It seems clear at this point that the best days of Jose Aldo are behind him, but his performance on Saturday night was nothing short of remarkable and one of the most memorable of his storied career. There is an obsession with the athletic prime in combat sports but often the greatest battles and most tear-jerking moments come when an old fighter is able to turn back the clock—perhaps just for one night—and, to paraphrase the poetry of Aldo himself, ambush the men digging his grave.
We characterized Jeremy Stephens as the perfect gatekeeper to the top five of his division. Stephens is flawed and consistently loses in the same ways, but even the very best fighters in the world must humble themselves and fight to a strict gameplan or he will simply flatten them. Jose Aldo began the fight on Saturday night by attempting to exploit many of Stephens’s habits and win a clean, controlling victory, yet it was when things went wrong and that gameplan was abandoned that the fight became an instant classic and we were all given a stern reminder of just how great Jose Aldo is.
The fight began as expected with Stephens advancing and Aldo leading him around the cage. Stephens seemed concerned enough about Aldo’s counter punches that he didn’t simply stroll toward Aldo swinging, but cautiously worked from within his stance. In the Tactical Guide we pointed out Stephens’s very predictable pattern of showing two faked jabs, or a faked right hand into a shift, to make distance before a big swing. Essentially any serious Stephens attack is preceded by a rush to try to catch the opponent along the fence, but the techniques which are supposed to force his opponent to retreat (for a smarter fighter that might be a legitimate double jab) are often just Stephens going through the motions. Renato Moicano caught Stephens with hard counters during these preliminary motions.
The fight was only a short one but Aldo seemed to be latching onto Stephens’s cadence well. After a few evasions and pot shots, Aldo would catch Stephens shifting in or throwing out that lazy, unthreatening jab and instead of moving back—as so many Stephens opponents do—he cracked Stephens with a counter and broke his advance.
Stephens has to leave his stance to perform his shifting right hand, meaning that when Aldo stood still and countered Stephens wound up getting hit in a weird in-between stance which didn’t protect him very well and reduced his ability to swing from his legs.
Aldo also tried to play with Stephens’s timing and peck at him. Aldo’s lightning fast jab is still unmatched outside of Max Holloway in the featherweight division and it annoyed Stephens in the early going, but it was only after he had felt the worst of Stephens’s power that Aldo really started to bring the jab to lever. Another nice trick Aldo used to mess with Stephens’s timing and need to set his feet was an inside low kick. After making to push kick Stephens twice when the American feinted, Aldo switched to an inside low kick as Stephens stepped in for real and pulled his lead foot out of stance before countering with a right hand.
One of the slickest applications of the inside low kick is against big right hand swingers. To transfer weight into an overhand, most power punchers will step onto their left foot, moving it both forward and to their left. The direction of the foot and the transfer of weight means that this post can be knocked out if timed with a good inside low kick. The great Thai kickboxer Buakaw used this extensively in K-1, notably against Mike Zambidis.
Much of what Jose Aldo seemed to be doing was the well tested anti-Stephens gameplan: keep Stephens turning. Stephens’s feet and hands do not coordinate well, he does not punch and move well at the same time, and whether he’s chasing around the edge of the cage or turning on a dime, he just isn’t as scary when he’s not swinging from the floor.
Here you can see Aldo using both a passive and an aggressive type of angle. In the first two instances he drifts out and circles away from Stephens, in the second he steps in to crowd Stephens and performs a tight pivot, capitalizing with a right hand as Stephens follows him around.
But Jeremy Stephens did deliver on a promise: he wasn’t scared to kick with Aldo. Fight fans wistfully recall “when Aldo kicked” but Aldo generally kicked best against “wrestle-bangers” who didn’t have any tools on the feet outside of a running overhand. Stephens kicked with Aldo and landed some good ones in the brief fight. In the build up to the fight, many fans were incredulous that Stephens claimed he would attempt to low kick Aldo, as if low-kicking with a good low-kicker were a death sentence. The truth is that nothing about being able to throw a good low kick indicates that a fighter counters a good low kick, and almost any fighter can benefit from using low kicks even against a much better kickboxer.
The kind of fighters you don’t want to be low-kicking against are the ones who are good at stepping heavily onto their lead foot and threading their right hand up the center. Jose Aldo threw one low kick against Max Holloway in their first fight and was immediately threatened with the straight right hand so he never returned to it. Getting caught on one leg is the low-kicker’s nightmare and many, many great kickboxers have been starched simply by miscalculating and letting a fighter drive through their knee as they stand on one leg. Jeremy Stephens did the same thing to Dooho Choi. Aldo kicked from a little too close in and Stephens hammered his right straight down the center line.
