He’s been the subject of countless pound-for-pound debates, owns 14 wins by knockout and counting, and has more than 1.5 million fans following him on Instagram. Jose Aldo didn’t just arrived on the MMA scene – he had exploded onto it and is still one of the UFC’s most popular superstars. Today, the native of Manaus, Brazil is widely known as the awe-inspiring, multiple-time defending former UFC featherweight champion, who shreds his opponents with his lightning quick hooks and thudding leg kicks. But before he hit MMA superstardom, Aldo was a rising young star in BJJ, progressing rapidly through the belt ranks and taking home national and world championships.
“Since I became the UFC champion I have to thank jiu-jitsu. So, this is the most important victory for me: having started jiu-jitsu and following the paths that were opened to me”, expresses Aldo, who believes he would have never found the road that led to MMA success had he not discovered and fallen in love with BJJ.
When he looks back on how his martial arts journey started, it all seems like fate stepped in and took over. Always a talented athlete, Aldo first focused on soccer as a teen like many Brazilians and played competitively. He grew up in a poor neigborhood and often got into scuffles with other players on the field. At age 14, he started taking an interest in Capoeira when he met local BJJ instructor Marcos Patricio.
“I met Marcos Patrício, who had a gym in Manaus and he invited me to train there. Then, he introduced me to Marcio Pontes, also a BJJ teacher. I started doing Capoeira on the tatame. They gave me a gi, but I was not able to roll yet, so I spent my time observing the other guys. When I finally started rolling I couldn’t stop doing jiu-jitsu anymore.”
After two years of rolling in Patricio’s gym, Aldo had an intense desire to seek out legendary BJJ master Andre “Dedé” Pederneiras. The 16-year-old moved away from his hometown of Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, and was taken in by the Nova União professor. Aldo’s game progressed rapidly. Before long he began competing – and winning – in local and national tournaments. At just 17, and a Nova União purple belt at the time, Aldo captured the Brazilian National Championship in 2003. Just one year later, he became World Cup Champion in the brown belt division, notching two victories over fellow standout and now BJJ legend Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles. Aldo was now one of BJJ’s top young stars and seemed destined to join other Nova União greats like Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro, Leo Santos and Ramon Lemos. He received his black belt just one year later and still looks back on it as one of his most cherished memories.
“I’ve been training BJJ since 2000 and was able to get my black belt in 2004. When I received it, I was not feeling like a black belt yet, I just wanted to be a champion. After I won the world cup championship as a brown belt, Dedé awarded me the black belt. This is the goal of everyone who does jiu-jitsu and competes, so I was very, very happy, it was an important moment in my life.”
While fans have grown accustomed to expecting a world-class display of striking from Aldo, he still insists that his martial arts roots lie first in BJJ.
“I come from jiu-jitsu and this is my base, but I adapted very well to Muay Thai and striking. I put in my mind that if I wanted to go further quickly, I would have to be able to switch between styles. But that depends on the opponent. Personally, I like to fight both ways. Nowadays, it’s hard for me to compete in national or international BJJ tournaments because MMA training takes most of my time. Every time I go to watch a jiu-jitsu tournament, though, I feel like competing again. But as I said, I have a tough MMA schedule. I train in the morning, in the afternoon and at night, and to compete in high level jiu-jitsu tournaments I would have to be training BJJ full time.”
Words by David Abbou
Interview by Nathalia Perdomo
Photos by Matthew Soroka