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It was Trevor C. Wignall who penned the following in his book “The Sweet Science” in 1926:
“When a star drops out of the boxing sky it does not descend gradually or by easy stages. More often than not it falls with a sickening thud … The champion fighter, from the instant he gains his title, is a sort of human candle. He may burn brightly for a time, but he is liable to be snuffed out at the shortest of short notice.”
Like many proverbs from MMA’s pugilistic cousin, this statement has proven all too applicable to the athletes who ply their trade in a cage instead of the squared circle. Anderson Silva moved like a character in a video game while atop the middleweight throne, effortlessly circumnavigating his opponent’s offense before finding the perfect opening to end the show -- until Chris Weidman showed up and “The Spider” could barely eke out a decision over the likes of Derek Brunson, or, ahem, pass a drug test. Ronda Rousey was an unstoppable submission machine that possessed a Mike Tyson-esque mystique and dynamite in her hands -- until Holly Holm kicked her in the head and “Rowdy” could no longer front a press conference, let alone win a championship fight. Chuck Liddell could take three punches to deliver the one that would separate his opponents from their consciousness -- until Quinton Jackson got off the plane from Japan, knocked him senseless and it seemed like “The Iceman” could no longer stand a strong wind before getting dizzy.
To put it somewhat more succinctly: Longevity in combat sports is notoriously hard to come by. Once a titleholder is knocked off the throne, especially one who was dominant, it can be a tall order to mount a championship comeback. In the 20 years that the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been divided into weight classes, only 10 fighters have ever recaptured a belt that they have lost, four of whom -- Randy Couture, Tim Sylvia, Frank Mir and Cain Velasquez -- were fighting in the historically thin, not to mention volatile, heavyweight division.
However, there are exceptions to the rule, and at UFC on Fox 30 on Saturday, two former titleholders fought to prove they belonged in that bracket. Former featherweight king Jose Aldo, who ruled over the 145-pound division from 2009 to 2015 and again briefly in 2016, threw down with number No. 4-ranked Jeremy Stephens; meanwhile, former women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who reigned from 2014 to 2017, fended off No. 5-ranked Tecia Torres.
Both were coming off of back-to-back losses to a current titleholder. Jedrzejczyk was the victim of a huge upset knockout at the hands of Rose Namajunas back at UFC 217 and then lost the rematch to “Thug Rose” by unanimous decision in April. Aldo lost his undisputed title to Max Holloway at UFC 212 and suffered the same fate in their December sequel. These were must-win fights at UFC on Fox 30 if either fighter was to keep the flame of title contention alight, and both Aldo and Jedrzejczyk did exactly what they needed to do.
Aldo scored his first stoppage victory since 2013, wearing a number of Stephens’ power strikes before landing a thunderous body shot which he chased with ground strikes. When referee Yves Lavigne intervened to stop the fight, the consensus greatest featherweight of all-time fell to his knees in tears, overcome with emotion, in a scene reminiscent of when he first won the World Extreme Cagefighting title back in 2009. In interviews following his victory, Aldo spoke candidly about his fear of losing his third fight in a row, of the heartache involving his fall from grace and the pressure that stemmed from his underdog status.
Jedrzejczyk’s path to victory was a little less emphatic but impressive nonetheless. She picked apart Torres in the striking department and in the clinch, earning a unanimous 30-27 victory over an outsized and outgunned opponent. When the fight ended, she confidently strode around the Octagon, and when she took the microphone, she was nothing short of garrulous: “I am the strawweight queen with the belt or without the belt.” She followed up the assertion with the following proclamation directed at the champion at the post-fight press conference: “Bow down.”
The responses from the two future hall-of-famers, humility versus arrogance, meekness versus insolence, is striking but works to underscore the incredible resilience, bordering on madness, required to do what Aldo and Jedrzejczyk did at UFC on Fox 30. More importantly, it illustrates that resilience and redemption come in different shapes and sizes.
Aldo let the doubt from his losses to Holloway permeate his mindset and drive him forward. He acknowledged his losses, the pain and humiliation they were accompanied by and marched forward anyway, knowing full well that more pain might be waiting for him on the other side. Such was the pressure he put on himself, embraced, that his triumph took the flavor of purgation -- a spiritual cleansing of a soul in purgatory.
For Jedrzejczyk, the pain of her defeats to Namajunas prompted an entirely different psychological response, namely one of denial. In interviews before and after her scrap with Torres, her upset loss to the champion at Madison Square Garden was attributed entirely to a bad weight cut, and Namajunas’ victory in the rematch was deemed the result of fraudulent scorecards. In stark contrast to Aldo, her path forward is one mediated by the mantra of her own infallibility -- at the press conference she even said she was “an idol for myself” -- and one gets the feeling her greatness is intricately wrapped up in a species of self-delusion.
Ultimately, the efficacy of either approach is not for the fans or the media to judge, and while their paths back to championship glory -- at least without moving up a weight division -- is riddled with obstacles, we should not let that prevent us from appreciating the incredible grit and mental fortitude that Aldo and Jedrzejczyk displayed.
All fighters fall; only champions rise. Aldo and Jedrzejczyk showed that they’re worthy of both billings.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.