Jose Aldo Jr. has already passed the two-year mark as the world's top featherweight, but he's days away from what he expects to be the pinnacle of his career, and he just can't wait for it to happen.
UFC 142, taking place on Saturday night, may be just another pay-per-view for people in the United States. But in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Aldo Jr. has been living for years, it's something much bigger. The show takes place in his home city at the HSBC Arena. It's the first time a UFC show from Brazil will air live on Globo, the country's dominant television network. He's defending his UFC featherweight title against Chad Mendes in the main event.
"Since the beginning, I've always dreamed about this moment, and now this moment is here," Aldo Jr. said through interpreter Derek Lee. "This is what I've always trained for. The moment's finally here. I have to do what I've trained to do."
But there's a catch to Saturday night's fight card, something most people never think about when watching a pay-per-view in prime time in the U.S. For the fans in the arena, and the fighters, the pay–per-view portion of the show starts at 1 a.m. local time. Aldo Jr., going on last, is figuring at getting in the Octagon at 3 a.m.
One would think that even being a live sports event on a major network, that would limit viewership. But unlike in the U.S., Brazilian sports fans are very used to watching big events at all sorts of times.
"People will stay up all night for Formula I or World Cup games," said Lee. "People in Brazil are really driven by sports and sports idols. People will either stay up or wake up to watch for sure."
"From now on, I'm going to be a pop star," Aldo Jr. joked.
If Aldo has a memorable win, he may not be far off, as the fight will be the talk of Brazil this weekend.
But there's still business that needs to be taken care of before the champion can finish off his rags-to-riches tale. Aldo Jr. grew up in Manaus, Brazil, a village in the Amazon rain forest. He had to live at the gym when he first started training in MMA, and since he often had no money to eat, other trainees would take pity on him and bring him food. He started fighting professionally at 17, at about the same time he moved to Rio to further his training and career.
Having just turned 25 in September, he's one of the two, with Jon Jones, most dominant young champions in the sport.
Other champions, like Jones, who used Aldo as an inspiration when he was coming up, or Anderson Silva, who has flatly said he wouldn't want to be in his weight class, have raved about him as perhaps as complete a fighter as there is in the sport.
Aldo Jr., currently ranked No. 5 on the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound listings, was not someone who came to MMA from the sports of wrestling, kickboxing or jiu-jitsu and became successful then developed the rest of his game. Instead, he was a natural athlete, a standout in soccer as a child, and someone who, from Day 1, trained in this sport. In doing so, he developed talent at near championship level in several different aspects of the sport at the same time.
And with the explosion of MMA's popularity over the past year in the sport's birthplace, Aldo has noticed he's finally starting to be recognized for his achievements.
"When I was WEC champion, I already got a lot of recognition," Aldo Jr. noted. "But once it merged and I fought in UFC, I really got a feeling of how big it was and how big it can be.
"I always had a dream that it would be as big as it has become, but never felt it would explode the way it did. It caught everyone by surprise."
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Watching his fights, he's now 20-1 with 12 knockouts, you would think he was a Muay Thai prodigy, since that's the style he employs. And that wouldn't be inaccurate, because in every fight – and Saturday's will be no different – his style is based on keeping the fight standing and attacking the legs first in order to wear out his opponent.
In landing 10.5 low kicks on average per round, there is no fighter in UFC history who has been more successful at landing low kicks. But this is not a meaningless number, as MMA statistics can sometimes be. In Aldo Jr.'s most high-profile fight of his career, a dominant win over Mendes' coach and teammate Urijah Faber on April 24, 2010, there is a moment that almost everyone who saw that fight came away with as an indelible memory.
Aldo Jr. threw so many hard low kicks over five rounds that Faber's leg turned all kinds of purple, and he took so much damage that it took some time for the leg to fully recover.
But Aldo Jr.'s ground game, which has barely been seen since he started fighting in the U.S. three-and-a-half years ago, is said to be better than his standing game. As a teenager, he competed and won high-level jiu-jitsu tournaments. In recent years, wrestling has become a focus for him, and it's become strong enough that he's become one of the most difficult fighters in the sport to take down.
Ultimately, that's the key to Saturday's fight, because Mendes (12-0) is considered the strongest wrestler in the featherweight division. Mendes, 26, came into MMA after wrestling at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, after going 30-1 as a senior and finishing second in the 2008 NCAA tournament.
He was the perfect kind of wrestler for MMA, one with power double legs that he's used to dominate most of his fights. Because of that, many have pegged him for more than a year as the one guy in the division who at least had a shot at taking the title from Aldo Jr. But even so, Aldo Jr. goes in as a solid 5-to-2 betting-line favorite. But the improvement in Mendes' stand-up game has been noticeable in every fight.
And he has natural, hard punching power that he's been learning to make more effective with technique. But for all his improvements, Mendes' best chance of winning the fight would appear to depend on whether he can do what nobody else, including teammate Faber, was able to do: Turn it into a wrestling match.
"I remember him from back in the WEC days," Aldo Jr. said. "We saw each other's starts in the WEC. I felt he was an opponent one day I would be facing."
To that end, much has been made of Aldo Jr. bringing Gray Maynard, a power wrestler, somewhat similar to Mendes except bigger, into camp to work on defending takedowns.
"He said it was a great pleasure having Gray down here in Rio, and they have been training wrestling for some time, but they needed a well-versed guy who's been a trained wrestler his whole life, to kind of clear up things," Aldo Jr. said through Lee. "He feels that Gray coming down in these last few weeks really gave him a lot of pointers and helped him a lot out for this fight where he's facing a wrestler."
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