One of the common threads of the legendary figures in any sport is their absolute and unyielding belief in themselves and their ability to get the job done, even when the facts would suggest otherwise.
The competition at the highest level is so even, and so little separates the elite from those who are simply good, that that belief in self can often make the difference between winning and losing.
Jose Aldo is one of the greatest fighters in the history of mixed martial arts and remains a formidable foe as he heads into a featherweight bout Saturday at Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro against fourth-ranked Alex Volkanovski on the main card of UFC 237, which will be streamed on pay-per-view by ESPN+.
But at 32, Aldo’s best days appear behind him. He’s on a two-fight winning streak, having stopped Jeremy Stephens and Renato Moicano in his last two outings, but he no longer inspires fear in his opponents.
Aldo once went unbeaten for more than nine and a half years, a span in which he won 18 bouts in a row, including nine by finish. Rarely was the outcome of his bouts in those years in doubt.
But he’s just 3-3 in his last six, having been stopped twice by featherweight champion Max Holloway and knocked out in 13 seconds by former featherweight champion Conor McGregor.
Volkanovski, a former rugby player who is on his own 16-fight winning streak that spans nearly five and a half years, is respectful of Aldo but hardly intimidated. He’s oozing with confidence, particularly after taking out Chad Mendes in the second round at UFC 232 in a Fight of the Night battle in December. He insists he won’t be intimidated by either Aldo or the notoriously hostile crowd in Brazil.
“You go in there and you take out a legend in his hometown, that’s saying something and it’s setting you up for big things after that,” Volkanovski said. “I’m mentally prepared. Obviously, the crowd is going to be going crazy and they’re going to be passionate for Jose. At the same time, I’m really good about zoning out that kind of stuff. I’ll go out and I’ll know the job that needs to be done and I’ll do it. I am fully confident that I’ll come out of there with this victory.”
Volkanovski noted that Aldo, who is ranked first at featherweight, remains “extremely dangerous,” but pointed out that he’s not without his flaws.
While most saw him getting back on track in his wins over Stephens and Moicano, Volkanovski saw vulnerability.
“Obviously, there are reasons why he lost those fights, though it doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous,” Volkanovski said. “In his last fights, a lot of people have seen him get these wins and they’re like, ‘Oh, what a performance!’ They see the finish and that’s all they remember. But even as he was winning those fights, I still seen him struggling a little bit. Obviously, he’s extremely dangerous and explosive, and that’s what I’m prepared for. I’m prepared for the most dangerous Aldo. But at the same time, there are holes there and there will be opportunities I’ll be able to take advantage of.”
Aldo, not surprisingly, sees things differently. He put his losses to Holloway and McGregor in the past and he’s gearing up for another run at the championship.
And while he perhaps isn’t as explosive or dynamic as he once was, he’s still probably more talented than the vast majority of fighters in the world. When many doubted golfer Tiger Woods, he came back in April and won The Masters.
Aldo pointed out that Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo was off for three years and then returned at a high level.
He believes that despite the losses to Holloway, he could win if they fought a third time.
“Tiger hit rock bottom, but he’d been at the top and he knew what it took to get back up there,” Aldo said. “So did Ronaldo. People were saying he had all these problems and he was off and he came back and won a World Cup. I’m inspired by athletes like that.
“My confidence was never hurt. I just give credit to Max for beating me. He deserves credit for a good job. But I know I can come back and [defeat him] if I do my job the right way.”
Getting to that point means getting past Volkanovski, which is no easy task. There is also the small matter of the pressure that comes from fighting in front of his hometown crowd, which always expects excellence.
But it’s all part of the game to Aldo.
“I don’t mind the pressure because I understand it, and I’ve dealt with it a long time,” he said. “It’s there because the people see something in you and they believe you can do something big. I accept it and it doesn’t affect my performance at all. Everything I’ve done in this sport, winning the fights and taking out the prospects and the difficult challengers, has prepared me.
“I have the ability to do this and I understand what needs to be done. So I will just go out and do my job and I believe I will win. [Volkanovski] is very challenging and I’ve studied him a lot, but I know what needs to be done.”
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