Jose Aldo faces an opponent on Saturday who is unbeaten and, frankly, unbeatable. Worse, there may be little that the Brazilian superstar can do about it.
Aldo faces featherweight champion Max Holloway on Saturday at the Little Caesars Arena in Detroit in a rematch for the belt he lost in June. As great as Holloway is, however, he’s not Aldo’s biggest worry.
Rather, Aldo’s biggest issue is time. He’s now 31 and athletes in nearly all professional sports are better in their 20s and begin a decline once they hit 30.
There are outliers and exceptions in every sport who disprove that, but it’s indisputable that athletes at large aren’t as successful after their 30th birthdays as they are prior to it.
Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, won 10 scoring championships. Nine of them came when he began the season 29 or younger. He won four Stanley Cups, all of which came when he was in his 20s.
The 30-year-old standard applies to athletes throughout sports. The Yankees’ Mickey Mantle never hit 40 homers in a season after the age of 29.
Aldo turned 30 on Sept. 9, 2016. In his only fight after that, he was dominated by Holloway and knocked out in the third round.
But if ever there were a UFC fighter who would be able to turn that around, it’s Aldo. He’s beaten a who’s who of the greatest featherweights over the last dozen years and has done so in as dominant a fashion as anyone this side of Jon Jones.
There was no featherweight division in the UFC when Aldo joined the World Extreme Cagefighting organization as a 21-year-old in 2008. He went 8-0 with seven finishes in the WEC, and when it was absorbed into the UFC in 2010, he kept on dominating.
Aldo won his first seven bouts in the UFC – all of which were championship matches, since he brought his belt with him from the WEC – and was largely unchallenged.
It wasn’t until he was knocked out by Conor McGregor in just 13 seconds at UFC 194 on Dec. 12, 2015 – less than a year before his 30th birthday – that he appeared remotely beatable.
He’s 16-2 since joining the WEC in 2008, when he began facing the best featherweights in the world, but those two defeats came in his last three fights.
He’ll face an enormous challenge against Holloway, who slowly has developed into a star. Holloway’s last lost came to McGregor in 2013, and it wasn’t clear by then just how good McGregor was.
But as McGregor developed into one of the best fighters in the UFC, that loss looks a lot better on Holloway’s record than it might have otherwise.
Holloway, who will turn 26 two days after the bout, is fighting like a young Aldo. In addition to tearing apart Aldo at UFC 212, Holloway destroyed ex-lightweight champion Anthony Pettis at UFC 206. Among his other wins en route to the title were impressive one-sided victories over Ricardo Lamas, Jeremy Stephens, Charles Oliveira and Cub Swanson, among others.
He’s the real thing, and is ranked fourth on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list, behind only Demetrious Johnson, Georges St-Pierre and McGregor.
It’s a testament to Aldo’s ability and career that he remains on the list, at 14, though it’s a far cry from where he’s used to being.
Aldo was successful for many reasons, including his well-rounded game and his incredible quickness. But he was beaten to the punch regularly by Holloway, who was able to pick him apart after taking a few minutes to find the range.
That’s a difficult challenge for Aldo to overcome. Aldo is a smart fighter who puts himself in advantageous positions, and it’s not out of the question that he could do it again on Saturday. But Holloway is about a 3-1 favorite precisely because of how difficult that will be to pull off.
Aldo’s now like a point guard in basketball who still sees the court well, but can no longer blow past a defender with that quick first step. As a result, his options are limited and defenses can adjust.
Despite the oddsmakers’ doubts, Aldo can win the fight if he slows the pace, manages to get off his kicks without being countered and mixes things up.
It’s a game plan that those whose physical skills aren’t the same as they were at their peak in their mid-20s are forced to adopt.
If anyone can do it, Jose Aldo can.
But it won’t be easy and he’ll have to fight nearly the perfect fight.
Time waits for no man, particularly one who isn’t as quick and isn’t as fast and takes a split-second longer to make decisions than he once did.
Jose Aldo is one of the all-time greats, but that may be asking too much for him to do.
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