A month and a half after getting flatlined by Conor McGregor with the first punch landed in the biggest fight of the year, former UFC featherweight titleholder José Aldo broke his silence last week, demanding that his next fight be for the featherweight strap and/or a rematch against McGregor. It’s a fair request, one Aldo claims that UFC brass agreed to but is now refusing to honor.
“It’s one of those things,” UFC president Dana White said on radio show Opie with Jim Norton in response. “We made the fight the first time, and he got hurt and had to pull out. Then we made it again, and it ended in 13 seconds. It’s tough to make that fight right away.
“Plus,” White continued, “Conor wants to be a two-belt champion so he wants to fight [UFC lightweight champion Rafael] dos Anjos. Which is crazy. If you look at that guy, he’s an animal.”
That’s a hell of a line! This isn’t a tough fight to make. Until December, Aldo was the only featherweight champion the UFC had ever known. The 29-year-old Brazilian is 25-2, and his losses bookend a decade-long, 18-fight run without a defeat, during which he routinely destroyed stone killers. He lost fair and square to McGregor, who opened the bout with a counter that just missed, then reset his feet and threw the same punch again. But he also lost without landing a single punch. It was flukey, not in the sense that McGregor failed to demonstrate anything, but in the sense that professional fights between two top athletes almost always last longer than a few seconds. That left fans wanting to see a return. More importantly, any champion who loses his belt after a display of sustained dominance like Aldo’s deserves the opportunity to win his belt back. There’s no good reason for White to dismiss Aldo; White is, nonetheless, dismissing Aldo. To his credit, Aldo’s said he’s prepared to wait up to a year for his shot. But he shouldn’t have to wait at all.
On one hand, this is great for McGregor, who’s slated to fight dos Anjos for the lightweight title next month, and then 145-pound contender Frankie Edgar for the featherweight belt sometime later in the year. The Irishman became a household name last year after knocking out Denis Siver, Chad Mendes, and Aldo, and with Ronda Rousey’s loss to Holly Holm in November, McGregor is the promotion’s biggest star. He raises the stakes and interest of his fights with his talk in leadup before crumpling in his opponents once in the cage, and he’s using his power to make a shit ton of money for himself. Skipping a rematch against Aldo for a fight with dos Anjos gives him a chance to be the first person to hold two UFC belts at once. If he does it, one of the most fun fighters on the roster will have to fight more. He’ll become an even bigger star, and make even more money for himself in a notoriously dangerous and low-paying sport. These are all good things that should be celebrated.
On the other hand, if you’re of the belief that Aldo’s being dicked over—and you should be, because he is being dicked over—it’s hard not to connect the UFC’s mishandling of one of its legends to the mishandling of so many of the promotion’s non-white athletes. The UFC has a long history of diverse, beloved champions from all over the world, because UFC fans come for violence, and aren’t very fussy about who doles it out. But through its history, UFC brass has, when given the opportunity, almost exclusively pushed white athletes to the forefront at the expense of all others. This is a company that struggled with promoting Anderson Silva. Over the last year and a half Rafael dos Anjos has absolutely run through the deepest, most dangerous division in the sport. He is very violent, hurts people in lots of different ways, and is therefore very fun to watch. But only two of his last 11 fights have been on pay-per-view cards surrounded by other top UFC draws. He’s only getting a chance at the spotlight because it provides a marketable match-up for Conor McGregor, and he’s getting it at the expense of a brilliant knockout artist whose quest for redemption after his first loss since George W. Bush was in office would, the UFC claims, be hard to market.
This sort of thing shapes the promotion’s legacy outside the cage, just as the stars do within it. It’s not just that Conor McGregor’s fights were curated to give him the safest, surest route to a mega-fight with Aldo; or that McGregor has been able to circumvent a murderer’s row of contenders to fight dos Anjos straight away; or that UFC brass is doing everything in their power to let their brightest star shine. It’s that the UFC time and again fails to promote fighters of color as compelling athletes in their own right, instead positioning them as disposable tools to further the reach of the UFC or prop up favored fighters. Does anyone really think that if José Aldo were a white American who went unbeaten for 10 years and was then knocked out in incredible, eerie fashion by a shit-talking upstart star, he wouldn’t be able to immediately run it back? Of course not. And it leaves you with a simple question: Why isn’t the actual José Aldo being given that same chance?
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