He entered 2009 as somewhat of an unknown commodity, a talented but unproven blue-chip prospect with a seemingly limitless ceiling.
Jose Aldo left 2009 as the world's premier featherweight. A lot can change in 12 months.
Aldo, Sherdog's Fighter of the Year for 2009, won all four of his fights and punctuated his light-speed run to the top by trouncing Mike Thomas Brown to become World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion at WEC 44 in November. A winner of nine consecutive bouts, he now finds himself firmly entrenched as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.
"The last year was about the achievement of all my dreams; actually, the achievement of any fighter's dreams," Aldo told Sherdog.com. "I trained hard for this since the beginning of my career, and winning the belt and fighting a tough guy like Mike Brown was something very special."
The Brazilian's march began with a one-sided knockout of Rolando Perez and continued two months later with an even more lopsided thrashing of journeyman Chris Mickle. And up the 145-pound ladder he went. Aldo ultimately ran into the respected Cub Swanson at WEC 41 in June, in the match that launched him into full-fledged stardom. It took him only eight seconds to lay waste to Swanson, as he finished him with a flying knee and follow-up punches in a performance that left many a mouth ajar.
Brown, the rugged American Top Team veteran and reigning WEC featherweight champion, came next. He carried a 10-fight winning streak into their scheduled five-round tilt, but soon after the two men engaged, it became clear Aldo was on another level.
Aldo controlled distance and utilized stinging leg kicks and surgical punches to keep Brown guessing from the start. The Nova Uniao standout executed at will, and though Brown tried a few early takedowns, Aldo's sprawl was impeccable. When the two featherweights drew close, Aldo slammed Brown's legs with vicious kicks and ripped his midsection with crushing knees. Near the end of the first round, a knee to the stomach left Brown breathless, as he dropped to his knees and clinched the challenger's legs until the horn sounded. He escaped, but he remained in harm's way, and Aldo's firepower fried the defending champion early in Round 2.
The Brazilian stuffed a takedown attempt and moved into a dominant position during a scramble. His hopes fading, Brown tried to return to his feet, but the relentless Aldo seized his back, flattened him and unloaded punches to the sides of Brown's head. Dozens of blows, some of the clean, some of them blocked, were unleashed, leading to a stoppage 1 minute, 20 seconds into the second round.
With that, the featherweight crown changed hands. Though the win put Aldo on the mainstream map, it did little to alter his plans.
"Actually, the only thing that changed is the fact that the press looks for me more," he said. "I have the same friends. My attitude is the same. Basically, life is the same. I'm just more motivated to train and keep the belt that I always dreamed about winning."
With 16 wins in his first 17 professional fights, Aldo beams with potential greatness. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, he has not even put his ground prowess on display, choosing instead to let his lethal strikes do the damage. Based out of the revered Nova Uniao camp, Aldo will not turn 24 until September -- shocking when one considers all he has already accomplished. Still, he remains humble in the face of increasing praise.
"I think I just need to train hard," Aldo said. "The base of any great champion is to keep training hard. I have a lot to improve. I don't think I'm the best."
Aldo has not forgotten the difficult road he took to the top.
"It was really hard," he said. "When I came to Rio [de Janeiro], I was a blue belt and lived in the academy for a long time. Later, I went to live in a small place, and I had to work hard for a long time, washing dishes at a restaurant in order to pay for a place to live."
Nova Uniao co-founder Andre Pederneiras thinks Aldo will only sharpen with time. The gifted 23-year-old will face former champion and promotional poster boy Urijah Faber in his first title defense, perhaps on the WEC's first-ever pay-per-view, sometime in 2010.
"Besides being very focused and training hard, just like most of my students, Aldo has an amazing ability to learn stand-up skills," Pederneiras told Sherdog.com. "The biggest proof of that is the way he has beaten top strikers, even with jiu-jitsu as his background."
Aldo credits Pederneiras for much of his success. Without his guidance, he might never have escaped the plight of his hometown.
"If it were not for him, I would be in Manaus," Aldo said. "When I returned to Manaus as a purple belt, he believed in me so much that he sent me a ticket to return and gave me a job in his academy cleaning the dojo. Thanks to him, I could train and improve. I'm champion today, and I have to thank Pederneiras for believing in me."
Brian Knapp is a contributor to Sherdog.com.