Under pressure, Jose Aldo makes some magic

Coming into Saturday night’s UFC on FOX 30, there was little doubt that Jose Aldo was no longer the same fighter he once was. Not after his last six rounds of competition against Max Holloway. Not after being punished in both the physical and mental realms.

Over two fights, Holloway had decimated Aldo in a way that even Conor McGregor could not claim. McGregor knocked out Aldo in just 13 seconds, but it was a lightning strike, something precise but nearly impossible to replicate. He could win again, but not like that. Holloway’s two lookalike victories over Aldo left no room for any other interpretation. They were dominant, measured, absolute. And afterward, Aldo contemplated retirement. By the time he got to Calgary, he was somehow an underdog to Jeremy Stephens, who while riding a three-fight win streak, had never put forth the career consistency to become a championship-level fighter.

This was Stephens’ moment it seemed, at least until it wasn’t.

Aldo’s first-round knockout in the night’s co-main event seemed familiar right after it happened, like an old friend returning for a visit. Oh, a Jose Aldo knockout? I remember those! It had been a while, nearly five years since Aldo stopped Chan Sung Jung in a fight with a bizarre ending (Jung separated his shoulder just prior to the finish), and over six years since he kneed Chad Mendes into oblivion at the first-round horn in Rio. It had been a while.

While no one is ready to proclaim that Aldo will capture the UFC featherweight championship for a third time, it was nice to see a legend make some magic while under such extreme adversity.

If there was any doubt over what Saturday’s fight meant to Aldo, you could see it in his immediate post-fight reaction, falling to his back and then openly weeping tears of joy at what he had just done, even though he’d done it so many times before.

“There was a lot of pressure on me for this fight,” he said through an interpreter in the post-fight press conference. “People were looking at me saying, ‘Where is he now? Is he the same fighter he was before?’”

These are the kind of short memories we have in MMA. It’s that easy to disregard someone’s long past because of their present. That’s a function of everyday life now in a Twitter, soundbyte, scattershot world. Everything is disposable. Every achievement is ready to be forgotten as soon as it happens. Aldo was the king of the world for six years. He was undefeated for nearly 10 years.

The argument for Stephens was pure power. The American came into the fight tied for the most knockdowns in UFC history with Anderson Silva (18). Any time you’re sharing records with the longtime middleweight champion, you’re doing something right, yet while Silva rode his power to glory, Stephens came into match with a 15-13 career mark in the UFC. He has been brilliant in moments, yet fallen short against most of the best he’d faced.

With three straight wins though, Stephens came in with a head of steam that Aldo would have to crack.

Mission accomplished. It was a body punch that put Stephens down, and ground strikes that closed the show.

If we’re being honest, we must admit that Aldo is not the same brilliant fighter he once was. He’s only 31, but he’s got some mileage on him. Over the last nine years, he’s prepared for and fought 14 fights scheduled for five rounds. He’s suffered disclosed injuries to his neck, ribs, shoulder and leg. He’s had to withdraw from five fights due to injury. He’s much more available to being hit than ever before. According to FightMetric, historically opponents have only been able to clip him at a 33 percent rate. In his last three fights, his opponents have connected at a 47 percent rate.

He’s not the same genius fighter, but he’s still capable of those genius bursts. Double-barrel body shots isn’t your standard MMA combination, it’s the stuff of legends.

So where does he go from here? Suddenly, there are possibilities again. One month ago, his divisional hopes were done; he didn’t hold a prayer of another featherweight title shot as long as Holloway ruled the division. But Holloway’s future is a big question mark right now. Still recovering from concussion-like symptoms, the Hawaiian may decide that the time is right to stop depleting himself and do something he’s long discussed, moving up to lightweight. That would open up the division again for Aldo, who has only Brian Ortega ahead of him on the contenders’ list.

That part is out of Aldo’s control. Holloway’s situation will play out on its own, and the Brazilian can only put himself into position to capitalize on whatever opportunity comes his way. With a couple of digs to the body, he did that on Saturday. He struck, he won, he wept, he mattered again. And he reminded us of what we might have briefly forgotten: that legends never say goodbye without a few last waves of the wand.

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