In light of the almost assuredly catastrophic fight ahead of us, this article serves as a eulogy of sorts.
Despite frequently documented tough weight cuts as a featherweight, and several flirtations with moving up to lightweight, Jose Aldo plans to fight at UFC 245 at bantamweight against a powerful, athletic striker in Marlon Moraes.
Given Aldo’s largely inert performance against Alexander Volkanovski in his last bout, many fans and analysts have determined this is likely the end of the road for the all-time great. The man has been fighting professionally since 2004, and the majority of his career has been against top-shelf talent in the WEC and UFC. A huge, unprecedented weight cut is almost guaranteed to cut his fighting lifespan even shorter. He made the weight, but this is eerily reminiscent of TJ Dillashaw’s ill-fated drop to 125.
It’s safe to begin our farewells. Even if he continues to take fights (for seven years?!), any version of Aldo remotely resembling his prime form will exist only in memory.
My tribute to Jose Aldo will focus on the formulation and adaptation of his style to deal with wrestling in MMA. Because I’ve already written wrestling-specific breakdowns on the best takedown artists Aldo has faced, there will be a lot of self-plagiarism. To make up for that, here’s a little “Intro to Wrestling for MMA,” at least how I see it.
Wrestling for MMA: Essential Concepts
If you’ve been following the Wrestling for MMA series, you’ll know that striking is the determining factor for wrestling efficacy, given a baseline wrestling skill level of course.
As an offensive wrestler, the range at which you can enter from is entirely different in neutral positioning than it is in a match. Against talented or physical opponents in MMA, you shouldn’t be able to walk right up and get your hands on them.
Either being able to strike safely to cover distance, or draw your opponent in toward you with your striking approach, are essential tactics. Once you find opponents with a baseline skill level of wrestling in MMA, you’re not going to be able to shoot far from the outside without being stuffed or put in a tough position. Drawing your opponent in will set up a nice reactive or intercepting shot, layered feints and leads should be able to cover distance and place the hands away from the hips or alter your opponent’s stance in some way.
What about for defensive wrestling?
The ability to retain or manipulate distance is key once again. If your opponent is able to just crash in on you and force you backward or to cover up, they’re going to have reliable entries on your hips or consistently drive you back to the cage.
Footwork and counter ability can be direct answers. If your opponent is charging in with a combination or single strike, can you use short linear movement to find the range to jab or intercept with strikes to halt their momentum, can you slip and pivot out from that straight line?
Being difficult to pressure is enormously important for a fighter looking to shut down wrestlers. It’s the reason why, despite having perfectly fine wrestling skill, Edson Barboza struggles so much with physical wrestlers. He overreacts to the aggressive forward movements of his more dangerous opponents, putting himself near the cage even when circling.
For these reasons just being a skilled practitioner in a pure wrestling context is rarely enough to enforce or deny those situations against a competent opponent. I examined the drawbacks of Ben Askren’s style to illustrate that point further.
In examining Jose Aldo, we’ll look at both his baseline wrestling technique and the ways in which his striking bolster him as a defensive wrestler.
Early Title Reign: Angling Off and Creating Separation
While Aldo wasn’t always as sharp defensively as he showed at his peak, the basic building blocks were there since his early WEC career.
The first truly talented and physical wrestler he faced was reigning featherweight champion Mike Thomas Brown.
As some may know, I’m quite high on prime MTB as a fighter whose skills would hold up today. Check out his body punching and physical wrestling style on display against Urijah Faber.
In that Faber fight, Brown’s offense was largely based on walking down the smaller man, lowering his level to batter the body and again level changing to counter any wild overhands. His best wrestling work came once already in control positions, Brown excelled as a mat wrestler much more than as a takedown artist. He was an athlete defined more by power and craft than overwhelming speed or pressure.
For Brown’s wrestling to work against Aldo, he’d need a clean bite on an entry or frequent opportunities. This is where being difficult to pressure comes into play. Even if Aldo wasn’t a footwork magician at this point, his counters were sharp and violent, and frequent uses of knees and uppercuts dissuaded outside level changes.
