The story of José Aldo's career is written in hematomas. There are the cauliflower ears he acquired when, after abandoning his childhood pro soccer ambitions, he began fighting professionally nearly 13 years ago. There are the purple and black mementos his legs left on Urijah Faber's in his second-to-last fight in the WEC, the promotion where he was a 145-pound serial killer. There's the embryonic alien he buried inside Mark Hominick's skull in his UFC debut six years ago, where he cemented himself as the first and most dominant featherweight champion the promotion ever knew.
But on Saturday night, in the 145-pound main event at UFC 212 in Rio de Janeiro, there was a big lump raised on the left side of Aldo's head. It became a beacon for the thumping hands Max Holloway threw that finished him in the third round. It marked an inflection point—an occasion to think about the man who won, the longtime champion who lost, and what a hard thing it was to watch.
Holloway is an archetype of MMA's long-trumpeted "next generation," a rangy and improvisational fighter who delights in entertainment and improves in public. Once a 20-year-old making his UFC debut in 2012 with middling results in half a dozen fights, he rattled off 10 straight wins in a division where notching a double-digit win streak is no small thing. The last was at UFC 206 last December, when he dismantled former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis for an interim version of the featherweight belt, eventually earning him the right to fight one of the stranger champions in the UFC.
Aldo has been fickle during his time on top, trading the sudden bursts of violence that could put out a wouldn't-blink-if-you-dropped-an-anvil-on-his-head fighter like Cub Swanson in the WEC for casual cruises to five-round wins (and one memorable slugfest with Chad Mendes) in the UFC. Frequently sidelined by injuries, he never blossomed into a fan favorite despite seven straight title wins in the UFC. In fact, the promotion occasionally put him on blast, like when his rib injury delayed his bout with 0-0 pro boxer Conor McGregor. After Aldo lost the McGregor fight in 13 seconds back in December 2015—his first defeat in a decade—he claimed an interim version seven months later with a shutout against Frankie Edgar, briefly retired when his rematch with McGregor didn't come to fruition, then regained the undisputed title thanks to McGregor's exit from the featherweight division.
Saturday's unification bout was one of the most consequential and emotional fights of 2017 so far, but it started off looking like an ordinary Aldo fight. Aldo landed a knee to Holloway's face in the first round and generally commanded the action for 10 minutes in front of the Brazilian crowd without much urgency. But Holloway, all surety and stance switching, found his range and his rhythm in the third. He dropped Aldo, swarmed, and turned the finish into a long, drawn-out thing that had you writhing in your seat whether you were in the Jeunesse Arena or thousands of miles away.
That's not to say referee John McCarthy did anything wrong. The unspoken assumption is that in title fights, referees give the fighter taking a beating the benefit of the doubt and more time to recover from adversity. Aldo used every moment: he fought off a rear-naked choke attempt and every punch that resembled a kill shot, but he never looked on the verge of a comeback. When he turtled up, he might as well have had steam pouring out of him. McCarthy let Holloway land more punches en route to the line of poor taste, then called off the fight before it went a step too far. When you saw Aldo protest the stoppage, you had to wonder if the only outcome he'd accept began with him waking up in a hospital bed.
Is this just another plot point for Aldo's career, with more hematomas to deliver? It's hard to remember, given his weathered face and how long he's been the object of our viewing pleasure, that Aldo is only 30 and Saturday was only his third loss in a 29-fight career stretching to 2004. He'd already had his career obituary prematurely written once before after the McGregor loss, then returned to dismantle Frankie Edgar, one of the best fighters in the sport. Even if the beating from Holloway felt like a swan song, it can only be so if Aldo decides it is.
But the momentum of fighting doesn't care all that much for the vanquished. Holloway has given himself the perfect gimmick for 2017: a champion who wants to fight the top challengers in his division, from Edgar and on down, for a title-holder's salary. "I don't want money fights: I want to get paid," Holloway said after the fight. So what will be the recurring image of Max Holloway's championship run? The first one, at least, was him screaming a champion's demands at UFC President Dana White from cageside. Aldo, meanwhile, trudged back to the locker room. The swelling had just begun.