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It’s easy to think of a fighter’s career in a narrative arc. We are, after all, the storytelling animals, but beyond that general appeal, familiar tropes abound from fight to fight. Most of us recognize the component parts of Freytag’s pyramid of dramatic structure: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and conclusion. We get to know fighters early on, see them climb the ranks and string together wins, put on career-defining fights and then slowly fade into retirement.
Applied to combat sports, the climax of any fighter’s career is certainly winning a title. Often, however, things only get more complicated from there. We saw how widely variant the stories of former champions can be at UFC on Fox 30 on Saturday in Calgary, Alberta.
First up was former women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. This was the first time since 2014 that she found herself in a non-title fight. After a phenomenal reign atop the division that saw her defend the strap five times in a row, Jedrzejczyk dropped consecutive fights to current champ Rose Namajunas -- her first and second professional losses. She needed a win, and against Top-5 contender Tecia Torres, she was not given an easy opponent for her comeback fight.
With high stakes and a stiff challenge in front of her, the former champion passed with flying colors. She coasted to victory over one of the better fighters in the division, proving she is still among the strawweight elite. Despite her losses to Namajunas, Jedrzejczyk could still very well be the best strawweight in the world; perhaps she found herself on the wrong end of the timeless tale of a fighter who simply found a foil she cannot defeat. Regardless, don’t be surprised to see “Joanna Contender” in the title picture again and possibly author a new championship chapter before tumbling toward her eventual retirement.
Then there was Aldo. While Aldo is the consensus greatest featherweight of all-time and has not lost a non-title fight since 2005 -- the only time he lost a fight that was not for an Ultimate Fighting Championship title -- he has undoubtedly fallen on rough times of late. He has gone 1-3 over the last three years and was viciously knocked out in all three losses. Although he’s only 31 years old, Aldo has been weathered by a decade and a half of professional fighting and looked to be falling rapidly down the decline of his career. Against the hard-hitting, always-tough and steadily improving Jeremy Stephens, it looked like he was getting set up for yet another brutal knockout. Of course, that didn’t happen, and Aldo took home the feel-good moment of the night by notching his first opening-round stoppage win since 2012.
In the aftermath of the fight, elated cries of “vintage Aldo” resurfaced. As thrilling as the fight was, however, that is just not the case. This was a noticeably slower, slightly desperate “Scarface,” an impatient Aldo who threw lunging punches with offensive abandon instead of picking apart Stephens and avoiding big shots. The risk-taking made for a fun fight, especially given the specific matchup, but it should not convince anyone that Aldo will be vying again for the title. The Aldo who reigned over the division for five years did so through technical precision and defensive wizardry.
What we learned about Aldo and his journey is this: He is still one of the very best featherweights right now, capable of beating difficult matchups with shades of the dynamic flair of 2009 Aldo. That is a remarkable reality and a great addition to his already sterling legacy. However, the reason he’s no longer the champ is less because he has lost a step -- though he undeniably has -- and more because of the emergence of new stars. The top of the division has simply passed him by. As Connor Ruebusch put it, Aldo didn’t go anywhere; Max Holloway simply arrived.
The final former champ of the night competed in the headlining bout. Eddie Alvarez was certainly a less decorated champion than Aldo or Jedrzejczyk -- he never defended the UFC belt -- but he still owns arguably the most impressive lightweight resume in the sport. Given the chance to put a definitive stamp on his newfound rivalry with Dustin Poirer, however, he ended up getting knocked out in the second round. What this means for Alvarez moving forward is uncertain; he could have a handful of top-tier wins left in him, or this could be the beginning of a downward slope. Either way, it’s increasingly unlikely that we’ll see Alvarez compete for a UFC title again, especially at 155 pounds. There are simply too many contenders to get through before getting a crack at the title, and his 15-year career of engaging in internecine wars in the cage does not bode well for a late-career resurgence.
For all the broad similarities in a fighter’s journey, everyone pens a unique combative memoir throughout their careers. There are precedents and examples that we can look at for insight, but there is always the chance for something historic and surprising to happen. Besides, who doesn’t love a good twist ending? Jedrzejczyk, Aldo and Alvarez ultimately showed neither winning nor losing the title is the end of a fighter’s story.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.