Sunday October 26th, 2014

José Aldo walked into the octagon a star. He was rodeo-riding a 17-fight win streak, not having been thrown off his high horse in nine years. With six defenses of the UFC featherweight championship on his sparkling resume, he wasn’t merely the weight class’s longest-reigning belt holder, he was the only man who had ever worn the strap since the promotion created a 145-pound division five years ago. He was No. 2 in the SI.com pound-for-pound MMA rankings, having dominated all comers. Like a champion. Like a star.

Today, Aldo’s star shines even brighter in the aftermath of a rousing main event at UFC 179 on Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro. It wasn’t just his performance that elevated him. Even the 28-year-old Brazilian acknowledged that he owed a debt of gratitude to his collaborator. “All I can do is congratulate Chad Mendes,” Aldo said in the cage after defending his belt with a unanimous-decision victory that put on display a grit and gutsiness we’d never before seen from the champ. Because he’d never had to dig that deep.

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Mendes (16-2), who had won five in a row -- four by knockout -- since a 2012 KO loss in his first challenge of Aldo (25-1), came right at the champ from the start. His aggressiveness put Aldo on his heels a bit, and the Brazilian ended up on his backside before the first round was halfway finished, courtesy of a Mendes left hook. Aldo jumped right back up, however, and began fighting fire with fire. The men proceeded to exchange stinging leather, along with some well-placed knees, with Mendes getting dropped by a left hook as well. There was no feeling-out process here. These guys were touching each other hard.

The most damaging blow of the entire night came at the end of the first round. Actually, it came after the round was supposed to have ended. Just as the horn sounded, Aldo was sending a crisp jab in Mendes’s direction that would snap back the challenger’s head. Then, with referee Marc Goddard a step slow in jumping between the fighters, Aldo followed with a crushing right hand that sent Mendes crumbling against the cage. The crowd roared. The challenger sagged. As the two men walked to their corners, Mendes did so on drunken legs, with visions of Yoel Romero cornermen dancing in his head.

Mendes recovered well during the break, though, and that was good for all involved. It made for a stirring final four rounds, and it also allowed the UFC to sidestep what would have been a fiery controversy. If the champ had come out and starched a compromised challenger at the start of the second, the finish would have been under a dark cloud.

Aldo, for his part, accepted no culpability for what many fans and fighters on Twitter claimed was dirty fighting. “I was just going forward,” he said on the Fox Sports postfight show, “waiting for the judge to stop the fight.”

UFC president Dana White, who was seated just outside the cage, acknowledged that “it was so loud in the arena, you couldn’t hear anything.”

And Mendes wasn’t the only one affected by tactics outside the rules. The fight was paused three times for the champ to recover from illegal blows -- a kick to the groin in the second round and eye pokes in the first and third. MMA math: Do two punches after the horn equal two eye pokes and a groin shot? Apparently not, because Goddard warned Mendes after the second Moe Howard finger to the eye that he would deduct a point for the next foul.

Aldo seemed more affected by the left eye poke -- he took one to each eye -- than anything else. By fight’s end, the area was swollen and purplish, the eye nearly shut. That was exacerbated by clean Mendes punches, though several times the champ complained to Goddard that he was being fouled. The ref basically told him to be quiet and keep fighting. And Aldo ended up taking that advice, going on the attack more in this fight than in any of his recent defenses. Mendes got in his face, and Aldo responded.

In the end, all three judges scored the bout 49-46 for the champ, and SI.com had it the same. But every round was tightly contested, with each man having his moments. Mendes gave Aldo the fight of his life. Aldo, who in the past has been accused of building an early points lead and then coasting -- or fading, depending on your perspective -- showed that he can fight to the finish. You know, like a star.

“I think every fight in my career is the toughest fight,” Aldo said afterward in the cage, as the fans sang and cheered.

Aldo needed this. Brazil needed this. The UFC needed this.

This has been a tough year for the fight promotion, which has seen champion after champion felled not inside the cage but in training gyms. Just days ago Cain Velasquez had to drop out of a heavyweight title defense that was to take place in three weeks. The UFC injury report for 2014 has hit practically every weight class, listing all but one of its nine champs. Even Aldo had to push back this weekend’s fight from its original summer date after hurting his neck in camp.

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That postponement moved the bout from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro, where it took on grave implications. Three years ago, the behemoth fight promotion had arrived in Rio for the first time in over a decade, and the UFC 134 marquee bout featured then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva, the greatest in MMA history. There also were bouts involving a couple of other legendary figures, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. It was a nationalistic celebration. This time, in the UFC’s third trip back to Rio since then, the theme was more about survival.

Aldo is the lone remaining Brazilian champion. Silva, Rua, Nogueira, Junior dos Santos, Lyoto Machida, and Renan Barão all have worn the shiny brass-and-leather signifying UFC supremacy in recent years, but now it’s just José. He carried the weight of that into the octagon with him. After he was finished working, he wrapped the belt around his waist and walked out a more glimmering hero than ever before.

And Aldo’s most spotlit stage appears to be just ahead of him. In less than a month, Frankie Edgar and Cub Swanson will do battle in what has been presumed to be a No. 1 contender fight. After all, the two of them are ranked right below Mendes. However, the deck is stacked with a joker.

Aldo used that analogy himself after the fight, though he shifted the venue from a gambling house to a royal throne room. “My court is full now,” he said. “I am the king, Chad is the prince, and there is a joker now.”

The champ was referring to Conor McGregor, who was seated cageside and had made his presence known all week. The loquacious Irishman has been thought of as the biggest-money foe for Aldo, especially since the champ already has beaten both Edgar and Swanson. McGregor has burst into the rankings, and many fans and even media are impatient to see him in the cage with Aldo. Conor is scheduled to face Dennis Siver in a Boston main event in January, and if he takes care of business, he would appear to be next.

One can argue whether allowing McGregor to leapfrog the Edgar vs. Swanson winner is disregarding the featherweight meritocracy, but we’ve seen it before from the UFC when there’s business to be done. And Aldo vs. McGregor would be big, big business. Starry, starry night. 

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