This weekend’s UFC title fight, Jose Aldo vs Max Holloway is, on paper, one of the best fights of the year. Aldo’s the greatest featherweight of all time, and Holloway is a crafty up-and-comer on a shit-hot winning streak. But it’s also a weird one. Both fighters, after all, got dominated by the division’s absentee ex-king, Conor McGregor.
This is not to say either fighter is irredeemable because they got shut out by Ireland’s favorite professional wannabe boxer and newborn-with-an-Instagram-haver (and, once upon a time, two-division UFC champion, but that feels so long ago). Rather, it’s a fact that gives rise to a chorus of “what ifs,” and MMA is defined almost entirely by “what ifs,” perhaps more so than any other sport. What if that punch hadn’t landed at that angle? What if that guy hadn’t gotten that takedown in the last round? What if so-and-so fought so-and-so? What if they fought again? The problem with McGregor’s victories over Aldo and Holloway is that the “what ifs” unearthed during their respective dust-ups will probably never become anything more. McGregor isn’t a featherweight anymore, and if his big boxing gamble pays off, he’ll be rich enough to retire, easily.
In Holloway’s case, it’s not so bad. He lost to McGregor when he was a raw, notably less graceful 21 year-old, and unlike most of McGregor’s foes, he didn’t even ride a fist-shaped carriage into night-night land. Since then, he’s grown by leaps and bounds, showing new looks in every fight and sticking a stiff, unyielding fist down the throats of some of the featherweight division’s best—not to mention an ex-lightweight champion in Anthony Pettis. Now 25, Holloway is just entering his prime. He’s one of the UFC’s most cunning, exciting fighters—a stance-switching dynamo with a penchant for isolating opponents’ weaknesses and drawing on a bottomless arsenal of techniques to whittle away at their resolve. Now he’s got a shot at winning the featherweight championship. Against McGregor, he stumbled, but he did not fall.
Video credit: UFC Highlights PRO.
Aldo, on the other hand, did fall, and he fell hard. I mean that literally, of course, given that he ran in swinging wild and got knocked unconscious in 13 seconds—one second for almost every year of Aldo’s legendary divisional dominance, if you want to look at it in a particularly sobering fashion—but I don’t think that’s the part that stuck. The loss was bad, sure, but it’s what came before that did the truly lasting damage.
Aldo came into his rivalry with McGregor at the height of his prime as one of the UFC’s most seemingly unbeatable champions, with a cool, distant persona to match. McGregor unraveled all of that. The lead-up to Aldo and McGregor’s eventual title fight at UFC 194 in 2015 is, arguably, the thing that solidified McGregor as a superstar. The UFC poured serious cash into the marketing campaign and took the two fighters on a still-unprecedented worldwide promotional tour. Together.
Aldo tried to be himself: stiff in his demeanor, measured in his pace, comfortable in his dominance. McGregor, meanwhile, waltzed in like he’d already won the fight and found out he could literally shit gold on the same day. He was like a clown with a sniper rifle: loud and wild in his antics, but with gruesome precision that slowly but surely undid Aldo’s placid demeanor. Every time they were in close quarters—and they were in close quarters a lot; that was the whole point, which the UFC capitalized on by having cameras on them 24/7—McGregor needled away at Aldo. He poked and prodded and mocked and cackled. He got Brazilian audiences, typically fanatical in their Aldo devotion, to cheer for him. He was an army of hyenas in an elephant trunk suit.
Video credit: UFC/MMAnytt.se.
Then McGregor plucked Aldo’s championship belt right out from under him during a huge press conference, and while Aldo made futile motions in the general direction of getting it back, McGregor raised his arms in victory and laughed like a maniac. As UFC president Dana White pushed Aldo away, his impotent rage was palpable, his strawberry-red embarrassment even more so.
