Over the last five years, the UFC has gone through enough changes, evolutions, developments, revolutions, cultural shifts, and difficult births to be at times almost unrecognizable. But even during these heady times there have been two things a fan could always rely on, like the changing of the tides or the turning of the earth: One, that featherweight Jose Aldo would be one of the greatest fighters in the promotion; and two, that Jose Aldo would be threatening to leave it.
So we've been taking Aldo's latest request to be released from his contract with a grain of salt. It's true that the former longtime featherweight champion feels hard done by after losing his featherweight title to Conor McGregor last December only to find out that, unlike other longtime champions, he would have to fight for his rematch, and then coming to find out, after beating Frankie Edgar for the interim title, that the promised rematch had been snatched away from him by matchmakers eager to put McGregor in the cage with lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in New York City instead. Aldo, for all his genius, has never been one the pundits and promoters would call a "needle-mover," and, more importantly, he's never been one to understand why that matters. For him, the fight's the thing. Everything else is accounting. Five dominant years at the top of your weight class should justify itself, regardless of how many pay-per-view buys your name inspires. But MMA more than ever is prizefighting, and it's clear after the events of the past few months that this new age of the sport belongs to the needle-movers and fight-sellers and self-promoters—that we are now in the Conor McGregor Era, an era it's looking more and more like Jose Aldo doesn't belong in and wants no part of.
In an interview with Tap. Nap. Snap. yesterday Aldo said that his frustrations with his life in the UFC don't just have to do with the delay of his promised rematch with McGregor (he had already told Brazilian sports channel SporTV that not even Dana White offering him that fight would be enough to get him to stay) or about the failure of the UFC to pay him a wage that reflects the vastness of his accomplishments ("I don't think what I've received in the UFC is commensurate with what I have achieved as an athlete or what I've done in the sport and in my weight class," he said.). Rather, Aldo feels detached from what he sees as a fundamental cultural shift in the way UFC fighters handle themselves, and how those fighters are rewarded in return.
"I hear a lot of people say the reason I don't call the shots and that I'm not happy with my income is that I don't sell fights," Aldo said. "People have said that to me and they've said it about me. I've heard people say, 'Jose needs to be a better marketer; he needs to sell his fights more.' But that's not the philosophy I was raised with. My coach is a martial artist. I'm a martial artist. What we do starts with respect.
"Where the sport is going is not respectful. The people who are selling fights are people who are giving each other the middle finger, throwing objects at press conferences, getting caught snorting cocaine and making headlines for all kinds of wrong reasons. What I was taught and what I believe in is: I do my best inside the cage. I believe people want to watch me for my ability as an athlete. ... If the direction the sport is going is you've got to make headlines for the wrong reasons in order to be worthy of respect and in order to be worthy of the right income, it's not something I'll ever be on board with."
Aldo may be right. Since the meteoric rise of Conor McGregor there has been a tectonic shift in the way fighters approach fighting and money-making: a shift toward being louder, ruder, more demanding, and more controversial. But while it's easy to sympathize with Aldo's concerns about what that approach is doing to the soul of the sport and of the fighters in it, there's no arguing how effective it's been. After all, if it hadn't been for that bottle-throwing tantrum between McGregor and Nate Diaz during the pre-UFC 202 press conference (complete with an uncountable number of middle fingers coming from both sides), that event may have been a dud, instead of the biggest pay-per-view event the sport has ever known, which is what it became once video footage of the melee went viral. Jose Aldo, who in 10 years in MMA has barely said a word against anybody, may simply not be made for these times.
But for an MMA fan who grew up in this sport with Jose Aldo always there as the greatest of the great, as the most terrifying of the terrifying, spiritual heir to Pride-era "Shogun" Rua and next in line to the artistic throne of Anderson Silva; and who himself isn't entirely comfortable with the trash-talking, bottle-throwing, designer-suit-wearing new world order McGregor embodies, it would be deflating to see him go—just further confirmation that the Era of Self-Regard in MMA is ascendant. But I wouldn't blame him if he did decide to leave: What's a soft-spoken artist to do in the Age of McGregor?