While he had looked fairly strong in two of his three UFC losses, the future prospects of Jose Aldo didn’t look great moving into 2018; with two knockout losses at the hands of featherweight champion Max Holloway, he didn’t really have a hope for getting back to the belt, and the few flaws that Holloway exposed were overblown to the point of absurdity. Aldo entered his last two fights as an underdog, and finished both in violent fashion; in particular, his 2019 knockout of Renato Moicano seems to have created the legend of Jose Aldo, prospect-killer. The greatest of all time is on a warpath, and as he enters what is meant to be his penultimate fight, he looks to further bolster his unmatched resume.
Meanwhile, Alexander Volkanovski put together an excellent performance in his last fight against a legend and looks to enter the top #2 with a win over another one. While the retirement of Chad Mendes somewhat overshadowed it, Volkanovski’s beating of one of the best counterpunchers in MMA made his stock skyrocket and showed a side of the Australian wrestle-clincher that hadn’t really been seen prior. A win over the greatest featherweight ever is a feat that has only been matched by Conor McGregor and Max Holloway, and it would put Volkanovski in position for a title shot.
The Aldo Conundrum
Past all the technical skill that Jose Aldo possesses, as a top-five boxer in MMA history with an anti-wrestling skillset second to none, the most notorious (to a fault) flaw of Aldo has been his cardio. Aldo recognizably works in bursts, where his power and his counterpunching prowess keeps most fighters from pressing him and allows Aldo to work at his own pace; the superficial key to Holloway’s wins was simply to keep Aldo working at an unsustainable tempo, as Holloway refused to let the Brazilian rest.
It’s worth noting, though, that just being unafraid of Aldo and willing to make him work isn’t enough; it took one of the soundest and most aggressive offensive boxers to gas Aldo out while still in position to capitalize. Chad Mendes looked to force the issue against Aldo in their rematch, and dedicated to pushing Aldo despite his counters, but Aldo nevertheless forced Mendes to pick his spots with his own counterpunching; Holloway pushed a pace, but his offensive diversity and his nuanced jab kept counterpunching from being easy even as he forced exchanges, and he had the resilience to take the counters when they had to land. For most fighters whose boxing isn’t as deep as Holloway’s, Aldo doesn’t leave them a good option; the choices are to press Aldo and get destroyed by counters (where Aldo’s excellent defense mostly nullifies a puncher’s chance), or to be scared off by those counters and have no chance at making Aldo gas.
Of course, if Aldo isn’t pressed, he’s just as dangerous; at range, while Aldo has pared down his game (the lack of leg kicks has become a fairly consistent criticism), he’s about as potent as ever and as skilled as any fighter in MMA history. Aldo’s showing against Renato Moicano showed what Aldo could do when allowed room to work and his own pace from the start; Moicano functions best as an outside-kicker and Aldo thoroughly nullified that (and outkicked him, landing a leg kick to run Moicano into a clean left hook), out-jabbed one of the better and longer jabbers in the division, and eventually forced the pocket to find the finish. Standing at range isn’t a solution against a fighter as smart and as dangerous as Aldo, but neither is imperfect pressure; it takes a near-airtight striking game to give Aldo trouble.
Alexander Volkanovski has shown the skillset to theoretically make Aldo work, even excluding his primary wrestling/clinching skillset (which, against Aldo, is a legitimate lost cause). Volkanovski’s fight against Chad Mendes was hugely encouraging, even though Mendes seemed fairly declined; “The Great” was able to pressure Mendes primarily with his jab (which he feinted well and applied to both the head and the body), worked his body with kicks off the lead leg, and swarmed a tired Mendes in the pocket/clinch as he felt the man wilt. Volkanovski is an excellent athlete, absurdly strong with an aggressive clinch (especially on breaks) and a punishing top game, and he can drive a brutal pace.
However, Volkanovski did have some trouble in the Mendes fight; while he was eventually able to force a more confident Mendes to back off (with a nice left hook that allowed Volkanovski to regain the initiative off being dropped), his defense was largely the high guard as Mendes swung. Darren Elkins did a decent job (even in a losing effort) to exploit that; Volkanovski’s defensive reactions (guard up high, back off) gave Elkins decent opportunity to land body kicks on the exit. Volkanovski is an improving fighter who showed the ability against Mendes to make countering tough as a function of his offensive thoughtfulness, but his defense is appreciably less polished.
Conclusions and Capping
Volkanovski’s defensive openings are likely to be very impactful at UFC 237; Jose Aldo has the offensive potency to take advantage of the sort of lapses that Volkanovski has shown (especially in his late-career body punching phase, a high guard won’t really work), and he’s much harder to pressure than Mendes. Volkanovski looked like a fairly sound pressurer against Mendes, but no one has been able to conventionally pressure Aldo with much success; Aldo’s pivot and his counterpunching are unmatched, so marching forward behind the jab will likely be a lot more dangerous for Volkanovski than it has been prior.
Volkanovski is an extremely promising prospect, and his defensive issues are well within control (and prospects tend to have defensive roughness in general); that said, defensive liability is about the last thing that anyone can afford against the King of Rio.
Prediction: Aldo via TKO2. This writer caps Aldo at -200.