To fully appreciate Jose Aldo, you had to see him in the WEC.
As he prepares to meet heavy underdog Ricardo Lamas on Saturday at UFC 169, while rumors of a summer superfight with Anthony Pettis swirl, it’s impossible to assess his time as the UFC featherweight kingpin without a little historical perspective.
Make no mistake: Aldo has been great in the Octagon, but to know him at his full potential, you had to witness his eight-fight rise through the UFC’s kid brother organization from 2008-2010.
You had to watch him gnaw through the legs of guys like Alexandre Franca Nogueira, Jonathan Brookins and Urijah Faber with his lashing kicks. You had to see him counter Rolando Perez’s jab with a crushing knee at WEC 38, flurry on Chris Mickle at WEC 39 or suspend the laws of gravity to score his double flying-knee knockout of Cub Swanson at WEC 41.
Sorry to wax nostalgic, but you just had to be there.
If you were, then you understood that by the time the UFC absorbed the WEC at the start of 2011, Aldo was among the biggest spoils. The fight company anointed him its inaugural 145-pound champion, and it felt as though he was poised to become a breakout star.
Not just in our little corner of the world, either. With his fearsome blend of speed and power, his superb takedown defense and his knack for highlight-reel finishes, he appeared destined to become a mainstay on SportsCenter’s Top Plays.
At the risk of drifting too far into hyperbole, it seemed like Aldo had at least an outside chance of becoming the UFC’s answer to Manny Pacquiao—an immense pay-per-view draw and the guy who would finally convince the world that MMA’s lightest weight classes were also its best.
And this is where things get tricky.
Aldo has marched to a 5-0 record in the Octagon and—in the void left behind by Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre—has become the consensus No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. All told, it’s been nearly eight years since he lost a fight.
It seems silly—impossible, even—to say that’s not good enough.
Yet nearly three years in, crossover success hasn’t materialized. If anything, Aldo has faded into the scenery a bit, slowed by injury and surrounded by other stars in the UFC’s deep talent pool.
The jaw-dropping finishes that typified his early career (when he amassed 15 stoppages in 18 wins) haven’t been as abundant in the Octagon, and three of his five bouts in the big show have gone the distance.
His explosive KO of Chad Mendes at UFC 142 was nice but was marred by an egregious fence-grab 49 seconds before the end. Aldo’s other lone stoppage—of Chan Sung Jung at UFC 163—came only when Jung suffered a shoulder injury after three-and-a-half fairly tepid rounds.
Aldo gassed badly down the stretch against Mark Hominick at UFC 129, and though he escaped with a unanimous-decision win, questions about his cardio lingered. Likewise, his scorecard victories over former lightweights Kenny Florian and Frankie Edgar were clear-cut but far from wipeouts.
Amid all of it, there have been issues with his health. A neck ailment delayed his UFC debut and continued to hamper him following the Hominick fight. More recently, foot injuries forced him out of a scheduled meeting with Erik Koch and sidelined him again in the wake of the Jung bout last August.
Granted, there have been streaks of brilliance. Witness Aldo stuffing Mendes’ early takedown attempts, making a show of slipping Hominick’s punches in the second round and firing off a spinning kick/flying knee combo to end the first round against Jung.
It would be a grave exaggeration to say he has failed, but he also hasn’t quite lived up to the sky-high expectations set by his reign of terror in the WEC. Perhaps that’s the natural order of things now that he’s a few years older (still just 27) and competing in a featherweight class that is clogged with stiffer competition.
Still, you can’t blame hardcore fans if they pine for the days when Aldo looked a generation ahead of the rest.
This weekend, he’ll be close to a 7-to-1 favorite over Lamas. They’ll play second fiddle to Renan Barao and Faber on what might turn out to be one of the UFC’s lowest-selling PPVs of the year, but the matchup could be a good chance for Aldo to recapture a bit of that youthful spark.
Afterward, his future appears uncertain. UFC president Dana White said on Thursday that a Pettis vs. Aldo superfight was not a sure thing but mentioned he’d “green light” it if Aldo would agree to vacate the 145-pound title, per Chuck Mindenhall of MMA Fighting.
White added: "He’s had the belt forever, he’d fought everybody and he should just drop the belt and move up to 55 and take on Pettis. It would be awesome."
The prospect of Aldo at lightweight is enticing, especially considering that division’s current injury-related vacuum at the top. Matching his style against Pettis’ high-octane offense would be a surefire draw and a fight seemingly impossible to predict.
It would be far and away the best opportunity of Aldo's career. He would have the chance to be a bigger star at lightweight, both literally and figuratively, and moving up would allow him to challenge for No. 1 pound-for-pound honors. He might even finally take a few baby steps toward being the star we thought he could be a few years ago.
But it would be a defeat for featherweights. The lightest weight classes have come a long way since joining the UFC, but the loss of the division's dominant champion would be a setback for the marketability of 145 pounds.
Once, when he was the class of the WEC, it felt as though Aldo had the skills to elevate the entire featherweight division. Now, it seems like in order to elevate his own star, he’ll be forced to leave for a bigger pond.