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Thursday, January 12, 2012
Notes and nuggets from Rio de Janeiro

By Hywel Teague

RIO DE JANEIRO -- The UFC’s traditional prefight workouts came to the fine sands of Barra beach without quite the same pomp and circumstance of the last company visit (which drew a 5,000-strong crowd to the touristy Copacabana beach). Given the low profile this event has had from day one, however, that was to be expected. Promotion has been negligible compared to UFC 134 in August: No TV ads, no magazine covers, nothing.

Fears that this event was being under-promoted and overlooked by press and fans alike were maybe somewhat unfounded. The media of the Northern Hemisphere might be using this time to prepare for the UFC’s upcoming jaunts to Japan and Australia, but the local press were out in force. TV cameras jostled with newspaper photographers for a shot of Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes, Vitor Belfort and Anthony Johnson. The buzz is picking up for Saturday’s event, albeit a little late in the day, but this is Brazil and time has a different quality here.

Aldo still seeking stardom in Brazil

Jose Aldo
Alone at the top: Jose Aldo might be one of Brazil's best, but he isn't one of the best-known.

Featherweights have never been as big a draw as heavier fighters, and Jose Aldo is barely known by his countrymen regardless of his position as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

Maybe this is why, as of Wednesday evening, UFC 142 in Rio de Janeiro hasn’t sold out.

Aldo is a ghost in Rio. Anderson Silva or Vitor Belfort couldn’t hope to walk down a street without being flocked by fans, but it’s not uncommon to see Aldo anonymously strolling around the streets of Flamengo.

Will a win on Saturday night change that? Accomplished Brazilian MMA manager Ed Soares seems to think so.

“He’s not as well-known as other guys but it’s only a matter of time; he’s only been in the UFC for about a year and this is only his third fight in the UFC,” Soares says. “Anderson’s been champion for five years and has had 14 fights. I think, on Sunday, [Aldo’s] life will be totally different to [what it was] Saturday. He’ll be huge.”

Soares said the right things, but didn’t sound as convinced as his statement reads. Like a proud parent wishing the best for his child, it might be too much to expect one win in Brazil to elevate Aldo’s status.

Maynard lends Aldo a hand in wrestling

Gray Maynard
Gray Maynard has done more than just soak up some sun while in Rio de Janeiro.

UFC 145-pound champion Jose Aldo has fought his fair share of hard-hitting wrestlers in Mike Brown and Urijah Faber, but Chad Mendes could be the strongest and most explosive yet.

Aldo’s not-so-secret weapon was enlisting the help of Gray Maynard, the boxer-wrestler who came oh-so-close to the 155-pound title not once, but twice.

They struck up a friendship late last year as they were shuttled from a UFC news conference in Houston, and kept in touch after. “There are some people you just click with,” says Maynard. “I thought he was a really nice, humble guy. I'm a fan too; he's very talented.”

Maynard reached out to the champ upon hearing he would face Mendes and offered his services as a sparring partner. His three weeks at Nova Uniao gave him a taste of training with one of the most successful teams in Brazil, and he says he enjoyed it immensely.

“Nova Uniao is a close-knit family. They have fun; the timer starts, they beat each other up, and they go back to joking once it's done. “The whole team works together. It's not just about Aldo -- they take care of each other.”

Maynard and Aldo trained together twice a day in the buildup to Saturday, a camp that Maynard describes as “smooth”and without incident. The American got a taste of Aldo’s unique style the very first day they trained together, as he described with a laugh: “I tried taking him down, I drove him up against the wall and he jumped off the wall and up over my head.”

Maynard is full of praise for Aldo and unsurprisingly predicts a victory for the Brazilian, but can’t call the manner in which it will end due to Aldo’s unpredictable nature. “He's probably the most complete fighter I've ever trained with -- across the board. A black belt in BJJ, unbelievable Muay Thai, and he's almost impossible to take down.”

Since leaving Xtreme Couture, Maynard admits that he’s still looking for a ‘home’. While he’s undecided as to his future, when asked if he’d return to Nova Uniao his answer is immediate. “In a heartbeat,” he says.

Johnson enjoys new home at 185

Anthony Johnson
Bigger is better: Anthony Johnson is enjoying life at a higher weight class.

Everyone wants to know how Anthony Johnson looks at the new weight. The simple answer is: huge. Truthfully, he just looks happier and more comfortable. Cutting to 170 was a miserable experience for him, physically and emotionally, and the ability to eat what he wants has given his already considerable confidence a big boost.

“It makes a big difference; you thought I had power and speed at 170 when I was barely eating? [Now] the power is there, the energy is there and the speed is there. I'm excited.”

Johnson walks at around 210-215 pounds prior to cutting to fight weight. Between the weigh-in and fight night, he can put as many as 25 pounds back on. That will be no different for this fight, except he’ll now be walking into the cage at around 210 instead of 195.

The less demanding cut allowed him to avoid injury during camp (for the first time, he says), and his training partners have noticed a big difference in his performance in the gym.

“He was always explosive; he's gained more strength,” says teammate Jorge Santiago. “He hits different -- it's not just heavy, but it's sharp, too.”

While he hasn’t ruled out a permanent move to 185 pounds, right now Johnson has no desire to go back to welterweight. He envisions a bright future at his new weight, and enjoys his food too much.