To begin any sort of grappling, Brown had to either wait on Aldo’s offense and attempt to react, a dangerous game to play against a significantly faster man, or fight his way inside, the much more logical option. However, Brown’s striking entries were frenzied, giving him smaller windows in worse positions to attempt takedowns.
The built-in habits of Jose Aldo’s striking made matters even worse. Aldo’s preference for body striking and even beginning higher targeted strikes from the rib cage meant that if Brown attempted to level change in off Aldo’s combinations, he was running into underhooks more often than not.
Nevertheless, Brown was tenacious, allowing us to observe the wrestling technique of Aldo.
As stated, one surefire way to take steam off a takedown attempt is to intercept with underhooks, they keep your opponent from level changing effectively and more importantly, they provide a barrier between your opponent and your hips. With a fairly weak entry, Mike Brown shot himself right into Aldo’s double unders and was turned around.
It takes special physical talents or perfect entries or momentum to shoot through underhooks, like Kevin Lee has shown many times.
Suppose your opponent reaches more stable positions, like a strong underhook or a bodylock against the cage, as Mike Brown did against Aldo. One common finishing tactic for the attacking fighter is to step in front and drag their opponent forward over their hips.
In defending this maneuver, Aldo demonstrated the basic principle of his defensive wrestling: use the strength of the whizzer and the speed of his feet to retain stability until the finish fizzles out. Don’t get me wrong, athleticism is a huge factor here, Aldo’s core strength and hip mobility allows him to stay balanced through precarious positions, but he’s doing the right things.
In open space against the over-under bodylock, Aldo uses the leverage of the whizzer to keep Brown next to him, while shuffling his feet to get back to the cage. Once they hit the cage and Brown is shooting straight on his hips, Aldo takes a deep side-on stance and lifts with the whizzer to straighten up his opponent.
Even when Brown was able to shoot relatively clean on a head outside single, Aldo’s cement hips and enthusiasm for the basics shut him down quickly. After a quick sprawl back, Aldo whizzered on the connecting arm and used the near arm to stuff Brown’s head, taking away an important lever on the finish and preventing Brown from easily building up.
As Aldo became more comfortable and composed in his striking, his opponents relied more and more heavily on reactive shots, their best hope was to catch him off guard. Kenny Florian, as thoughtful as any fighter has been, kept his eye out for entry opportunities and struck when Aldo appeared the most vulnerable.
But with Aldo, nothing is that straightforward. First I have to point out that while the energy and timing was there on Florian’s shot, the level change was fairly shallow and lacked explosive pop. I understand that MMA coaches teach fighters to wrestle a little taller to make the transition from striking easier and avoid intercepting strikes, but if you’re fighting Aldo you need strong posture and to keep his hands as far away as possible.
Bending over at the waist and running forward is not a good plan. At first sight of this shot, Aldo was already pivoting away from the lead leg and catching a whizzer on the reaching arm.
Not only is the motion of the shot dead, Aldo can use the whizzer to jack up the arm and get Florian off his leg. Once the threat of the shot is gone, Aldo ends the sequence by using his free arm to violently post on Florian’s head and force him to break.
Florian’s best chance came shortly after, a more confident Aldo walked straight in and Florian took another shot. This time, he was well under Aldo’s arms and instead of trying to shoot straight forward, he quickly turned the corner with his head on the hip and Aldo’s butt hit the canvas.
For one moment.
On the way down, Aldo was already turning to recover his base and looking for solid ground to post on. With Florian still only loosely gripping the legs, Aldo went to his tried and true strategy – post, turn, kick out.
One added detail, given Aldo was executing this maneuver on the mat, was to get his hips higher than Florian’s, an essential wrestling principle.
Across diverse wrestling situations in this fight, Aldo beat Florian every time by manipulating his posture, creating space with posts and fighting his hands to create separation.
The pivots of Jose Aldo worked exceptionally well, Florian would often run into a single point on the hip with nothing to grab and bounce off the champion. While it was an athletic mismatch, Aldo still put on a masterclass.
