On a night that already has a potential Fight of the Year candidate, José Aldo and Jeremy Stephens will collide in a dramatic contest at UFC Calgary.
The last few years have been difficult to digest for José Aldo. His reign as the most dominant featherweight champion in MMA history was ended unceremoniously in little more than ten seconds at the hands of Conor McGregor in 2016, and it has loomed over him ever since. He bounced back with a superb performance against Frankie Edgar, only to lose back-to-back matches to Max Holloway that lost him the featherweight championship again.
To his credit, he has pushed for a rematch with McGregor in an attempt redeem the most devastating loss of his career. Such a bout has failed to materialize, and at this point appears as if it never will. The entire ordeal seems to have left Aldo feeling jaded with the fight game, as he has expressed interest in fighting out his contract and then wishing to pursue other ventures such as boxing.
Despite Aldo’s time in MMA possibly coming to an end, he could still find himself with a huge opportunity later this year. A featherweight return for Max Holloway is uncertain, which would mean a title opportunity could materialize against Brian Ortega. At a time when Ortega has already defeated top contenders like Frankie Edgar and Cub Swanson, a bout with Aldo would be one of the few match-ups that could help move the division along.
Jeremy Stephens is in the best form of his career going into the bout with Aldo. After years of ups-and-downs, his recent three fight win-streak appears to have seen him turn a corner in his game. His stoppages of Doo Ho Choi and Josh Emmett have put him on the cusp of title contention. He has already pushed for the belt under the circumstances, publicly challenging Ortega in Holloway’s absence and looking to capitalize on the possible opportunity in the title picture.
If the circumstances bode well for Aldo, then they benefit Stephens two-fold. He would stand as the next in line to face either Holloway or Ortega for the title no matter how the title picture plays out. Considering he has never fought for the belt in more than a decade of competing in the UFC, it would be one of the best stories of persistence in the history of Octagon.
Stylistically, the fight pits two counter strikers against each other. For the former champion Aldo, the best strategy will be to get in-and-out with punches while also using his vaunted leg kicks to slow down Stephens. Most importantly, he must avoid getting into exchanges in the pocket where Stephens figures to be the more dangerous fighter.
Stephens in recent years has adjusted his game to choose when to surge forward with his signature explosiveness. While he carries all of the ability to knock out Aldo with that strategy, the more efficient plan of attack would be to use forward pressure to keep the former champion against the fence where Stephens can cut off his movement. From there, Aldo will not have the space to throw kicks and will be susceptible to combinations from Stephens.
The x-factor could come down to the mindset of both fighters. Aldo, for all his dominance, is in the worst skid of his career after being stopped twice by Max Holloway. After the turmoil of the last two years, there is question if he will enter the cage as dialed in as he was during his incredible championship run. For Stephens, his confidence and momentum is deservedly at an all-time high. While Aldo’s pedigree speaks for itself, the consensus is that Stephens is getting the former champion when he is at his most vulnerable.
The winner should await the news regarding Max Holloway before taking another fight but there’s no question that a title shot is potentially in the cards for the winner. For Aldo, a third fight with Holloway will not materialize but a fight with Ortega is not out of the question. Stephens will be a fight that sells against either man and would be expected to provide fireworks. For two men who have had storied careers in the Octagon, either one could very well steal the show on Saturday.