This weekend, HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, plays host to UFC 163, a card headlined by a Featherweight title fight between Jose Aldo and Chan Sung Jung. It's a hotly anticipated bout, and one that should see two of the best fighters in the world slug it out for championship gold. Basically, it's like any other championship bout in the Octagon.
However, with Anderson Silva's defeat at the hands of Chris Weidman at UFC 162 in July, Aldo isn't just fighting for himself and his own legacy. He's now fighting for Brazilian relevancy in the realm of mixed martial arts. Silva's championship reign cemented Brazil as the hotbed for MMA. The loss now puts that entire thought into question.
Silva, without question, the best fighter of all time. He's been able to adapt his stand up as he got older, shifting from favoring the clinch to working a counter game. He frustrated opponents with Matrix-like head movement and always seemed to be working outside the space-time continuum. But, replays of his knockout loss show that his opponent found his range and was landing almost at will.
The past few years have seen the rise and fall of mixed martial arts (MMA) in Brazil. The television deal with Globo led to the debut of the Ultimate Fighter in Brazil and ultimately the creation of several new young stars for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to build its product around in the future. The ratings spiked when Junior Dos Santos captured the UFC Heavyweight championship with his stunning first round knock out of Cain Velasquez at UFC on Fox 1. In that way, it has been an absolute success.
However, the years haven't been kind to the former stars of Brazilian MMA. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is a shell of his former self. There was a time when "Big Nog" was wildly considered to be one of the best heavyweights on the planet. His ability to absorb punishment was stuff of legend and he always seemed to find a way to secure a submission from the grips of defeat. Unfortunately, he's now making a mockery of his legacy by getting his arm broken by Frank Mir's kimura and verbally submitting to Fabricio Werdum by armbar.
Maurio Rua was once the most promising light heavyweight fighters in the world. His acrobatic stand up was only matched by his aggressive style of jiu jitsu on the ground. The sky was the limit for him and his career. However, knee injuries and a lackadaisical attitude towards training caused a severe drop in condition and skill set. His last bout against Alexander Gustafsson demonstrated that 'Shogun' just doesn't have the skills or cardio to compete with the top of the division.
Even Wanderlei Silva, once the scariest fighter on the planet ever is seeing his the end of his career on the horizon. The wars in the gym and PRIDE ring caught up to him and his chin is as questionable as ever. Yes, he's reinvented himself at middleweight and picked up an impressive stoppage victory of Brian Stann earlier this year. But before that bout, there were serious discussions that it was time for him to walk away from the sport.
Which brings us back to José Aldo. There is no doubt he's the future of Brazilian MMA. He's got the skills and the swagger lead the next crop of Brazilian fighters in the UFC to the promise land. His fights in the UFC prove that much. He's defeated everyone that's been placed in front of him, and has done so in dominant fashion.
And he has the fans on his side, which already gives him a leg up on his contemporaries. One just needs to watch him celebrate with the crowd after defeating Chad Mendes at UFC 142 in Rio to understand how beloved he is in Brazil. The scene is very much like a mosh pit at a New York hardcore show.
But whether he realizes it or not, he's carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders as he enters the octagon this evening. Because of the nature of MMA, those veterans and national heroes are no long able to compete at a high enough level to carry the banner.
Brazil continues to churn out talented fighters, but there's such a gap between the old and new guards that fighters like Aldo and Junior Dos Santos are forced into stardom whether they are ready or not. So far, both have accepted their roles as the new faces of Brazilian MMA, but that fame always comes at a price.
Ronda Rousey complained before her UFC debut that the press requirements were keeping her away from vital training sessions. Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre made similar statements due to the UFC's exhausting press schedule in the build up to all the scheduled bouts with Nick Diaz.
Aldo enters the cage tonight, not just fighting for himself and his teammates, but for the legacy of Brazil. Whether he's ready for it or not, he's the new face of MMA in Brazil. It's now time for him to accept his role and lead his countrymen into the future.