It still feels wrong to see Jose Aldo get beat up.
Somehow, though, there he stood in the closing moments of Saturday's UFC 212 pay-per-view, bloodied and bruised in the middle of the Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro after losing his men's featherweight title to Max Holloway via third-round TKO.
A hematoma the size of a croquet ball was forming on the side of his head, and the expression on his face said he couldn't quite believe it.
He was not alone. An announced live crowd of 15,412 in his home country were all making the same face. Maybe quite a few people watching at home were, too.
esther lin @allelbows
damn y'all, that was brutal. #UFC212 https://t.co/mSnLdVBDsC2017-6-4 08:55:18
It's not that it was shocking to see Holloway beat Aldo. On the contrary, the 25-year-old Hawaiian was a chic pick to win this title unification fight and had even spent some time as the betting favorite the week of the event, per OddsShark.com (h/t Bloody Elbow).
It's just that after nearly seven years and 15-straight fights where Aldo held the featherweight class in his terrifying sway, we got used to seeing him a certain way.
This man was a destroyer. A killer. For a long time, he was the only 145-pound champion the Octagon had ever known, the greatest featherweight fighter ever and one of most dominant titlists in UFC history.
Suddenly, there he was looking like this—again:
Zombie Prophet @ZPGIFs
#UFC212 https://t.co/jX3cRsL3062017-6-4 04:38:43
The first time we saw Aldo get unceremoniously dethroned, of course, was in his stunning 13-second KO loss to Conor McGregor at UFC 194 in December 2015.
That time, it was so startling and over so quickly—just a single, devastating left hand from McGregor during the first real exchange of the fight—it took on an almost dream-like quality. The way Aldo's body dropped lifelessly to the canvas didn't seem quite real.
This time, arguably, was worse.
This time, we'd already witnessed Aldo's redemption. In the wake of that mystique-shattering defeat by McGregor, he'd battled back to beat Frankie Edgar at UFC 200 to recapture an interim version of the title. Four months later, after McGregor was stripped of his featherweight belt by the UFC and embarked on a lengthy paternity leave, Aldo was promoted to undisputed champion.
He'd looked good enough cruising to a unanimous decision over Edgar to convince us that he was still his old, frightening self—but a victory over Holloway was the one Aldo truly needed.
The 5'11" Holloway was the archetype for the modern UFC featherweight—big, young and exceedingly skilled. He rode into this fight atop one of the company's most impressive win streaks, with 10 consecutive victories and an interim title of his own, after a third-round TKO over former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis at UFC 206.
Aldo dictated the first 10 minutes of the fight, using the crisp, powerful boxing combinations that had been his calling card throughout his UFC career. In the first, he stunned Holloway with a straight right and a left hook, pushing him back against the fence with a flurry of punches and a thudding knee to the face.
At that point, it appeared the old lion would have his day.
Meanwhile, Holloway looked uncharacteristically stiff and timid in the early going. His trademark high-volume pressure style was absent, and he wasn't alternating stances between orthodox and southpaw, as had been his practice during his run to this title fight.
As the fight wore on, however, Aldo began to slow down, and Holloway's coaches called for him to ratchet-up his attack. By the third, Aldo looked flat-footed but still dangerous when Holloway dropped him to the canvas with a pair of jab-cross combinations.
Once the fight hit the mat, Aldo fought to survive, weathering some heavy leather and warding off a rear-naked choke attempt from Holloway. Eventually, however, he wound up turtled on the floor with the younger fighter on his back. Holloway rained down punch after punch until referee John McCarthy stepped in to stop the action.
The immediate impression was of a sudden swing in the momentum, leading to a bitter second serving of heartbreak for the once-great champion.
When it was over and the experts parsed through Aldo's performance, a couple of things stood out. First, that his mid-fight drop-off, which has been his Achilles heel throughout his career, opened the door for Holloway to find his rhythm and put this fight away.
Second, that Aldo fought nearly 15 minutes without throwing a single leg kick, the powerful and disruptive technique that had epitomized his long, successful career.
Matt Brown @MattBrownM2
A guy with arguably the best leg kicks in the entire sport didn’t throw a single leg kick. Even if you thought he’d go southpaw, you adjust2017-6-4 04:30:49
The mood for Holloway was pure jubilation as he received the title in the cage. He'd waited a long time to get this shot and in the absence of McGregor—who is off chasing a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather—this win marked the dawning of a new era at featherweight.
If there's a silver lining here, even for Aldo fans, it's that the new champion is truly likable.
"I went out there, took my time, and it was my night," Holloway told Fox Sports after the fight, via CBS Sports' Lyle Fitsimmons. "Slow and steady always wins the race. I've got five rounds. I knew he would fade and I took advantage as the shots opened. I was in there to fight. My game plan was to go out there and fight. This [isn't] a sprint. Everything turned out the way I wanted to."
Yet Aldo has been such a staple in the MMA world for so long, it's difficult to see him go out like this. For years, it seemed like a given he would go down as the greatest 145-pound fighter in UFC history. Now, this pair of losses might well end up defining his legacy.
His supremacy over the division was smothering during his heyday, putting up nine consecutive title defenses from 2009-2015 across the WEC and UFC. He beat Urijah Faber in the WEC's only PPV bout, beat Chad Mendes twice, beat Edgar twice.
At the same time, however, Aldo never cracked the glass ceiling to become a full-fledged promotional monster for the UFC. His title run was beset by injuries and—after the highlight-filled swath he cut through the WEC before the UFC absorbed the smaller company in 2010—it was somewhat underwhelming by comparison.
He won just two fights in the Octagon by stoppage, while six went to decision. Granted, he was taking on the rest of the best featherweights in the world and in most cases running circles around them, but after seven stoppages in eight WEC fights—including some jaw-dropping highlights, like his eight-second, double-flying knee KO of Cub Swanson at WEC 41—we knew he was capable of greater things.
Now, it's possible Aldo's reign will be framed as defining only the early days of the featherweight division. He found much of his success against smaller, grappling-based foes, before longer, better-rounded fighters like McGregor and Holloway showed up on the scene.
It bears repeating that Aldo isn't done yet. He's put 13 years and 29 fights into this sport and, if he chooses to carry on, could conceivably have five or six years of prime fighting life left in him. He remains a dangerous matchup for anyone at this weight and could certainly work his way back to contender status.
The waters before him now will be largely uncharted, however, as he makes the transition from perennial champion to aging foil.
Meanwhile, the division opens up for Holloway with the promise of a fresh matchup against Edgar, a potential rematch with Swanson and a possible future meeting with fellow young gun Yair Rodriguez.
Aldo will be locked out of that picture for the time being.
Until he can change his fortunes, our lasting image of him may well be as the guy crouched against the cage with his head in his hands, being consoled by teammates as he tries to make sense of what just happened to him.
And we might never get used to seeing him like that.