Jose Aldo‘s legacy is rich with championships. He reigned with the UFC featherweight belt through a record seven title defenses, and before that, he was the WEC champ. But for the man known as the King of Rio, a notable accomplishment was that he made moments come alive for fans and fellow fighters.
When news broke on Sunday that the 36-year-old Aldo was retiring from MMA with 36 victories under his belt, congratulations and respectful accolades came pouring in from many of the sport’s greats.
ESPN’s Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim are among longtime MMA followers who have been watching Aldo since he was a young dynamo surging toward the top of the sport. From his dominance in the WEC to ESPN’s 2014 MMA fight of the year, here are some of their enduring memories of his career.
Aldo shuts down Swanson in Sacramento
Back in 2009, I was sorta-kinda an MMA fan. I’d been to exactly one UFC live event and would occasionally watch fight cards on DVDs rented from the video store down the block from me. Taking in a fight several months after it had happened worked fine for me because no newspapers I read covered MMA and I didn’t follow any online forums, so I didn’t have to worry about spoilers. Why not watch live? None of my sports fan friends cared about MMA, and I wasn’t about to fork over the pay-per-view bucks by myself.
But when fights were on free TV, I was all-in. So on a June night in 2009, I tuned into Versus for WEC 41 at the old Arco Arena in Sacramento, California. I remember enjoying the main event between featherweight champion Mike Brown and hometown boy Urijah Faber. I remember being impressed by a couple of lightweights on the undercard, Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis. But the performance that made me wake the neighbors with a late-night “wow!” yelled at my TV screen was turned in by a 22-year-old Brazilian named Jose Aldo.
My grandmother used to tell me that we get only one chance to make a first impression. Well, what a dynamic and lasting impression Aldo made on this night, the first time I saw him fight.
It took him just nine seconds.
That was all the time he needed to race across the cage and unleash a flying knee that knocked out Cub Swanson. The fight was over practically before it started. But it lasted long enough for Aldo to make a fan of me.
Five months later, I would be watching on TV as Aldo knocked out Brown to become the WEC champion. Less than a year after that, the WEC would merge with the UFC and Aldo would be named champion of the UFC’s new 145-pound division. He would become the greatest featherweight in the sport’s history, reigning for four years and making a UFC-record seven title defenses.
And yet nothing that Aldo did during the rest of his glory-filled career — and there were a whole lot of marvelous moments — made me cry out with quite the astonishment and delirium that the buzzsaw from the Amazon drew out of me on that summer night in 2009. — Wagenheim
The featherweight GOATs show respect to the OG GOAT
ESPN has yet to unveil its MMA Mount Rushmore of the best featherweights in the sport’s history, but it’s safe to say that three of the faces on the structure would be Aldo, Max Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski. On Sunday, the younger 145-pound legends showered the senior weight classmate with nothing but love.
The King of RIO! What a career brother! Go enjoy retirement brother. Eat some açaí with cashew and powder milk for me 🤙🏻 @josealdojunior
— Max Holloway (@BlessedMMA) September 18, 2022
Wish nothing but the best to the Featherweight Goat @josealdojunior 🙏
— Alex Volkanovski (@alexvolkanovski) September 18, 2022
Meeting the King of Rio for the first time
My favorite Aldo memory has to be the first time I met him, which was also the first time I ever saw him fight. Nov. 18, 2009, WEC 44.
That was a lot of firsts for Aldo. It was his first time headlining a card, first title fight and first time he even appeared on a fight poster. It was also his first fight in Las Vegas. I remember he talked about how surreal it was to see himself on a billboard in Las Vegas.
The WEC held a media workout that week at The Palms, and Aldo was talking to a small group about his family, and he cried when he spoke about them. Obviously, as his iconic career played out, we got to learn a lot more about him, but I’ll never forget him during that fight week. He was a 23-year-old kid who came from a tough upbringing in Brazil and couldn’t believe where life had led him. And then he came out and just dominated Mike Brown, a terrific fighter, and started his long featherweight championship reign. — Okamoto
Jose Aldo’s KO of Chad Mendes in Rio
Already a top-tier fighter when he came into the UFC, Aldo announced his arrival in earnest with his knockout of Chad Mendes.
Aldo held the WEC title for nearly two years before his UFC debut, when WEC was the only game in town for lower-weight class fighters. In 2011, the UFC absorbed WEC — and its lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight divisions — into its promotion. Aldo became the first UFC featherweight champion by virtue of the fact that he already was and had been the best 145-pound fighter on the planet for years.
Aldo’s debut was in a high-profile setting, defending the UFC featherweight title for the first time at Toronto’s Rogers Centre at UFC 129 in front of a then-UFC-record 55,724 fans. Georges St-Pierre headlined that night in his home country with a win over Jake Shields. Aldo, though, faced some adversity that night against Mark Hominick, gassing late. He beat fan favorite Kenny Florian six months later, a card headlined by Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard 3.
In his third UFC fight, Aldo was finally given the responsibility of headlining — and it came in the Manaus, Brazil, native’s adopted hometown of Rio de Janeiro. Aldo was pitted against Mendes at UFC 142 on Jan. 14, 2012. Mendes was an explosive, dominant wrestler with immense power in his hands, a foe who critics at the time said would represent Aldo’s hardest test to date. Could he really get it done in the UFC, the highest of levels?
The answer, of course, was a resounding yes. With one second left in the first round, Aldo wheeled out of a clinch position and, in one motion, threw a knee up the middle that caught Mendes flush. The game challenger was out on impact — and then Aldo was off. He sprinted out of the Octagon and ran right into the more than 10,000 fans in attendance at HSBC Arena. Those spectators welcomed him with open arms, celebrating alongside him in a near mosh pit of joy.
One of Aldo’s many nicknames is “The King of Rio.” His crown was fitted that night. — Raimondi