To make a long story short-ish, Aldo then pulled out of the fight with an injury, and for a moment it seemed like the whole thing was in jeopardy. McGregor, however, narrowly got past noted trapezius muscle that sprouted an entire man because it believed hard enough, Chad Mendes, and Aldo vs McGregor got back on track. There was more trash talk, Aldo had no good answer for it, and he came into UFC 194 with a chip on his shoulder that looked like his pride, but if it’d been recently eaten and thrown up by a dog.
He fought mad, and he lost bad. The defensive maestro with footwork to subtly lead the dance for days was nowhere to be found. In his place was a charging bull, and McGregor was happy to play matador. One well-timed left hand, and it was lights out for Aldo.
Video credit: UFC.
That was not, however, Aldo’s most recent fight. Last summer, he returned at UFC 200 and effortlessly won a decision against Frankie Edgar, a hummingbird who was turned into a man by the same fairy who some think played a role in Chad Mendes’ transformation (and also the division’s second best fighter). Aldo looked just as good as ever, pivoting around the ex-champ and future hall-of-famer like he was leisurely doing donuts in a parking lot. McGregor might have knocked Aldo: The Man down a few pegs, but he did not break Aldo: The Fighter. Later that year, McGregor won the UFC’s lightweight belt and was forced to give up his featherweight belt. Aldo was declared champion again, essentially by default.
Legacy, however, is a funny thing in MMA. I’ve seen some very smart writers—like MMAJunkie’s Ben Fowlkes, who I’m a big fan of—say that Aldo’s legacy isn’t secure per se, but it’s close as can be. One punch can’t undo ten years of dominance that literally built a division, right? If we were talking about pretty much any other fighter and any other fight, I would absolutely agree. Unfortunately for Aldo, his own legacy is now and probably forever tied to that of Conor McGregor, who turned him into a laughing stock and then knocked him unconscious. He has the unfortunate distinction of being perhaps the most important secondary character in the history of The Conor McGregor Show—which is now a show that threatens to become bigger than the UFC itself.
That’s not a loss you can just wash away with a couple wins. There will always be scars, more for “Scarface’s” collection. Aldo didn’t do himself any favors, either, by talking mostly about McGregor for a solid year after their encounter and threatening to retire when he didn’t get his rematch. Did he deserve the rematch? Probably. Did demanding it in a self-righteous but kind of whiny way only further transform him into a blurry figure in McGregor’s rearview mirror? Definitely.
We’ve actually seen something kinda like this play out in another division. Jon Jones went from light heavyweight champ to super heavyweight chump by making a series of extremely bad decisions and getting suspended. In his stead, Daniel Cormier, who once lost a hard-fought but ultimately decisive battle to Jones, captured the belt, which he still holds. He’s defended it against the likes of Alexander Gustafsson, arguably the toughest test of Jones’ career, and Anthony Johnson, the guy everybody thought might have the best shot at beating Jones. Despite this, Cormier is still not the “real” champion in many fans’ eyes. Granted, the situation is different, given that Jones has been hovering on the periphery the whole time, threatening to come back and pick up where he left off once he finally gets his damn life together, but I think the comparison still holds water. Sometimes, the totality of one’s legacy cannot stand up to a single moment within it, no matter how much it should be able to.
And so, we return to the question of “what if?” What if Aldo wins? He’ll technically be the “undisputed” featherweight champion, but people will still dispute it. They’ll just keep bringing up that damn McGregor loss. He’s gonna have to win a lot more before they’ll stop. And what if Aldo loses, especially in a devastating fashion? Then people will look back at the McGregor fight and say that’s where Aldo broke down. Accumulated wear-and-tear played a role, sure, but McGregor was the hammer that finally drove the nail into the coffin. To some extent, the entire featherweight division faces these questions, regardless of who wins. When the biggest star in the history of the sport—at least, according to pay-per-view numbers—takes off for greener pastures, he’s gonna leave a big void. But by being inextricably linked to McGregor’s rise, and by being at the height of his own powers when it happened, Aldo faces the biggest questions of all. I do not envy him.
It’s gonna be a good fuckin’ fight, though.