It’s the most significant featherweight fight in history.
Jose Aldo currently rules over the division with vicious efficiency. Since entering the US mixed martial arts scene two years ago, the reigning featherweight champion is a perfect in six fights. Each of them ended inside the distance due to strikes, including stopping highly regarded contender Cub Swanson with a double flying knee eight seconds into the fight—yes, a double flying knee. His tremendous run of success has catapulted him into virtually everyone’s pound-for-pound discussion, with some, such as former UFC Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir, suggesting that Aldo belongs at the forefront of those discussions.
Aldo seems like the truth. He seems like the new standard for featherweight greatness. He seems poised to embark on a tremendously successful championship run. First, though, he must pass the toughest test of his young career—attempting to defeat Uriah Faber, the greatest champion that the division has ever known.
Faber is the most decorated featherweight to ever don a pair of vale tudo glove. “The California Kid” enjoyed a two-year title run from March 17, 2006, until November 5, 2008. During that stretch, he successfully defended the title five times, making him the bellwether for past and future champions.
Now, 17 months after losing the title, Faber is back in top form and appears ready to recapture championship glory. The only problem, of course, is that a monster named Aldo is standing in his way.
That is what makes this fight so interesting. Each man appears to be at the top of his game, though the younger Aldo still has a decade of growth in front of him. And each would readily admit that this is the biggest, if not the most difficult, fight of their respective careers because this is a very evenly matched fight that will likely be decided by who makes the first significant mistake.
Aldo’s game plan for the fight is almost certainly the same as every other fight—stand and bang. The Brazilian is tremendously explosive with a wide variety of strikes, including straight right hands, left hooks, leg kicks, high kicks and flying knees. He has a true gladiator’s spirit and wants to please the crowd with a jaw-dropping knockout, not a long, drawn-out decision after a conservative, safety-first offense. Aldo is willing to take risks to deliver, too. That makes him vulnerable to counter attacks, which is where Faber must focus his attention.
If “The California Kid” plans on standing with Aldo, his fate will likely follow the path of those who dared make that mistake with the champion. Of course, Faber is a big, strong featherweight. If he lands one of those big overhand rights on the button, he will be partying in downtown Sacramento with a large shiny belt holding up his britches.
The problem with his standup, though, is that he is largely a one-handed fighter in terms of fight-altering power. His jab is solid. His left hook is good. Neither of them are game changers and the champ knows it. Aldo is good enough on the feet to largely eliminate Faber’s right hand by keeping his guard high and circling to his own right, while at the same time, creating openings for his own deadly salvos.
Faber must therefore go back to what led him to the championship in the first place, which means using his dynamic wrestling and effective ground control to either pound or submit his way to victory. People often forget that the former champion was a standout collegiate wrestler at the University of California, Davis. He currently holds the school record for all-time wins at 92.
Combine those wrestling skills with fluent knowledge of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (Faber may not hold a particular belt due to his lack of training with a gi, but the guy has high-level BJJ skills) and that makes Faber a nightmare for anyone on the ground, and he should be able to put Aldo there whenever he wants.
Once on the ground, Faber needs to work cautiously aggressive ground and pound. Aldo is a black belt in BJJ and would almost certainly outpoint, or possibly even submit, Faber in a submission grappling contest that allowed or required a gi. But this is mixed martial arts, and there is neither a gi nor a prohibition on strikes, which changes everything. Thus, any perceived superiority in Aldo’s practical ground skills are largely a myth, when compared to Faber.
The former champion must, however, be careful not to make any silly mistakes or leave an arm, leg or his neck exposed while working his ground-and-pound game. A healthy diet of elbows would be my assault of choice. By throwing elbows, even those that are thrown with real shoulder turn, which helps guarantee maximum force, don’t expose an attacker to triangles and armbars the way that punches to. In addition, elbows tend to exact more damage when properly thrown because there is no padding, which means a higher likelihood of fight-ending cuts.
Moreover, a healthy diet of elbows is a great way to grind down an opponent. Faber’s game plan should absolutely focus on catching a quick submission if it presents itself, but otherwise working to drag Aldo into the deep waters of the fourth and fifth round and seeing if the champion can swim.
Faber knows that he is one of the best conditioned athletes in the sport, whereas there is a big question mark surrounding Aldo’s ability to go the distance. Indeed, Faber has fought the full five championship rounds on two occasions and looked remarkably fresh in both. Thus, he knows with absolute certainty that he can go the distance on Saturday night. Aldo hasn’t fought three full rounds since July 27, 2007, so he has no idea what life will be like in the fourth and fifth rounds. Faber needs to force him to answer question by working methodically with his ground and pound and maintaining top control.
The one place where Aldo and Faber should be at a relative stalemate is in the clinch. I prefer Aldo’s explosive knees in that situation, but Faber’s elbows on the feet and his uncanny ability to force and maintain a dominant position against the fence when facing all but the best clinch fighters should cancel out any striking advantage that Aldo has in that position.
It is easy to see that this fight is all about which man can impose his will, and thus his game plan, on the other. The difference between Aldo-Faber and most other fights, though, is the fact that featherweights do everything at warp speed compared to the heavier weight classes. It is a virtual certainty that the contest, after possibly a few moments of cautious feel out, will unfold with a fast and furious pace. Mistakes will be much more exaggerated as a result.
If Aldo overextends with his punches, he will find himself on his back and likely in a world of trouble. If Faber telegraphs his takedowns or otherwise spends too much time on the feet, he will likely be separated from consciousness by the most destructive striker in the division. I can honestly see this one playing out either way.
Who will win? Aldo is the smart pick. He is younger, hungrier and still rapidly improving each and every fight. He has more wrinkles to his game compared to his opponent. It is more likely that he will bring something fresh and new to the table. He is a bigger unknown to a degree, whereas Aldo knows exactly what to expect from Faber.
Nonetheless, I’m picking “The California Kid” in this one. He will be fighting in front of a rabid hometown crowd and that will push him to extend his athletic boundaries.
• 23 years old
• 5’7, 145 lbs
• 70-inch reach
• 16-1 professional record
• Currently on a 9-fight winning streak
• Won last 6 fights by TKO
• Won Knockout of the Night in 3 of last 4 fights (TKO2 over Mike Brown on November 18, 2009; TKO1 over Cub Swanson on June 7, 2009; and TKO1 over Rolando Perez on January 25, 2009)
• 1-0 in championship fights (TKO2 over Mike Brown on November 18, 2009)
• First title defense
• Has never fought past the third round
• Current layoff is 157 days (TKO1 over Mike Brown on November 19, 2009)
• Longest career layoff is 347 days (MD3 over Thiago Minu on May 20, 2006, until UD3 over Fabio Mello on May 2, 2007)
• 30 years old
• 5’6, 145 lbs
• 69-inch reach
• 23-3 professional record
• 3-2 in last 5 fights, but 14-2 in last 16 fights
• 5 of last 6 wins by submission (guillotine or rear naked choke)
• Won Submission of the Night twice (SUB3 by rear naked choke over Raphael Assuncao on January 10, 2010; and SUB1 by guillotine choke over Jens Pulver on January 25, 2009)
• Won Fight of the Night (UD5 over Jens Pulver on June 1, 2006)
• 6-2 in championship fights, lost last 2
• Reigned as featherweight champion for more than 2 years with 5 consecutive successful defenses
• Current layoff is 104 days (SUB3 over Raphael Assuncao on January 10, 2010)
• Longest career layoff is 192 days (SUB1 over Chance Farrar on June 3, 2007, until SUB2 over Jeff Curran on December 12, 2007)