Leading up to Saturday’s featherweight title bout at UFC 136, most of the prerequisite talk about legacy and consequences has rightly fallen on Kenny Florian.
Florian, after all, is the one dogged by the notion that he can’t win the big one. He’s the one who has already lost two previous title fights and one championship eliminator inside the Octagon. Rightly or wrongly, he’s the one who appears to have been chased down to 145 pounds for what might be his last best chance at capturing UFC gold.
If Florian can’t overcome the more than 2-1 odds against him in this fight, it’s unclear where goes from here. That’s pressure.
In terms of expectations and unfulfilled potential however, Florian is not alone. After all the talk of him as nothing short of a game-changing force in the featherweight division, his opponent, Jose Aldo, must be feeling a little added anxiety as well -- especially after he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in his UFC debut five months ago.
Currently ranked No. 4 on ESPN’s pound-for-pound Top 10, Aldo sure didn’t look it against Mark Hominick at UFC 129 in Toronto. The champion crafted a unanimous decision win over the fan-favorite challenger, but seemed without most of his trademark explosiveness and killer instinct. He faded so badly down the stretch that, though he’d already raised a gigantic hematoma over Hominick’s right eye, Aldo looked like he was simply hanging on for dear life during the final five minutes.
If the fight had gone another round or two, who knows how it would have turned out?
Spin that into a story of perseverance and “digging deep” if you want, but it was not the kind of performance we’d come to expect from Aldo, whose WEC fights were so lopsided that the UFC simply installed him as its featherweight champion when it absorbed the smaller promotion at the beginning of this year.
In previous outings, there were times when Aldo seemed to suspend the laws of gravity, as he did during his double flying-knee knockout of Cub Swanson at WEC 41. There were times when he made both current and former champions like Mike Brown and Urijah Faber look so hapless and out of sorts that his bouts against them were obviously over far before the final horn. Times when the most danger he faced inside the cage was pulling off a backflip from the top of it once victory was at hand.
Where was that Jose Aldo in Toronto?
On the heels of his disappointing showing against Hominick, rumors circulated that Aldo had been sick. Later, a scheduled August fight against Chad Mendes was postponed due to what his camp called “pre-existing injuries,” possibly related to the neck ailment that caused him to pull out of his originally intended Octagon debut at UFC 125.
This week, the UFC released a Portuguese language video shot the week leading up to the Hominick fight, showing Aldo struggling with a difficult weight cut. Oddly, members of his camp explained on the video that the problems were due to the added muscle mass Aldo put on during his last couple of fights, making it seem like cutting to 145 might be more of a chronic struggle than a one-time issue. There have even been whispers that the 25-year-old might one day make a full-time move to lightweight.
Any and all of these factors -- a sickness, lingering injuries and a difficult cut -- could have conspired to make Aldo look not quite himself at UFC 129. What he need to prove this weekend in Houston is that it won’t happen again.
Aldo needs to show up on weight, unafflicted by injury or sickness and possessing of the quickness and power that built his reputation as the standard bearer in the featherweight division. He needs to show why he’s a heavy favorite over Florian, why the UFC saw fit to appoint him its 145-pound titlist in the first place and why he deserves to be ranked ahead of guys like Frankie Edgar, Dominick Cruz and Gilbert Melendez on the pound-for-pound list.
If he can’t do that -- if he can’t turn in an impressive and complete performance reminiscent of the guy we watched tear through the WEC for two-plus years -- Florian won’t be the only one with a lot of questions to answer come Monday morning.