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Jose Aldo vs. Max Holloway vs. the Ghost of Conor McGregor

The birth of the post-McGregor featherweight division at UFC 212

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s been a year and a half since Conor McGregor pulled off his featherweight heist, the caper in which he knocked out longtime champion Jose Aldo in 13 seconds and then disappeared into a world of crowns, beard wax, and historic paydays. But there is still a featherweight division, despite McGregor’s distractions. What has been happening there since McGregor snatched the belt and got the hell out? A lot of pouting. Fighters publicly seething. Dudes swirling in a funnel cloud.

Now — at long last — we get Jose Aldo against Max Holloway to unify the featherweight title at UFC 212, which takes place in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday night. It’s the first time anything remotely comprehensible has happened in the feathers since UFC 194, when McGregor landed a mushroom cloud of a left hand on Aldo’s chin that forced all other top contenders underground.

If anything, UFC 212 is the Life Goes On phase of the division McGregor left high and dry. The 25-year-old Holloway has won 10 straight fights (since he lost to McGregor in 2013), and is finally reaching a destination. He has the interim title, it’s true, but everyone knows the setup was kind of bullshit. He and Anthony Pettis were thrust into a main event at UFC 206 after injuries shuffled the card, and a title was put in play to give it an additional ounce of pay-per-view gravity.

Holloway’s unification title fight with the default champ Aldo — who hadn’t lost a bout for a decade before McGregor clipped him, nor since — is the real deal. It’s one of the better hook-ups for 2017. And it has to do with a lot more than just converging momentums. There’s autonomy to it. There’s real authorship.

No theoretical landlords, no featherweight hostages, no lies. No more Gucci mink and red turtlenecks.

For one thing, Aldo has once again regained control of his career — as in, his fate can no longer be tracked to the end of McGregor’s punches. It was McGregor who took his title, and it was McGregor who gave it back to him when he knocked out Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 to become the lightweight champion. Aldo took home the interim title at UFC 200 after beating Frankie Edgar when McGregor was on the lam from the division, yet he inherited that actual title only when it was clear that the now dual-champion McGregor was never coming back.

Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz will fight in the co-main event at UFC 212. (Getty Images)
Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz will fight in the co-main event at UFC 212. (Getty Images)

(Imagine how that feels for Aldo: McGregor takes your belt on a single punch in a fateful exchange, never deigns to consider a rematch, then gives it back to you by winning a second title, as if the belt were a piece of traveling charity. That’s fucked up! No wonder Aldo mulled retirement for a few minutes there.)

The good news is that Holloway is a very kickable Hawaiian being flown in for ventilation, and he’s been stirring the "Where’s Jose Aldo" stuff for a long, long time. For some reason, Holloway took his loss against McGregor in stride, not really making it personal — but if you ask him about Aldo, his Hawaiian pidgin begins taking colorful turns. ("Jose Aldo got diagnosed with pussy-itis," he once said, "and when he’s ready, I got the vaccine.") He despises Aldo. He’s been blasting Aldo with verbal jabs since before he got that placeholder belt in Toronto against Pettis. It’s been his raison d’être, so to speak, to book a fight against — and beat — the one he considers the real featherweight king.

(Thinking about it, maybe it’s all a subtweet at McGregor, and Holloway is actually the greatest two-way shit talker of all time.)

In the end, though, Holloway vs. Aldo is a classic fight that will either do away with a travesty or kick off a new era. Though he alternates between bored and grumpy and has a track record of being injury prone, Jose Aldo is one of the longest-running, most dominant fighters in the UFC. He had won 18 straight fights dating back to 2005 before McGregor landed on him. He defended the 145-pound title seven times in the UFC, and twice in the WEC before coming over. His leg kicks are the most lethal in the game. Though the UFC Hall of Fame is currently just some glitter shooting from the air ducts, he’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Yet there’s never been a champion’s legacy so abruptly discontinued as that of Aldo’s after the McGregor bout. In the hysteria of the moment, he went from legend to chump in the time it took to hit the canvas. It’s the cruel nature of the fight game to dump its idols at the first sign of mortality. The UFC even lost track of Aldo while riding shotgun on the McGregor bandwagon.

