RIO DE JANEIRO — As the mixed martial arts (MMA) world evolves, Jose Aldo, the current Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight champion of the world, is wary of changing with it. He is rooted in the principles of martial arts, a sport that once protected him from the common troubles and widespread dangers of Brazil’s notorious favelas.
Brazil is estimated to contain 1,000 favelas — rudimentary, crowded dwellings that have become synonymous with slums. Constructed with salvaged or stolen material, favela housing lacks infrastructure. Although improvements have been made in certain territories, favelas are also some of the most feared places in the world today. In 2012 alone, there were 56,337 homicides in Brazil, and these were particularly concentrated in cities “flanked by favelas.” Horrific gang violence plagues favelas and many boys have few choices but to become involved; girls are forced into prostitution. UNICEF announced that the number of children and teenagers murdered in Brazil has doubled in the past 20 years.
Located in one of these favelas is Nova Uniao, one of the top jiu-jitsu academies in the world and a source of huge positive influence in the community. Instructors reach out to Brazil’s lower classes and help those otherwise rejected by society. Sometimes, they allow people to train without paying dues. For young residents trapped in the favelas, physical activities such as jiu-jitsu or MMA can be their only escape from the engulfing violence. Besides offering training in physical protection, martial arts has also been proven to increase self-esteem, emotional stability and positive responses to physical challenges. The academy changed Jose Aldo’s life. In fact, instructors provided Aldo a place to live so that he could stay off the streets as a teenager.
Before suffering a brutal loss to Conor McGregor in December 2015, Jose Aldo was undefeated for nearly 10 years. Courteous to his opponents in public, he vigorously defended his UFC championship belt inside of the cage seven times against prominent opponents like Frankie Edgar. Respected by many fans and fellow fighters, the combination of Aldo’s value system and superior athletic performances rendered him the quintessential mixed martial artist. Unlike other longstanding champions, Aldo was forced to fight Frank Edgar a second time for his rematch with McGregor. After winning the fight, Aldo realized that he was deceived as the UFC and McGregor chased a more lucrative fight between the new featherweight champion, McGregor, and the lightweight champion, Eddie Alvarez.
Vice argues that MMA at the highest levels has lost some dignity, having become exclusively about selling and promoting fights. Aldo is not a fight promoter, and has expressed his disgust with the profanity and demeaning behavior displayed by fighters to attract viewership. His talent, length of service, accomplishments and even his respect for his opponents have become entirely overshadowed by fighters who can generate enough public appeal to maximize revenue for the company. Yet, Aldo holds true to his principles of respect as a mixed martial artist.
Although Jose Aldo is a celebrity in Brazil, he remembers his humble origins. After winning his fight against Mike Brown in 2009, Aldo bought 40 jiu-jitsu gis for students in Nova Uniao’s nonprofit community program. (Gi prices range from $50 upwards to over $100.) The champion also has a history of auctioning autographed items from his fights and using the proceeds for equipment for the program. In 2009, he auctioned autographed hats and a banner. In 2010, he auctioned his gloves and the banner displayed at MMA event WEC 44.
Brazil is one of the fastest-growing markets for MMA. Reuters reported that close to $180 million was made by selling MMA products in Brazil in 2011. Many youths living in the favelas like Aldo deeply admire him. As the champion provides hope to many youths living in poverty, he also encourages the principles discovered through martial arts: self-esteem and a warrior-like, positive response to the difficult challenges found in Brazil’s favelas.
– Andy Jung