By Nick Peet & Eduardo Cruz
*** This feature originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Fighters Only ***
José Aldo is back on top of the world. As the planet’s leading fighter operating in the featherweight class, the Brazilian paints the picture of a champion at ease. Yet beneath the surface, it’s clear he’s still seething with emotion. While he’s adamant December’s disastrous knockout defeat to Conor McGregor is now a distant memory, his reluctance to even say the Irishman’s name speaks volumes about where his head actually is.
Aldo may well be considered the leading 145lb fighter in MMA should his interim belt be upgraded to the full world championship before the year is out. But mentally, the Brazilian won’t be able to move on with his career until he’s had the opportunity for revenge. He says it’s the world title that motivating him to fight, but he’d love nothing more than to meet McGregor inside the Octagon once more.
The name ‘Conor McGregor’ seems to be outlawed at the acclaimed Nova União training facility in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, home of the interim UFC featherweight champion. During an exclusive 40-minute interview with Fighters Only, despite a deluge of questions associated with the Irishman, Aldo deliberately ensures the name of the man who rocked his world in December and ruined a 10-year undefeated streak never passes his lips.
Aldo is smiling and laughing again. He’s just finished his second training session of the day at the base he’s called home for well over a decade and he’s eager to get home to his young family. He appears to be back in the same place he was before he ever got swept along by the McGregor circus.
“I have taken the first step, that is winning the interim belt, and right now it is time to take the next step forward,” Aldo tells FO. “It is going to be great if I have to lock horns with him, but being champion comes first and then to get another fight.”
While he’s adamant the belt means more to him than anything else. He’s quick to point out that a McGregor rematch means far more than just dollar signs. “I don’t look for money as the priority for a fight because I step in to perform. Winning is my goal along with being the champion. I see money as my shadow. I walk ahead and it has to follow me.”
After rebounding in July with his outstanding interim-title-winning success against Frankie Edgar at UFC 200, Aldo wants to put his performance against McGregor firmly behind him. He’s determined to not allow those disastrous 13 seconds to define his legacy.
“That loss in December 2015 was very hard, but I have something about me – that I always overcome difficulties so quickly,” he says. “It’s never good to lose like that. But I learned a lot from it. The first defeat in my career was the moment I became a champion, so this loss was logically hard to deal with, but it helped me to reflect on everything we go through and lived until that time.
“The loss was very important. There is no reason to re-watch it because it’s gone now. I don’t look to suffer for something that has passed. It would not make me feel well and we cannot go back. So I would rather look ahead.
“When I think about what happened, I don’t feel frustrated or embarrassed,” he continues. “I feel sad because that was not the result we were working for. There must be merit from the other side – they connected with a good blow and won the fight. It is part of MMA. Nobody is unbeatable.
“It was just hard because we did the right preparation, everything worked out in camp, and I expected to win convincingly. But I had no time to show off all the stuff we trained for that contest. For me, there was no fight. But I know I have the ability to win if he ever appears in front of me again.”
It’s clear defeating Edgar in the summer revitalised Aldo – mentally, spiritually and professionally. The same fans that turned on him after his disastrous UFC 194 outing are the same ones now demanding the McGregor rematch. On the strength of his latest performance, the Octagon’s first featherweight champion is justifiably popular again.
“Winning that fight was very satisfying,” Aldo states. “I would not say it was the most important victory of my career as I have had to fight for the title many times, but the importance of the result was not lost on me. (Because of) the circumstances, I knew I had to win.”
Aldo admits that while he laid his own ghosts to rest against Edgar, he also carried the weight of expectation of a country bereft of any UFC champions at the time.
He says: “In Vegas that same week, two belts were lost by Brazilian fighters and that brought added pressure to me. Everything did not work out as expected for Claudia Gadelha and Rafael dos Anjos.
“So, at that moment, when I stepped in to fight Edgar, Brazil had zero belts. That meant it was very important for me to be victorious – for the Brazilian MMA fans as well as the media and every one of us.
“I am not saying (their losses) directly affected me as I was very relaxed with much confidence going into the fight. But I also knew I couldn’t afford to lose as it would be tough for the country. I had to win to make a statement for myself and for Brazilian MMA. I was motivated and ready to deliver.”
Motivation to continue to progress when you’re already considered the greatest 145lb fighter ever to step inside a cage is perhaps what sets Aldo apart from almost every other fighter he’s faced during his illustrious career. He’s a machine. A wrecking ball that’s not driven by fame or fortune, but the quest to be considered the best in the world.
