José Aldo and Conor McGregor collide at last – and the hype is justified
Impromptu or staged, orderly or not, the posing and posturing between Brazilian champion Jose Aldo (25-1) and his wild-eyed Irish challenger Conor McGregor (18-2) has tantalized fight fans during the past 12 months.
Now it’s time for the payoff.
Presuming Aldo and McGregor meet the 145lb featherweight limit during Friday’s UFC 194 weigh-in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, on Saturday night, with everything on the line, they will share their 11th staredown of the year. The final face-off, this time in the Octagon, sees the most dominant featherweight in history taking up arms against the man who seeks to be more than that.
Emotions should be buzzing in an arena filled with Brazilian and Irish supporters who helped establish a gate worth $9m. Anchored by Aldo-McGregor – a truly tremendous matchup pitting in-their-prime competitors who do not like one another – the UFC’s last pay-per-view of 2015 also boasts a juggernaut of a middleweight title bout between unbeaten Chris Weidman and No1 contender Luke Rockhold, prompting many observers to call Saturday’s lineup the best slate of fights in UFC history. While this type of hype has often been linked to the selling of UFC action – and has often been misplaced – it’s certainly warranted this time.
Unbeaten during a decade worth of bouts, 18 to be precise, Aldo, 29, is a viper. The Brazilian combines clean striking, especially devastating kicks, with natural ability like athleticism and speed. His motivation is rooted in fully expelling himself and his family from the hard favela life in which he was raised. He has defeated opponents versed in all styles, at various stages of their careers, and has done so with a sort of ruthless, regular efficiency that might make people lose perspective of just how good he is. Without much argument, Aldo could be considered the best mixed martial artist currently competing today.
McGregor has not fought anyone like Aldo. No one has until they meet in him the cage. Over the course of his career, Aldo has served as a pain-delivery system. That’s a fact. Perhaps the inverse is true of McGregor, whose mean and accurate straight left is emerging among the best weapon any fighter possesses in MMA today. That’s one reason the challenger has been favored in Saturday’s title fight according to oddsmakers, a reality vanquished Aldo challengers, like ex-UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, called ridiculous.
With McGregor, ridiculous has become normal. Unbeaten in five years, McGregor sees himself as a paragon of the sport. The ultimate fighter. The ultimate money maker. The ultimate believer, really. It is his sense of worth, his sense that nothing can prevent him from achieving the things he set out to do that makes victory over Aldo plausible.
In January, after McGregor plastered Germany’s Dennis Siver in Boston to land top contendership against Aldo, the Irish fighter deftly scaled the Octagon fence with the intention to get at the Brazilian. Aldo sat at cage-side with his family, and as the 27-year-old McGregor rushed him there were several ways he could have reacted. Aldo chose the best route: doing nothing but smiling widely and soaking in the man who acted as if he had been the king all this time.
It was quite a scene. That moment, marked by a photo in which Aldo’s scar-marked face is visibly free of tension and full of joy while McGregor was set off like a raving lunatic, created the stage for a year’s worth of heavy yearning from mixed martial arts fans. At the time Aldo dismissed McGregor as a sort of jester. A clown. He wasn’t alone in that assessment, as plenty of fighters and media felt the same.
The UFC, knowing what they had on their hands, promoted an 11-day international tour with both fighters. Six times they squared off, but none of the moments, as magical as some were, felt as spontaneous or telling as the January encounter in Boston.
Seeing both reactions, it felt possible that McGregor was maniacal enough to pull this off, and Aldo was too cool a customer to let it happen.
Hailed by UFC president Dana White as a better talker and mind-game warrior than Muhammad Ali, McGregor went after Aldo every chance he could. In Brazil, Aldo stood stoic as he and McGregor squared off for the cameras.
“Look into my eyes, little man,” McGregor said, before adding in Portuguese: “You’re going to die.”
Back in Boston, their face-to-face interaction was more intense. Aldo was reacting to McGregor, as if the champion had been manipulated to respond. But a day later in New York, they hardly reacted to one another. And in Toronto, McGregor opened his mouth but Aldo just stood there. Across the pond on London, things picked up during a heated staring contest. McGregor smiled as his eyes grew wide as saucers. Then Dublin. Oh Dublin. McGregor’s people supported their countryman in a way no mixed martial artist has ever known. And in this space the animus was palpable.
“I’m the champion,” McGregor yelled while Aldo glared at him. “I’m the champion.”
“You are nothing,” Aldo responded.
McGregor jolted out of his seat and snapped up the heavy championship belt displayed in front of Aldo. He lifted it high above his head like he had earned it, and his fans went wild as Aldo attempted to retrieve it. UFC cameras caught Aldo in an elevator after the exchange and he appeared furious as he promised that, given the chance, he would rip off McGregor’s head.
“He can talk from a distance but inside the Octagon he won’t say anything,” Aldo said.
Then it fell apart. Aldo was injured. Tough contender Chad Mendes replaced the champion on short notice, and the UFC put up an interim belt to placate the sharp-dressed, big-spending European.
The pair didn’t face off again until September 4, not until Aldo’s rib fracture had recovered, McGregor stopped Mendes and the UFC could book another date. When the UFC took the occasion to sell several title fights at one big Las Vegas press conference, the featherweights, each holding a UFC belt, touched heads like dominant rams.
On Wednesday, the first of three fight-week stare downs came and went without much fanfare. Two remain before fists and feet are free to fly in front of an audience expected to buy more than a million pay-per-views. (And for this Aldo should thank McGregor, who has driven a ton of business during his two-and-a-half-year, six-fight stint with the UFC.)
The time for them to do something other than fighting is over.