It curves along every inch of Copacabana Beach, the Sugarloaf mountains peaking over one end and the turrets of the Forte de Copacabana at the other. It’s a place that steals the breath at most hours of the day but is particularly potent around dusk, night slowly, steadily creeping in off the ocean and up the hills of the Marvellous City.
Saving a visit til dusk also increases the chances of catching one of Rio de Janeiro’s most underrated sights. With almost no regularity or discernible pattern, young Cariocas pick a night here and there to congregate on the traffic islands that separate the six lanes of traffic on Avenida Atlantica. From there they treat passers-by to awe-inspiring exhibitions of capoeira, whirling dervishes against the stunning backdrop.
It was here where one of the most pivotal staging posts in the journey of Jose Aldo Junior was marked.
Tomorrow night in Las Vegas, Aldo will try to maintain a decade of utter mixed martial arts supremacy. Conor McGregor, and all the momentum and mayhem that comes with him, will be the latest to try to take down a man who has been at the very top of the UFC from day zero. But it was far from the MGM Grand or even the octagon where Aldo first felt that he had made it.
When first the teenage Aldo laid eyes on the Atlantic Ocean and dug his feet into the Copacabana sands, the kid from the Amazon was fulfilling his dreams. The rest of the journey was going to be a piece of cake.
The second incarnation of Jose Aldo grew up with his father of the same name in Manaus, the steaming capital of Amazonia. His parents split when he was young but he remained very close with his mother. None of them had very much, not perhaps living in poverty by that city’s standards but by most others. It was certainly a harsher existence than being on the dole in Dublin, the all too often told rags to riches story of his latest upstart rival. What Aldo Jr did have was a dream and it was similar to many in Manaus.
The obsession with Rio runs deep for lots of young in the Amazon. On a pre-World Cup trip to the capital last year we were stunned to find that the only sports shop in a gleaming air-conditioned mall in a better part of town was an official club store of Flamengo, who call the Maracana home. It’s about the geographical equivalent of finding a Galatasaray shop in Dundrum Town Centre.
Aldo’s mother thought it just a phase that he would grow out of. “A dry leaf fire won’t last long,” she says she told herself. But martial arts was fuelling through her son and the fire has never been put out since, burning all the way here to the desert and Aldo’s most daunting defence.
After graduating from capoeira to jiu-jitsu, Aldo made that first trip to Rio and went straight to the sea. He brought his mother back seawater and shells to show her he’d made it. It would actually take many years of incredible toil and sacrifice, of going without, sleeping in his Rio gym on the mats he trained on all day while his mentors went out and won titles, living on the favela floor of a teammate when the gym was relocated, before he truly made it.
All that went into what he is today — the pound-for-pound perfectionist of the biggest combat sports organisation in the world — is never forgotten. YouTube videos of Aldo and his Nova Uniao team hard at work show his trainer fuelling that fire. The motivation as he holds a punch bag for Aldo to reel off his trademark, muscle-tearing leg kicks is a scream of “that bastard wants to send you back to the favela”.
The man known as Scarface (the marking on his cheek the result of a childhood accident when his sisters pushed him on to a BBQ pit) has fought 26 times in an 11-year career, losing just once, a momentary slip-up he has never forgiven himself for.
No fight, however, seems to have gotten to Aldo quite like No.27. McGregor’s act in the early part of the marathon build-up to Saturday’s fight may have been tiresome for many observers, but for the closest observer it was jading. Mike Brown, one of the many highly-rated UFC featherweights to come at this king and fall, observed recently that Aldo “had never looked an opponent in the eye until Conor came along” suggesting McGregor has got to the 29-year-old.
It may be only a two-year age difference between the two but McGregor and Aldo really are polar, almost generational, opposites. While the Dubliner is the UFC’s darling, Aldo has had a fractious relationship with his paymasters, pushing back on a range of contractual, control and financial issues. McGregor is a master salesman, Aldo speaks soft Portuguese and lets a translator do the rest.
Now that the trash talking has subsided, the added limelight that the Notorious one has brought will be welcome, according to the champion.
“This is another chance for the fans that don’t know me to be able to watch and get to know my work,” Aldo said. “Every fight is the biggest fight of my career, always the next one is the biggest one, so I’m looking at this one as the biggest because it’s the next one.”
The kid so thrilled to dig his feet into the Copacabana is now a man acutely aware of the sands of time. But Jose Aldo’s dry leaf fire burns still.