Aldo did what he had to against Edgar to get back rolling last July. An emphatic win over Holloway, and guess what. He’ll be back. The narrative will shift just a bit, as it inevitably does, and his lone loss in a dozen years will take on some "yeah buts." After all, Aldo stood in with McGregor and got dropped in an over-eager 50–50 exchange. It could have been either one of them who went down. What would happen in a rematch? That’s the question. And Aldo won’t have to ask it if he becomes the undisputed featherweight king once again. He can leave it to everyone else.

As much as Holloway can’t stand Aldo, multiply that by 100 for how Aldo feels about McGregor. He might not like to admit it, but you tend to get that way after somebody keeps you on puppet strings for so long. Aldo still wants that McGregor fight again, in whatever division, but sometimes the best way back is to move on. That’s what Aldo’s faced with at UFC 212 in his native Brazil: using Holloway and his 10-fight win streak to remind people that Aldo is over it, and that December 12, 2015, was an aberration.

The Best of the Rest of UFC 212

In the way that Holloway and Aldo are both McGregor casualties coming together to move things along, so are the two participants in the co-main event — Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Claudia Gadelha. Combined, the two women are 0–3 against current strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (with Gadelha having lost twice — the only two losses of her career). They’re both close to Joanna Champion in standing, but are realistically miles away in terms of getting a rematch.

Still, there’s some title incentive, if you don’t mind a crumb trail. With the UFC creating a women’s flyweight division, which will be introduced through The Ultimate Fighter 26 reality series, you know who will be awaiting the inaugural champion at season’s end? Joanna Jedrzejczyk. She has said on numerous occasions that she would like to bounce up to 125 pounds to win a second belt (much like McGregor did), and that the weight cut to 115 is extremely taxing on her (just like the cut to 145 pounds for McGregor). Should she do that — or rather, when she does that — you could see a situation where yet another interim title is created, or where she simply relinquishes the strawweight title.

Kowalkiewicz-Gadelha becomes more lively when you think of it playing out in the shadow of Jedrzejczyk’s ambitions. Not that the fight has to be about subplots. The bottom line is that a hellcat like Gadelha, fighting in front of a partisan crowd in Rio, is going to be amped up for this fight. She’s going to feed off the crowd and do some head hunting. Meanwhile, Kowalkiewicz is not easily rattled. In fact, she’s the picture of sedative calm heading into a fight, and seems to actually enjoy taking a few punches if it means she can land some.

Vitor Belfort and Nate Marquardt (Getty Images)
Vitor Belfort and Nate Marquardt (Getty Images)

The other fight of note is the twilight-of-the-idols clash between Vitor Belfort and Nate Marquardt. Marquardt is 3–7 in his last 10 fights, which means that even if he has double vision after 25 visits to the Octagon, the writing is still pretty easy to make out on the wall. And Belfort, who debuted at UFC 12 in 1997–20 freaking years ago — has been discussed in hushed tones ever since his best year as a fighter in 2013. You know, the year he knocked out current middleweight champion Michael Bisping, Dan Henderson, and former champion Luke Rockhold while on TRT.

Since then he has only one victory — the rematch with Henderson, who was 45 at the time — and has lost four times. (Well, technically three … his loss to Kelvin Gastelum was converted into a no-contest when Gastelum popped for marijuana.) It’s not a barnburner so much as a wheel chair race, a parting gift to Belfort, who is in all likelihood fighting for the final time in UFC. Giving him fellow past-his-prime fighter Marquardt, in Rio, where the fans are rabid for him, is the UFC’s way of saying thanks.

It’s a fight that creates escalation for a legitimately awesome main event between Holloway and Aldo. In Belfort’s case, Brazil gets to say goodbye to a legend, possibly for good. In Aldo’s, it’s the rare chance to once again say hello to one.