Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC
When we last left young José Aldo he had burst onto the scene of the WEC and brutally stopped the Brazilian legend, Alexandre Franca Nogueira. His pivots, his takedown defense, his incredible grappling, and his brutal striking had been too much against the man who had held the title of number one featherweight in the world for so long. Aldo had simply looked too big, too powerful, too varied, and deceptively fast in spite of this. It was a tough fight to enter the big leagues on but it gave Aldo a foot in the door and the fights came thick and fast after that.
Aldo stopped Jonathan Brookins, Rolando Perez and Chris Mickle with strikes and was slated to face Cub Swanson in June of 2009. Swanson was always a top notch prospect but had been struggling to recover his image as at this point he was the only man to lose to the aged and well past best Jens Pulver in the last three years. Regardless of this, Swanson had put together a couple of wins since that 2007 Pulver loss and the bout between he and Aldo was billed as a title eliminator.
Aldo, breaking with his tradition of starting slow and building up, came out and performed a switching, jumping knee. He caught Swanson flush, followed him to the mat, and flurried with punches for a TKO finish in eight seconds. By trying to catch Swanson cold, he ended up saving himself a fight with his most accomplished opponent to date. One of the secrets that many of the best fighters with a bit of power know is that if you really respect an opponent's ability, there's value to throwing something wild at them in the opening seconds as they try to get their rhythm and shake out the jitters. The real genius of it was that even when Swanson went on the best run of his career, rattling off six wins on the trot between 2012 and 2014, many refused to even consider him a legitimate threat to Aldo based on the embarrassing memory of the knockout.
José Aldo was now unarguably next in line for a shot at the WEC featherweight title, but the top of the division had experienced an unprecedented shift in the last year. Since winning the belt in 2006, Urijah Faber had defended it successfully five times against all kinds of opponents. A bastion of consistency in a sport which is known for its unpredictability, he was considered the Alpha and the Omega of the featherweight division. He was a tremendous wrestler, fast on his feet, hard hitting, slick on the mat, and constantly out for the kill.
Except all of that had been spoiled by Mike Brown. After appearing to be just another name for Faber to knock off, Brown came out and muscled the champion around with ease. Clipping Faber with a left swing off of a single leg along the fence, Brown had the champion stunned. Faber turned to run and then attempted to throw a back elbow, blind. Brown slipped to his left and landed a picture perfect right hook underneath Faber's arm. Faber couldn't have seen it coming and seemed to be lifted off of his feet by the force of the blow. Brown swarmed for the finish and like that Faber's streak as the champion expired.
Brown didn't have anything like the popular appeal of Faber, but it didn't change his results. With a tremendous right hand, decent ring cutting ability, enormous strength in the clinch having cut down from lightweight, Brown had plenty to make opponents worry. What's more, he could take a beating. After knocking the iron jawed Leonard Garcia silly with a right hand in the opening seconds and submitting him with an arm triangle, Brown gave Faber a return match.
This time, Faber moved and boxed well for two rounds, hitting Brown cleanly and so hard that he broke both of his hands on Brown's head. Brown took it, unfazed, and plodded forwards to take the remainder of the rounds from a now crippled Faber. That is the kind of hard nosed fighter we're talking about in Mike Brown.
When Aldo finally met Brown, Aldo stood tall with his hands open and ready to parry. Each time Brown advanced, Aldo went to that same “answering the phone” style guard with his lead hand and was ready to parry jabs with his rear hand. This was the style of defense he utilized most in his WEC days, before he learned to box, and it left him very susceptible to left hooks. Brown was more than happy to oblige the challenger in that regard.
Aldo's go to defense through his WEC run. Left elbow up, right hand parrying.
This was also when Aldo's jab was a sloppy, backhanded afterthought. The first few exchanges of the fight were led by Aldo's winging right uppercut and saw the men trade blows.
Aldo landed his usual hard right low kicks, punishment for standing still and an encouragement for Brown to keep moving forward. This, of course, put Aldo in position to do his best work. With Brown being a clinch-and-to-the-fence kind of wrestler, rather than a shooting out in the open wrestler, Aldo didn't get so many level changes to capitalize on, but he repeatedly looked to jam his lead knee into Brown's midsection whenever he felt a strong push coming.
Notice how Aldo turns the knee into a kick when Brown doesn't drive himself onto it.
It was off a faked knee that Aldo ran into a beautiful switching combination into left high kick which stunned the champion and caused Brown to initiate his first attempt on Aldo's hips.
Aldo's takedown defense looked as rock solid as ever against the toughest wrestler he'd faced. Brown had been a force in the clinch against Urijah Faber, yet against Aldo he looked as if he was exerting himself with little reward. The challenger's incredible base and use of the fence to prop himself up in his wide stance were every bit as effective as they had been against all the others he'd fought.
After the first round unfolded with zero successful takedown attempts for Brown, he was quickly hurt in the opening minute of the second. It was a switching left knee, this time on offence along the fence which did the damage.
Brown went to what he knew, dived on the takedown attempt, and failed to get Aldo down again. As the two broke and Aldo circled back into the centre of the cage, the challenger stopped and dropped in on his own takedown. The last thing you would expect from the lesser wrestler and the man who was clearly winning the bout on the feet. Brown clearly didn't expect it as he went to defend and then seemed to fall back to his guard without much input from Aldo. Here Aldo's silky jiu jitsu saw its time to shine. Effortlessly following Brown as he attempted to roll, moving straight to the mount, and then taking the back, Aldo pounded Brown out with punches, face down on the mat.
Seventeen fights and five years into his mixed martial arts career, José Aldo had become a champion. At the time, the world was enamored with this man who could seemingly do it all. Looking back, and contrasting this fight with what Aldo has become, we hadn't seen anything yet.
After a pair of successful title defenses against Urijah Faber and Manny Gamburyan, Aldo and the featherweight division were called up to the big leagues. The UFC wanted 145 pounders, and they handed Aldo a shiny new belt in anticipation of his first UFC bout. No-one knew that the relative youngster in this division stacked with talent would go on to become one of the greatest champions the UFC has ever seen, but that's further down the Path of Aldo.
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