To prove that it’s not only athleticism keeping Aldo on his feet, let’s take a look at how he fared against the most explosive shot artist in UFC history – Chad Mendes.
I covered their first meeting in Wrestling for MMA: Chad Mendes.
“Against Aldo, Mendes lacked the striking to bait the champion into any favorable positions, for the most part, he had to shoot straight on. Jose Aldo has the best hips in the history of MMA, that should not be a controversial statement. Mendes likely felt like he was shooting into a brick wall, and Aldo instantly was able to change levels with Mendes, push off on the head and simultaneously pivot away, giving him the angle to turn his knee in and kick the defending leg out.
The pivots of Aldo were key, as he always prefers a quick limp-leg escape rather than messing around with balancing on one leg and chain wrestling. What really amplified his defense was a hyper-attention to pushing away on the head and attacking wrists, constantly breaking grips and keeping his own hands free to create separation.
When Mendes did eventually get to rear standing, Aldo’s complete disdain for any potential grappling offense freed him up to post with both hands and focus solely on breaking Mendes’ grip across his own hip bone.”
Because it’s so hard to catch him out of position or secure any type of control with immediacy, every opponent planning on wrestling with Aldo had to reckon with these razor-sharp basic defensive tactics.
Frankie Edgar, one of the most versatile wrestle-boxers in UFC history, someone who could contend with Aldo on the feet much more competitively than Mendes could at that point, struggled immensely.
Of course, there’s a “Wrestling for MMA: Frankie Edgar,” and this fight was covered as well.
“…please enjoy (CLIP:) Jose Aldo repeatedly denying Frankie Edgar.
How is this possible? To begin with, Aldo’s hips are ridiculously powerful and agile, essentially serving as a cement wall for any opponent to try and shoot through. While Edgar’s takedowns largely rely on directional changes and at times upper body manipulation, quick finishes or extended chained attempts are absolutely essential against Aldo. You can see for yourself just how quickly Aldo can limp-leg out if Edgar doesn’t have a strong enough bite, or takes too long getting to his finishing positions.
It doesn’t help that Edgar was in constant danger of counters on his entries, and had an impeccable Aldo jab to deal with on the outside. It was extremely difficult to draw Aldo’s hands away from his hips, or to convince him to fear his shot enough to create reactions to work from.”
Frankie Edgar, like former “double champion” Daniel Cormier, is a fighter who sometimes relied more on his finishing mechanics than having the cleanest entries. While Edgar’s systems for getting to the legs are much more process-driven and polished, they were never really set up to run straight through the hips, it was typically his goal to get a hold of the leg and improve from there.
This does not play against Jose Aldo.
The Peak: Impeccable Footwork and Intercepting Strikes
While Jose Aldo’s physical or athletic peak was likely around that first Edgar fight in 2013 (nine years into his pro career!), his best combination of skill and physicality was probably closer to 2016. In my opinion his absolute skill peak was in the rematch with Max Holloway in 2017, but he didn’t wrestle in that fight so it’s irrelevant.
The toughest wrestling-based challenger of Aldo’s career was “Bang Mendes”, the streaking, renewed Chad Mendes he met at UFC 179 in 2014.
With the help of Duane Ludwig, Mendes had channeled his athleticism into a mobile, layered offensive kickboxing style that complemented his wrestling beautifully. He was able to feint his way into range, parry strikes, threaten with a variety of leads and combinations, slip or duck into monstrous counters, and generally display an awareness and comfort on the feet we’d never see from him again after this fight.
Finally, Aldo had an opponent who would push him and trigger full-speed reactions, meaning intercepting or reactive takedowns were a greater possibility for Mendes.
But instead of shying away, Aldo took initiative.
Pressuring forward into the mobile powerhouse, Aldo ended his combinations with a horrifying stepping knee designed to severely punish any level changes.
The obvious drawback to using knees to dissuade wrestling is similar to why kicking is a concern, assuming they survive, you’re giving the wrestler your leg.