“What motivates me to fight is to become the undisputed champion again,” he says with a shrug like it’s pre-determined. “This is the main goal I have for my career. It is driving me along with my teammates in the gym, day after day, feeding the fire to make that mission happen again.
“I am very focused on this goal and that’s what keeps me fighting. My dream is to one day retire at the top, being the featherweight kingpin. The motivation to accomplish it makes me train and learn even more.”
Aldo will be content once the full championship belt is wrapped back around his waist, but he might not even have to go through McGregor. ‘The Notorious’ hasn’t made the weight in nine months and is still targeting different divisions. But surely he’d relish regaining his belt by taking it back from the man who took it from him?
Aldo grits his teeth once more when the Irishman’s name returns to the conversation. “I don’t believe he will return to 145lb so that is out of my control. In the first place, I have to be the champion. The moment I am the champion we will look to make it happen and ask the UFC to fight him at 155lb or wherever he wants.
“But the rematch is a lot more attractive after I become the world champion again. A second fight, from a professional aspect, is going to be very good for both us. But I have to bring the title to the table to force him to fight.”
With McGregor competing up at 170lb in his double-header with Nate Diaz, the featherweight class has been on hold. Yet Aldo says he doesn’t concern himself with what other people do or don’t, he’s just focused on himself and knows that the way to get what he wants is to keep winning fights and to reclaim the full world title belt.
“Whether he comes back to 145lb or not, I have to fight against whoever they pick. It is not my job to be asking for any opponent. Today I already am the featherweight interim champion and I am going to be prepared to face the best 145lb guys there are. But of course I want to fight him again.
“I have already requested to fight at 155lb and they (UFC) would not let me do it at the time. They asked me to leave the 145lb belt to go up to 155lb. But this thing about him stifling the division is up to them and I don’t mind it whatsoever. What matters for me is to be the champion again.
“Being the champion feels so good. Since when I became a fighter I was always wanted to be one of the best. I never disrespect anybody and I will never do that. Everything I do I am thinking about being the best. I missed one step, but I know I never left being the champion and being the best. It is an honour to be at the top.”
Aldo received a backlash from fans following his quick knockout loss to McGregor, yet he insists there were plenty of others, along with friends and family, who supported him in his darkest moment.
“The majority of the fans will always support me and be at my side regardless of wins or losses. So I don’t worry about these other people as they’re only fighting fans and not José Aldo fans,” he says. “No matter what happens, our true fans are going to be with us giving moral support for us to overcome any obstacle. Those are the fans that matter.
“I surround myself with good people only, also. These people who truly like me support me the same way they always did, so do the fans who meet me in the street and send kind messages. So I definitely did not see any change. My real friends surround me and will always be there for me whatever comes up.”
One fan that Aldo appears to have a have something of a tumultuous relationship with is UFC president Dana White. The two have had their moments during the Brazilian’s time with the promotion, yet Aldo insists he’s a huge admirer of the man at the front of the business and accepts it’s inevitable owners and athletes would clash from time to time.
He also sees the sale of the organisation to WME as a positive step for the sport and reiterates his thoughts that new money will mean bigger pay cheques for the Octagon’s most profitable fighters.
“I think all of us fighters are excited for the future and to see if it becomes even better being in the UFC. The UFC have already done a lot, not only for us but also for the sport to be placed where it is right now and I hope the organisation is going to be improved much more on both sides.”
He adds: “There’s not been any real difference yet, we are just in the beginning. We don’t have any idea what else is going to happen. But I’ve never had any issue with the UFC. Of course, I have never been completely satisfied with my salary – and I will never be.
“I will always look to make more money no matter whether I am a volleyball, basketball or football player because I value myself higher than I am presently making. But that will be the same way regardless of who owns the company. I always believe we all deserve to be better paid.
“But I never had any issues with Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White. They were always fair when we did have to negotiate. They were correct on our requests and didn’t create any difficulty for the deals to be signed.
“Money problems will always exist, no matter the profession you choose because your boss might prevent your salary from being increased when you ask for more. It is part of employees’ reality. But I would like to thank them because they were always fair with everything we asked for in the negotiations.”
José Aldo, the greatest featherweight in MMA history, is reborn. While revenge remains a high priority, he’s not obsessed with the loss that threatened to dismantle his legacy. Back on track, back with a belt – he’s ready to restore his reign as the 145lb number-one.
“I am a champion again, so I am happy,” he adds. “My goal is to be the undisputed champion again next. No matter who is the title holder I will take it away because I want to be the champion. If it is against him then all the better. But I was born to be champion and becoming the champion is what I desire.”