RIO DE JANEIRO
On a rare cloudy day in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Jose Aldo arrives early to the Upper Gym, in the city’s Flamengo neighborhood. A shy guy, he quietly changes into his training clothes and enters the Octagon for the first training session of the day - cardio and conditioning. After several rounds of shadow boxing, punching mitts and moving on the ground, it's time to rest until the next session.
The featherweight champion goes upstairs to the mat area of the Nova União team, the famous “sauna” and sits on the edge of the ring. There, he observes the other pros training jiu-jitsu, while looking at his phone. The phone's cover shows a picture of Aldo smiling, wearing a crown, a scepter and a red cloak. The scar on his cheek, the result of an accident with a hot grill in his childhood, shines. He talks, crack jokes, shows funny videos on the little screen, and looks at his teammates all the time, checking on their techniques and correcting when necessary.
To see this aggressive fighter, one of the greatest champions in the history of the sport, in such a human capacity may raise eyebrows for those who are not used to it.
Quite simply, Aldo transforms himself. In the cage, he is the King. Out of it, he's still the kid from Manaus.
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Aldo left the capital of Amazonas when he decided that he would fight for a living, and the path to the UFC belt was not an easy one.
"He called me saying that he wanted to live in Rio, asking if he could go and live there. I said 'For sure, man! If one gets to eat, two can eat'", recalls Marcos Loro, Aldo's training mate in Manaus and the person who initially welcomed the fighter in Rio. "I had a R$100 sponsorship at the time, and I shared it with him. We slept on the mat. We used to talk about how we wanted to go back to our city, because it was very difficult. We were hungry!
“We had to wake up late, at 1 p.m. or 2 p.m., so we could eat lunch, because we did not have breakfast. When everyone left after the day was over, it was just me and him in the dark, dirty gym. It was all very difficult, but it was rewarding. His willpower prevailed, his determination, and all of this only made him stronger. He always told me that was going to be champion.”
“Breathe, brother. Put your heart into it, and you will win.” --Aldo’s advice to Leonardo Santos during the TUF Brazil Finale
From the mats of the former Nova União headquarters, Aldo moved to the slums - always helped by teammates. Marlon Sandro, who is now one of Aldo’s leading coaches and constant presence in the athlete's corner, invited him to sleep in his house before his fights. Hacran Dias, UFC featherweight, also gave a space in his home to help his friend, to provide a minimum of comfort to him.
After years of getting that much help, the champion is all about giving back. That's why he pays so much attention to his training partners. That's why he is always there for his teammates. Junior, as he is called by those closest to Aldo, is always supporting those who helped him on the way up.
Proof of this came in June 2013, when Leonardo Santos finished William Patolino in the TUF Brazil Finale, and Aldo entered the Octagon in tears to hug his friend. Santos recalls that, already exhausted from the fight, he found Aldo in the audience, and the friend's words helped him to victory.
"I was not seeing anyone, I just wanted to beat Patolino,” Santos remembers. “I was tired, and wanted to find a way to win. When I looked behind Patolino, I saw Junior.
“He said 'breathe, brother. Put your heart into it, and you will win.’ I thought, 'there's no way I'm leaving without this victory'. When I won, I jumped over the cage -- I've always dreamed to do that -- and he was crying. It was very spontaneous.”
Today, Aldo's life and circumstances have moved far beyond the difficulties of his younger days. But this does not seem to have changed anything in the champion's personality. When he won the WEC, he bought a house. Now, he doesn't hide that he fights to make a good living for his wife, Vivianne, and daughter, Joana.
“He takes the subway, he walks around, he doesn't care. That will never change." --Aldo’s wife, Vivianne, on her husband’s desire to remain grounded
"He's a guy who has no greed. He doesn't want the car of the year," Vivianne says. "He likes good things, like everyone does, but we will not fight forever. He will fight now, but one day, he will stop.
“We're laying the groundwork for later, to live the good life. We think about the future, he always has his foot down on the ground. He takes the subway, he walks around, he doesn't care. That will never change."
The simple lifestyle of the Brazilian is quite different from that of Conor McGregor, who relishes wearing designer clothes and riding in luxury cars. The title unification fight will take place Saturday night, but the expectations have been soaring since the beginning of the year, as the confrontation between them was originally planned for July 11.
After an intense media-driven World Tour in late March, which featured stinging verbal attacks and theatrics such as McGregor stealing Aldo's belt in a press conference, Vivianne confesses that her husband became agitated with the rival's provocations, but ensures that now the peace and focus prevail.
"In the first week after he came home from tour, he arrived fired up, wanted to train, I think due to the tension,” she says. “He's not used to it, he doesn't like provocation. He can't do that. He was fired up, but now the dust has settled and he is more relaxed.
“In his head, it's just another opponent. It doesn't matter if it's Chad or if it's McGregor. He will make the best of it, and he will come out as champion."
Come out as champion. That is the goal for this Saturday, and every other Saturday night when Aldo steps into the Octagon to defend his belt. If McGregor fights for money and prestige, Junior has another goal, which involves much more than something material.
"When I entered the sport, I want to leave a big legacy. I did not want to be just another athlete or just a champion,” Aldo says. “I think I'm on track to be everything I ever dreamed to be. When I stop, then I can come in and say 'now that's my legacy'. I want to leave a question mark in everyone's mind.
“I want them to think 'If Aldo was here, would he still be the champion? ' One day, when I leave the sport, I will retire as the champion. I will leave my legacy, leave my name in history."
Jéssica Portasio is a multimedia journalist for UFC.com.br. Follow her on Twitter @Jeportasio