held by top five fighters is just three, held by both Francis Ngannou, whom champion Stipe Miocic already beat, and Curtis Blaydes. Given the lesser streaks and Ngannou’s past crack at the belt, Jones passing them over wouldn’t be nearly so egregious as what’s happening in the bantamweight class.

The silver lining here is that Sterling, Yan and Sandhagen are still relatively young and in their primes. Yan and Sandhagen are both just 27, while Sterling is 30. Still, you never quite know how long a fighter’s prime will last. Sterling has been in the UFC for six years. It can be difficult to sustain the necessary levels of motivation when you know what the end game is, but have no idea how to get there. For now, they’ll wait.

Aldo is a legend, but his featherweight past won’t mean a thing when he steps in the cage with Cejudo. And that’s reason enough why that history alone shouldn’t be the defining criteria for a bantamweight title shot.