There is so much that is familiar about this for Jose Aldo. He’s preparing to defend his featherweight belt before an adoring, passionate crowd in Rio de Janeiro against an elite opponent.
Three times prior in his career, he has defended the same belt in the same city against opponents who, at the time they met him, had a combined record of 40-4.
He’s fighting, and that makes him happy, because it’s what he loves and what he’s best at. Despite a quick knockout loss to Conor McGregor at UFC 194, Aldo is still among the world’s elite and is also one of the greatest fighters to ever step into the Octagon.
“I’m always happy when I have a fight, because I love it even now,” Aldo said.
There is something different, though, this time, as Aldo prepares to defend his belt Saturday in a title unification bout against interim champ Max Holloway in the main event of UFC 212 in Rio de Janeiro. His words drip with bitterness, resentment and even anger. He was never a smile-all-the-time, happy-go-lucky guy, but there is an edginess to him now that wasn’t obvious previously.
His relationship with the UFC inalterably changed in 2015, when he had to pull out of a title defense against McGregor at UFC 189 in Las Vegas.
Aldo pulled out of that fight with a rib injury, and McGregor instead fought Chad Mendes for the interim belt. McGregor stopped Mendes and set up a big-money match six months later with Aldo in a champion versus champion bout.
That was the infamous bout at UFC 194, when an angry Aldo charged McGregor at the bell and was knocked cold by a counter punch in just 13 seconds.
The best thing that ever happened to the UFC was McGregor, but McGregor was perhaps the worst thing ever to happen to Aldo. And it’s not because McGregor defeated Aldo; rather, Aldo looked at the accommodations the UFC made for McGregor and couldn’t understand why it didn’t do so for him.
Aldo briefly retired after UFC 200 last July, though when he agreed to return, he was named featherweight champion as McGregor moved up in weight and won the lightweight belt.
He remains a hero to the many impoverished Brazilians whom he has assisted over the years, and he’ll no doubt receive a hero’s welcome when he is the last of the 24 fighters on the card to make that long walk to the cage.
“Of course I felt disrespected,” he says of his treatment by the UFC. “After I held the belt for so many years and after all that I had done, I thought it would be different. I still have the passion to fight; I love that part of it. And I have gotten so many messages of support from my fans that it has been amazing, very uplifting. I am coming out as a champion and as a winner, and I want to put on a show for them.”
His problems with the UFC, though, haven’t been resolved in his eyes, despite a meeting in the office of UFC president Dana White last fall.
He wanted to box, though his contract with the UFC contains standard language that bans that. The UFC, as is its right under the deal, declined to give him permission. That wounded him, particularly since White has been so vocal about making a boxing match for McGregor against Floyd Mayweather.
Aldo’s interest in boxing didn’t happen because he saw McGregor do it; it’s something he has long wanted to do, and mentioned in interviews, but it never got much traction.
When he brought it up last fall, his request was denied, and it still peeves him.
“They didn’t let me fight [boxing],” he said, “it’s as simple as that.”
He’ll have a fight on his hands against Holloway, who has won 10 fights in a row and looks like a much younger version of Aldo himself.
Holloway became the interim champion at UFC 206 on Dec. 10 in Toronto when he became the first man to stop Anthony Pettis. It was a brilliant performance, but Aldo didn’t take much from it.
“How could I be impressed when he beat a guy who was never a featherweight?” Aldo said. “He had one fight at featherweight, that’s it. That doesn’t really tell you anything.”
He’s motivated because he has seen and heard the love for Holloway, and you get the sense he feels like he’s being forgotten. This, after all, is a guy who won 18 fights in succession, going more than 10 years without either a loss or a draw, and beat a who’s who of the elite at 145.
Aldo enters the fight determined and with something to prove, which makes him particularly dangerous. The last time he was in the cage, he handled Frankie Edgar with ease, which no one else has ever done.
Whatever his issues with the UFC may be, he gives off the impression that he’s turning it into positive energy that he’ll unleash in the cage against Holloway.
“I’m ready, like I always am, and I expect a good result,” he said. “I think you’ll see the best of me on Saturday night. I promise that.”