Aldo is not immune to this issue, but there are several layers to work through. First you have to consider that he’s ending pressuring combinations in this way, meaning his opponent is already on the backfoot and likely out of position, not in their strongest stance, standing upright to avoid the knee (if they saw it coming). Then even if they do catch the leg, they’re starting with a single, without a quick transition, they’re getting whizzered, posted on, and Aldo is kicking out.
But if you’re Chad Mendes, you can catch the leg, quickly tuck the leg under your body with both hands then switch off to a double, finishing toward the side the knee was thrown on where Aldo has no supporting leg. My colleague Ryan Wagner has often wondered why Chad Mendes finishes doubles toward the side his head is on, rather than using his head to drive to the other side, in this particular instance my theory is because he’s favoring whichever side is weaker for his opponent.
So even after Mendes had Aldo’s leg served up, finished on the double opportunistically and sat him on his hip, the takedown was not even close to complete. Immediately Aldo is scooting back, posting with one arm to get height then pivoting hard to get his hips flat to the mat, grabbing a whizzer on his way over.
This motion was so powerful it knocked Mendes off his base.
Fans and analysts alike often discuss the “chain wrestling” of Khabib Nurmagomedov, this is the “chain defense” of Jose Aldo. While not the scrambling style we’re used to in MMA, it’s the persistent hustle that you’ll see in the world’s top wrestlers, even in pure freestyle.
As far as capitalizing on the knee goes, that was the closest Mendes got.
On subsequent attempts, Aldo made sure to push off on the head of Mendes immediately, keeping him from quickly getting control on the hip to double off and allowing Aldo to defend the single in his usual fashion.
The finest anti-wrestling performance of Aldo’s career was his rematch with Frankie Edgar at UFC 200.
Frankie Edgar’s takedown game is largely based on the reactions he builds on his opponent using his striking entries. Level changing strikes and springing combinations allow him to play with expectations, foot positioning and hand placement to give him the best look to get to the legs.
But against Aldo, his volume pressure was completely diffused by absurdly smooth slips, pivots and distance-managing strikes.
Edgar’s striking entries sailed harmlessly past Aldo. When he tried to feint forward pressure, Aldo simply made small linear adjustments until he was too close to the cage, then circled off if Edgar persisted.
Edgar’s lack of cage-cutting tools really hurt him there.
Any attempts to strike his way into range in earnest were slipped by Aldo, followed by a pivot to gain an angle on Edgar and retain position in the center. It was beautiful.
When he was the one leading, Edgar was never anywhere near a position he could shoot from.
Of course, he still tried.
But most of Edgar’s leading takedown entries are singles, he was doomed from the start, especially considering he had no way to convince Aldo to worry about anything other than the takedown attempts.
There was nothing new carrying Aldo through these shots – he fought grips, he whizzered at an angle, he posted on Edgar, he turned and kicked out. If Edgar didn’t get a decent entry at all, Aldo was usually making space with underhooks or crossfacing and shucking Edgar off entirely.
Jose Aldo developed a game that made any entry other than shallow singles exceptionally difficult to come by, then perfected the defense to a shallow single.
It didn’t help that Edgar’s entries had a little less confidence behind them due to the stepping knees of Jose Aldo.
Most of the time Edgar just got nailed ducking into them, but even when he did catch the leg afterward, he wasn’t full committed to driving forward (because he didn’t want to get hit with a knee) and running his feet, allowing Aldo to clamp a whizzer on the reaching arm and frame off to create space.
Of course I’m being dramatic about the end of Aldo’s career, but he’s a sensational fighter who has raised the bar both athletically and technically for the sport. It’s natural to get a bit sentimental, leave me alone!
The information in this article probably won’t be useful moving forward, and it’s certainly not relevant to his matchup with Marlon Moraes.
I don’t know. Maybe it is, maybe he’ll show up like it’s 2011 and double leg Moraes all over the cage.
After writing about so many great MMA wrestlers struggling with Aldo, I figured it was only right to give him his own place in the series.
If you were hoping for an offensive wrestling study, check out my Usman-Covington breakdown from earlier this week!