(This story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)
RIO DE JANEIRO – It takes a small army of security personnel to usher Jose Aldo into the van that awaits the UFC’s featherweight titleholder. Along the way, he answers as many reporters’ questions as possible, smiles for camera click after camera click and signs a few dozen autographs.
Thursday’s swirl of activity follows a three-hour engagement in which Aldo participated in a news conference, put on a public workout session that featured a soundtrack by a live rock band and then waded through a sea of fans and reporters to answer even more questions as microphones, cameras and recorders were shoved in his face.
It was time for Aldo to retreat to his hotel, but his removal from the scene was anything but easy.
“You get more experienced with fighting, and you get more experienced with everything else that goes with it, too,” Aldo told USA TODAY Sports and MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com) through a translator. “I’m OK with it. Just go in there and do my job. I feel like that makes me more comfortable with everything.”
In his native Brazil, Aldo is a superstar, plain and simple. But in a country that has produced some of the most recognizable figures in all of MMA — including Junior dos Santos, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Wanderlei Silva and Anderson Silva — there is something different about Aldo’s position in the spotlight. He’s the people’s champion, as well.
“I feel like they relate to my life story, actually,” Aldo said. “They feel like I’m one of them, like I came from nowhere and I became the champion. I believe they feel like it’s a mirror and that they see themselves in me.”
Like many in Brazil, Aldo was raised in humble surroundings. As a teenager, he relocated from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, reluctantly giving up on his dream of playing professional soccer in order to train MMA.
He turned pro in 2004, losing once in 23 career contests, and became the UFC’s first, and so far only, 145-pound champion.
Aldo (22-1 MMA, 4-0 UFC) puts his belt on the line Saturday against “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung (13-3 MMA, 3-0 UFC), in the main event of UFC 163 at Rio de Janeiro’s HSBC Arena (pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET). But in the days before his fight, Aldo is asked as much about Brazilian policy as he is about his opponent.
Rising ticket prices for soccer matches in the country? Aldo thinks they should be lowered to allow common people to enjoy the sport along with the elite. Protesters taking to the street to push for improvements in education and medical care? Aldo believes it’s a positive move, as long as the statements are made in a peaceful fashion.
It’s an intriguing balance for the man who sits at No. 4 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMAjunkie.com pound-for-pound MMA rankings.
With more success comes more responsibility and increased expectations. It’s a pressure that has caused more than one former UFC champion to admit there was a sense of relief after finally losing the title. But Aldo welcomes the challenge.
“I want to be the best,” Aldo said. “That’s the goal. That’s what feeds me, what drives me and makes me want to keep practicing. But it’s just as important for me to always remain connected to the people. This is not just me but also my team and my trainers.
“Hopefully, we’ll never stop being grounded people.”
For more on UFC 163, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.