By Jordan Breen
AnAn Olympic gold medalist and two-division champion squaring off with one of the greatest fighters – and the greatest featherweight – in MMA history? Sounds like a historic, can’t miss kind of fight that that would titillate any fight fan. Of course, the architecture of marquee fights is profoundly informed by context and timing, so it don’t think it surprises anyone that most of the MMA populace hasn’t embraced the idea of a Henry Cejudo-Jose Aldo showdown. After all, Aldo is 0-1 as a bantamweight, coming off a contentious split decision loss in his divisional debut to Marlon Moraes.
But honestly, should the very fact the fight was even made be a surprise? Certainly not, and contrary to some popular thought, while Cejudo-Aldo is a lousy booking, this hardly represents a recent change in the UFC’s promotional mentality.
On Monday, the UFC made official a bantamweight title showdown between the champion Cejudo and the 145-pound icon Aldo as the UFC 250 headliner, scheduled for May 9 in Sao Paulo. More often than not, when the UFC anoints a title challenger and announces a forthcoming title fight, there is divergence of opinion among fans and media, with different folks and factions either agreeing, or stumping for a different contender they view as a more worthy candidate. What is most important here, however, is that Cejudo-Aldo was confirmed just two weeks before UFC 248, headlined by Israel Adesanya’s middleweight title defense against Yoel Romero, loser of two in a row and 1-3 in his last four bouts. This has led to a prevailing narrative in the MMA world that the UFC’s promotional mentality is increasingly dodgy, giving endless marquee opportunities to floundering fighters, while stymying deserved athletes.
I’m sympathetic to the notion that it’s unjust, annoying and in some cases, potentially ruinous to the product. That said, for all the changes in promotional decision making exhibited in the UFC in recent years, especially since Endeavor took over ownership, this particular issue is nothing new. If anything, it’s a longstanding MMA tradition, especially in the UFC, predating Endeavor, even predating Zuffa’s ownership.
If the reported rematch between UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway headlines UFC 251 this June in Perth, Australia pushes through expected, it would mean that four of the first six UFC pay-per-views in 2020 would feature main events with a fighter coming off a loss, two of them being title fights. In a climate like that, I can understand where the invective comes from. That said, with the sheer volume of UFC cards, the nature of injuries and many star fighters more willing than ever to play hardball with the promotion and wait for preferential opportunities, it’s only logical we’d see more instances in fighters coming off losses thrust into headliners. However, as I mentioned earlier, context is key.
Romero getting another shot at the UFC middleweight crown is less than ideal. But with obvious No. 1 contender Paulo Henrique Costa injured, and given the close, competitive nature of Costa’s own win over Romero, there is some level of forgiveness and acceptance. The rancor around Cejudo-Aldo is catalyzed by the fact that there are other clear, more competent options than a fighter who is 0-1 at bantamweight in the UFC: Aljamain Sterling has impressively won four in a row and is 6-1 in his last seven, while red-hot Russian Petr Yan is 6-0 in the Octagon and has won nine straight. Anyone with a sense of sporting legitimacy would prefer either to Aldo, even given Aldo’s undeniable legacy in the sport, but conversely, if there were no legitimate bantamweight challengers in this moment, current critics would likely be far more tolerant.