It was unclear how badly Aldo was caught as he had managed to roll his head with the blow, but he stumbled back and then ducked in to clinch as he so often does when he wants a break. Stephens, like Holloway before him, was ready and shucked Aldo off. Aldo covered along the fence and kept his head moving as Stephens grazed him with blows before Stephens stiff armed and snuck in an uppercut, landing the jolting right swing on Aldo’s jaw. Then, just as the conservative, cautious fighter was supposed to be at his most cautious, he began throwing back off the fence.
To master the art of combat is to try to remove all the “fight” from a professional bout. Watch film of Jose Aldo on his best days and you will see exactly what this means: there are no prolonged exchanges, Aldo barely engages unless it is on his terms, and it is more a hunt than it is a fist fight. The paradox of fighting is that the best fighters are those who remove the tit-for-tat exchanges from the menu in order to improve their chances and lengthen their careers, but it is a shared trait of all the true greats that when push comes to shove, they can fight like a wounded tiger. And when Jeremy Stephens put his uncanny power on Jose Aldo and had the old champ furrowing his brow and cornered, that was what Aldo did.
As Aldo swung back off the fence the two men stopped being top tier combat athletes and became hockey players, eyes down and swinging overhead. Nothing of what Aldo did looked crisp, it was primitive and sloppy and yet somewhere in that awkward, extended exchange, the fight reversed. As the two broke from the awkward windmill, Stephens was backing up for the first time in the fight.
Jose Aldo seemed to be out of the woods. He could return to his stick-and-move and focus on winning the next two rounds, but he did not. Instead Aldo was moving forward and throwing right hands. Slipping Stephens’s jabs or eating them, Aldo seemed almost completely uninterested in whether Stephens had hit him. Now Aldo was throwing right hand counters and leading with power punches, following one combination with another and never taking a breather like he has been prone to throughout his career. Stephens had built his own mythos—he had always clung to the idea that even though he wasn’t the best in the world, nobody could afford to trade with him—and yet faced with this angry, shaken Jose Aldo, he seemed to be flailing helplessly in the breeze.
Eating a stiff right hand, Stephens retreated a step and then decided it was time to push forward. Driving in on Aldo he swung his Sunday uppercut and a left hook which almost turned him all the way around as Aldo rebounded out of reach. As Stephens returned to his guard, Aldo tapped a right hook into the body and loaded up a left hook behind his back which smashed into Stephens’s liver and folded him in half.
The chin is something mystical—no one is quite sure how it works or what it takes to “break” a great one, but a universal truth of fighting is that even the iron-jawed brawlers can be sent into the fetal position with a good body shot. For Stephens, it must have seemed like all the air had left the cage, and as he gasped on the mat all he found to inhale was Aldo, who smothered him with an urgency he hadn’t shown in years. Stephens was never able to recover and the referee stepped in to wave off the fight.
Aldo’s more active head movement and crisper punching form aided him in the fight, and his choice to target Stephens’s body while Stephens was head hunting obviously paid off, but to pretend that Aldo gave Stephens a lesson in scientific striking would be putting lipstick on a pig. More than that it would be doing Aldo a disservice. Jose used to be so far ahead of his peers that his fights looked as though he was on cruise control, coasting until the twenty-five minutes expired. On Saturday night Aldo’s own cornerman was begging him to step back away and fight at range after he came off the fence but perhaps that is what made this fight so rewarding. On this night that automaton malfunctioned and a rage that we never got to see burst through. It was not “the Aldo of Old” or a hungry young Aldo, it was a desperate, dangerous old Aldo and if it took him slowing down a little to have to fight like that, his next few fights might be more impressive than those many title defenses in his prime.
After embracing and kissing his cornermen, Jose Aldo collapsed sobbing in the center of the cage. He had heard the months or even years of speculation over whether there was anything left of the old WEC-era Aldo, and perhaps he had even begun to ask it himself. To be called a coaster who lacked killer instinct, to be betrayed by the UFC and denied a rematch when he finally lost his title, to be considered over the hill and chinny by the vocal mixed martial arts fanbase, to not have finished a single fight since 2013, and then to win in this fashion—few moments in the short history of the UFC can compare. That was not Jose Aldo at his best, but it was most certainly Jose Aldo at his greatest.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.