Jose Aldo Jr. has been considered the top featherweight fighter in the world for nearly two years, since his World Extreme Cagefighting title win over Mike Brown, a title that morphed into a UFC championship at the start of 2011.
But he knows that Saturday night, when he defends his title against Kenny Florian at the Toyota Center in Houston, back home in Brazil more eyes will be on him than ever before.
“A lot has changed since UFC Rio [on Aug. 27],” Aldo said through translator Derek Lee. “There’s a lot more respect for the fighters and [I] always felt that would happen after the UFC went to Brazil. Soccer is always going to be No. 1 in Brazil. It’s in their culture. But MMA is right up there as No. 2 and it’s grown a lot.”
Aldo said he always knew that fighters would be recognized in his homeland for their accomplishments, but until Aug. 27 he was never sure if it would happen during his career.
“[I’ve] been doing more appearances, been recognized more, it’s definitely changed,” he said. “[I] couldn’t imagine it, but was always thinking the best, looking at the future and hoping for the best. I didn’t know if it would be [my] generation or the next generation of fighters.”
While UFC Rio helped Aldo’s popularity back home, he also believes his UFC 136 bout with Florian (15-5) is a key to his popularity growth in North America, as Florian been an established name in the UFC for six years.
“Your popularity definitely goes up when you fight a big name like Florian,” he said. “Maybe a lot of the fans rooting for Kenny will have love for me after the fight, but I’m not really thinking about that.
Either way, name recognition is still a novelty for Aldo. When he left home as a teenager to go to Rio de Janeiro, he had no money. He lived in the gym, cleaning the mats at night after everyone finished training as his “rent.” His food often consisted of handouts from older fighters.
That MMA upbringing helped fuel a run of 12 straight victories that has propelled Aldo into the No. 4 spot in the Yahoo! Sports Top 10. What’s most scary about Aldo Jr.’s run is that he’s been bothered for much of it by a herniated disc in his neck, which got so bad earlier this year that he delayed fights.
In his lone fight this year, winning a decision over Mark Hominick at UFC 129 in Toronto, Aldo looked human. Though he won the first four rounds, in the fifth, Hominick took him down and gave him a beating. It was the first time he solidly lost a round since he started fighting in North America.
“It’s hard to know when you’re 100 percent,” Aldo said. “[I’m] not thinking about it. [I] don’t feel any of the pain during the fight, only in training before the fight. But [I] did a few months of physical therapy, rehabbing the neck, getting it back to where it should be.”
Based on that fifth round, the key to Saturday’s fight seems to be whether Florian can take Aldo down. Florian’s game plan seems to come down to being able to stay with him, if not get the better of him standing due to being a physically bigger guy with longer reach, and even more, whether he can take him down.
“[I’ve] definitely fought taller guys before, even guys with a longer reach than Kenny,” he said.
From a statistical standpoint, Florian, who comes into the fight as a 7-to-2 underdog, has lost every fight in his UFC career where he was unable to take his opponent down: bouts with Diego Sanchez, Sean Sherk, B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard. Florian is well aware of that, putting more effort over the last year into his wrestling training than every other aspect of his game. But from a statistical standpoint, Aldo Jr. is No. 1 all-time in WEC/UFC history by defending 93 percent of the takedowns attempted against him, according to Fightmetric.com.
If Florian he can get Aldo Jr. down, can get his back? Florian’s statistics on passing to get the back are among the best in UFC history. Aldo Jr. has never been threatened from that position.
It was just last weekend that bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz moved into the four successful title defense category, one reserved for the elite names historically like Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Pat Miletich, Frank Shamrock and Urijah Faber. And just like Aldo Jr. was the youngest champion in history at 23 years and two months, now, one month past his 25th birthday, he would be the fastest to reach this new level.
But recently, a video surfaced documenting what Aldo Jr. did to make weight at UFC 129. This is in addition to a gaunt-looking Aldo appearing as if he was going to pass out on stage during a meeting of all seven UFC champions on the day before the fight. It all raises the question of how long Aldo will be able to make 145 pounds, and the toll making it takes on his body. Whether it was the neck injury, being under the weather at the time, or difficulty making weight, he did not look like the same fighter in the later rounds with Hominick.
“That’s something all fighters go through,” he said. “If they did videos of other fighters, you’d see all that suffering. But it was a hard video to watch. It’s what [I] go through and it’s what [I’ve] been doing since the jiu jitsu days.”
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