Whenever a new martial arts journalist asks me for advice, I always say, “No matter the subject of your article, never forget to ask about the coach’s top new prospect.” That’s what I did in June of 2004, when I visited Nova Uniao headquarters to write a piece for Japanese magazine Kakutougi Tsushin about Shooto lightweight champion Vitor Ribeiro, who was going to defend his title for the first time against Mitsuhiro Ishida.
After interviewing “Shaolin” and Master Andre Pederneiras in Nova Uniao’s old headquarters and taking some shots with the whole team outside, I asked the head coach if he had some future prospects among his new generation of students. Without hesitation, he introduced me to a 19-year-old from Manaus, Amazonas, whom he called “Junior,” who was going to make his ring debut the following month at a very small event in Macapa, in northern Brazil. What got my attention is that Pederneiras told me that the skinny poor kid from Manaus, whose name was Jose Aldo, was sleeping at the academy and training in every class they had. Besides the talent, what impressed Pederneiras most about that kid was his desire to improve. Besides three jiu-jitsu classes per day, he was training kickboxing three times a week with his idol, Pedro Rizzo. Hungry to improve, Aldo used to finish the day by kicking the heavy bag 100 times right before bed. According to Pederneiras, he used to sleep very late in order to wake up late, and for a time, he had money for one meal per day.
Impressed by that history, I asked Pederneiras to take a picture seated with “Junior” on his “bed.” Soon after that day the skinny boy from Manaus proved that his master was right, going on an impressive run of 15 wins in his first 16 fights and being invited to challenge Mike Thomas Brown for the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight belt. After knocking out Brown in 2009, Aldo defended the title twice, and once the WEC was absorbed into the Ultimate Fighting Championship, forged the longest reign of any featherweight champion in the UFC, going undefeated for four years. Aldo’s story was made into a movie about his career, “Mais Forte que o Mundo” (“Stronger than the World”), that was a huge success in Brazilian theaters.
After losing the featherweight belt to Conor McGregor, then losing twice to Max Holloway and once to Alexander Volkanovski, many people thought that Aldo didn’t have a champion’s hunger anymore. The retirement campaign started.
But he proved the contrary by going down to the bantamweight division. Instead of losing motivation after his failed challenge for Petr Yan’s title, it seems that Aldo recovered the pleasure of training, the result of which can be seen in his last two wins over Marlon Vera and, at UFC 265 last Saturday, against Pedro Munhoz.
Right after the Munhoz fight, Aldo suggested at the press conference a title eliminator against fellow former champion T.J. Dillashaw. Whether he will get that fight, or challenge for a title ever again, only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: Considering everything he has passed through, and that he has kept his name among the Top 5 in the world in the most difficult sport in the planet for 12 years, don’t be so quick to doubt when this kid from Manaus has a goal to achieve.
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