For Anderson Silva, there was sadness and acceptance, but mostly relief. The burden of being the UFC middleweight champion for 2,458 days — a period far longer than the average UFC career — was so much that in the immediate aftermath of his loss to Chris Weidman, he said he would never again fight for a championship.
"I worked hard for a long time. I’m tired," he said then.
He has since changed his mind, but his sentiment in that moment was undeniably genuine. Over the course of his lengthy reign, Silva’s popularity had exploded exponentially, coinciding with the UFC’s growth in his home country of Brazil. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of "the Spider," from blue-chip sponsors to film and TV producers. He had multiple coaches, homes in two countries, a gym, an entourage. Pulled in various directions, he become as much a business as a person.
In both achievement and worldwide fame, Silva stands alone when it comes to the UFC’s best. His experience was so unique, few will ever have to even imagine it; there’s simply no chance they will reach those heights.
And then there is Jose Aldo.
On Saturday night, Aldo headlines UFC 163 in Rio de Janeiro, the last of the Brazilian-born champions still standing (unless you count interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao).
In the past year, Silva lost, and Junior dos Santos lost, and now the lithe featherweight dynamo stands above them all, the new standard-bearer in Brazilian MMA.
For a long time, he walked in Silva’s shadow, the little brother resigned to the background. No more. When he steps into the octagon on Saturday, the 26-year-old Aldo will have held the lineal UFC/WEC featherweight championship for 1,355 days. While that’s still over three years away from breaking Silva’s record, it marks the third-longest reign of any UFC/WEC champ, trailing only Silva and Georges St-Pierre (1,933 days and counting).
As his reign continues, however, Aldo (22-1) shows few visible signs of stress or anxiety. During most fight weeks — except for the memorable weight-cut hell of UFC 129 — he is seen smiling and happy, and yes, unburdened. So much so that he can joke about it when asked.
"It weighs nine kilos," he said on Thursday when asked about the weight of being champion. "That’s what it weighs. I think it’s great to carry these additional kilos. I think it’s no problem. I hope I can carry this until the end of my life. I hope I can carry this until the end of my life, until I retire. I have no problem whatsoever carrying that weight along. I hope to get another one and be able to carry two of them."
That last statement was one Silva could be proud of, if only for the misdirections that have preceded it. When Aldo originally agreed to fight at UFC 163, it was against Anthony Pettis, and under the provision that if he won, he could move to lightweight for an immediate title shot. But once Pettis bowed out with an injury and was replaced by "The Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung, Aldo backtracked and said he did not know what would come next assuming another successful title defense.
There is something to be said for continued dominance within one’s own division, but since Aldo has already rolled through some of the best, including Urijah Faber, Mike Brown, Kenny Florian, Chad Mendes and Frankie Edgar, the mind naturally begins to wonder what exactly he has left to prove in his weight class. Sure, there is a certain faction of observers who would like to see him fight Ricardo Lamas or rematch Cub Swanson, but Aldo has been so good, so long, you can envision him giving hell to any 155-pounder as well.
For Silva, the expectations of beating up the world with one hand while signing contracts and autographs with the other became too much. But Aldo has made it clear that he controls the expectations.
"I try to remove all the responsibility that people put on me because I’m a champion," he said.
"I try to always be relaxed because that’s what my life is. I’m from a humble origin. I’m never going to forget my origin. So, wherever I am, the higher I am, it doesn’t really matter. I’m always going to be that kid who grew up in a very poor family, and I’m not going to forget that. I don’t have a problem with that. I’m going to do the same things I’ve always done, whether I’m a champion or not."
He is the obvious heir to Silva’s legacy in Brazil, and the subject of rumor in the MMA world, but those complex and extraordinary developments that surround him never quite reach him. Perhaps because, as his words suggest, he is a simple man.
Years ago, when he was asked about his dream, his response was simple: He wanted to own a home. For a long time now, he’s had two; one literally — bought after winning his championship — and one figuratively, lording over a division. After Saturday night, it might be time to expand.