Editorial: Win or lose, what does the future hold for Jose Aldo?

Iconic actress Lauren Bacall once remarked that “Legends are all to do with the past and nothing to do with the present.” This Saturday night, the words of “The Look” will be put to the test, as the greatest featherweight in MMA history, Jose Aldo, attempts to prove capable of a late career renaissance at bantamweight when he takes on Rob Font in the UFC Vegas 44 headliner.

Editorial: Win or lose, what does the future hold for Jose Aldo?
© Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC Jose Aldo prior to his UFC 265 fight with Pedro Munhoz.

The 35-year-old Aldo, in many senses, is playing with house money at this stage in his career. Since dropping down to 135 pounds, he’s gone 2-2. First, he dropped a razor-thin split decision to Marlon Moraes, before being worn down and punched out by current interim UFC bantamweight champion Petr Yan. However, since the inauspicious start to this late phase of his storied career, he has put together back-to-back workmanlike decisions over Marlon Vera and Pedro Munhoz. Now, he enters his eighth UFC main event in a curious position: while his legacy in the sport is already secure and no one expects him to emerge as a legitimate 135-pound contender, the Font bout remains a winnable contest and given the relatively chaotic climate at the top of the division, a win could put the Brazilian in a surprisingly desirable position.

This isn’t to say Aldo-Font is even the “best” bantamweight bout this weekend; I would give that distinction to Friday night’s Bellator MMA 135-pound title bout between former champ Kyoji Horiguchi and incumbent Sergio Pettis, whose last loss, coincidentally, actually came against Font. However, I would say without hesitation that Aldo-Font is the most intriguing bout of the weekend, regardless of promotion or weight class. The rationale is simple: can Aldo actually keep this winning streak going, and whether he does or doesn’t, what do you do with a legend in the twilight of his career?

Let’s say Aldo wins. After all, even if he has clearly lost a step or two or more, his technique and veteranship carried him past Vera and Munhoz neatly. He is only a +120 underdog at the moment and he’s one of the best counterstrikers in MMA history, facing an opponent that throws a tremendous amount of strikes. Plus, though he seldom utilizes it, he still has a more consummate ground game than Font. So, as I said, let’s imagine he makes it three in a row… where do you even go from there? The very top of the UFC bantamweight division is frozen in place for the moment as we eagerly await the rematch between champion Aljamain Sterling and interim champ Petr Yan. Do you throw Aldo in with former champion TJ Dillashaw or Cory Sandhagen, coming off his interim title loss to Yan? Either one of those bouts would seem far too ambitious and likely to derail Aldo’s resurgence, instantly crushing a feelgood story that could draw some money.

It also bears mentioning that, strange as it seems, the recently returned Dillashaw is actually seven months older than Aldo, which is a reminder of that the concept of age in MMA is a relative one. Aldo has fought 37 pro bouts in a 17-year career, some of which, like his fights with Max Holloway, Alexander Volkanovski and Yan, are the kind that extract a particularly profound physical toll on a fighter. Conversely, if Aldo puts together three consecutive wins against quality fighters, how do you look at a legend — one of your promotion’s biggest stars over the last decade — and try to exclude him from the title picture in what would likely be the final noteworthy run of his career?

Given what I just said about numerical age versus “fighting age,” perhaps the most appealing pairing would be against former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, should he prevail on December 11 against Pedro Munhoz, given that Cruz is a both a year older than Aldo and has also been severely slowed by constant injuries throughout his career. I think any fan would accept an Aldo-Cruz confrontation, especially as a five-round Fight Night main event: it offers a theoretically level playing field physically, is a compelling style match and would offer either former king a legitimate claim to move into a bona fide contendership scenario, likely for the last time in their respective careers.

More difficult, however, is the question of what to do if Aldo should lose to Font. After all, he’s an underdog for a reason. Can you take a fighter with the historical cachet and just throw him back into the general population? If both he and Cruz lose their respective outings, that’s still a fight worth pursuing, but beyond that, are there any particular bouts, which are still sensible and competitive on paper, that could offer Aldo a proper ride off into the sunset? It’s slim pickings and no fan, nor Aldo himself, want to see ‘Scarface’ subject to simply being potential cannon fodder for midcard talents. A loss in this instance almost mandates that the UFC and Aldo consider a fight or two that could punctuate his tenure in the Octagon with a suitable level of both competition and dignity, despite a paucity of options.

Speaking of which, assuming that Font prevails, beyond whatever the UFC wants, it’s just as important if not more so to consider what Aldo wants for himself. Keep in mind, after he was knocked out by Conor McGregor six years ago, he immediately began polticking publicly, talking about how if he wasn’t granted a rematch with the Irishman, he was considering retirement or simply leaving the UFC. At various times throughout his career, even at the peak of his powers, he talked about his desire to box professionally. Is there any scenario coming out of a Font loss in which is makes the most sense for both parties for the UFC to simply cut Aldo loose and let him dictate the conditions of what would be the final chapter of an outstanding combat sports career?

No matter what path Aldo might choose, it’s not as though it would adversely impact the UFC’s bottom line. Any negative impact would only be realized through the animus of diehard fans, given Aldo’s longtime status as a fan favorite and the reverence for his career achievements and we know the UFC doesn’t care about the misgivings of fans. Whether it’s a legitimate outfit like Bellator or Rizin, or something more dubious like Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship or Triller’s Triad, if a Font loss means that both the UFC and Aldo feel like the Brazilian is stuck in competitive and promotional limbo, Aldo deserves the right to decide how he wants to close the book on his fight career, even if it may seem of out of joint with our memories of him as a dominant pound-for-pound king who lorded over the 145-pound division for six straight years.

If Aldo is summarily and brutally vanquished by Font, it will do nothing to impugn his legacy in this sport. It may inspire a torrent of gloom and melancholy for those who remember him in his prime, but no event in the present or future can rewrite, minimize or erase MMA’s history and Aldo’s indelible role in it. Nonetheless, our eyes will be transfixed on the fight, not for whatever action is may offer, but for any insights it can offer us into what role Aldo will play next on the grand stage of violence.

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