Issue 115

June 2014

José Aldo and Renan Barao are two of the most aggressive and successful champions the UFC has ever known. And they’re just the top two picks from Nova Uniao, one of the strongest gyms in Brazil’s long fighting history. How did they get so good? Are there any more on the way? And would they fight each other?

“We are up there for sure,” Aldo says, when asked about their placing in the P4P top 10, “Renan has also been defending his belt successfully like myself, so I understand the pairing. But as for a real fight between us: never.”

It’s a sentiment Barao shares, as he tells us with an explosive laugh: “If I am the one to rank myself, then I will be the number one, my friend. No, seriously, the goal is to go as high as I can but let’s go step by step, slowly, to get the top-rank in the future. I have a lot of work ahead to be done and I am in the beginning now and there is so much to happen in the future.”

Head coach Andre Pederneiras fully understands the fans’ desire to see a superfight between the two, but also admits his two UFC champions will never face-off for real inside the Octagon. When asked who would win a fight between them, he teases: “It is difficult to say who, right? I think it is a tough fight for both sides and a single detail might be the difference in the dispute. I couldn’t predict the winner.”

Then he cuts the smile, to add: “I don’t see this fight happening, and if for some reason they wanted to fight each other, then keep me out of it, I wouldn’t prepare either of them. I wouldn’t be in either corner. It happened with me in Bellator, where Eduardo Dantas and Marco Galvao fought. That was painful.”


Less than 12 months ago MMA’s list of pound-for-pound champion contenders looked very different than today. The record-breaking reigns of Anderson Silva and Georges St Pierre were still alive, for one. Now Silva is rehabbing a broken leg without his title and GSP has walked away.

And so while the bigger weight classes have welcomed new champions, and humanized one or two others (Jon Jones’ narrow victory over Alexander Gustafsson), it’s the lighter weight champions who have really shone over the past 12 months, and none more so than the pride of the Nova Uniao camp.

José Aldo, the UFC’s featherweight number-one, is many fans’ pick as today’s pound-for-pound king. Including his initial run as WEC champion, Aldo has been the best fighter in the world at 145lb since 2009. He made two defenses of the WEC crown until being made UFC champ, and has added six more successful performances since.

Indeed, the only man who could even stand comparison to the destructive Aldo is Barao. Just like his teammate, Barao has suffered just one defeat in his MMA career – his debut – and has since racked up an unbeaten run of 33 fights. 

Aldo was and is top dog, but Barao has certainly gained ground on his role model. “José Aldo is a great champion and is a man I’ve looked up to for a long time,” confesses Barao. “I have so much admiration for him and for all he represents for our team at Nova Uniao and in the UFC.

“Outside the Octagon he’s a great character, a humble person, and he has a big heart. While as a fighter, he’s very calm, can play on his adversaries’ weaknesses and is very intelligent in the fight. Everything he does, he does it perfectly.”

And Aldo is equally complimentary toward the bantamweight champion, saying: “Barao is a very talented fighter who trains passionately and looks to evolve his overall game to remain as UFC champion.”  

Featherweight icon

If there is one thing Aldo knows, it’s how to stay champion. The half dozen defenses by the 2010 Fighters Only World MMA Awards ‘Charles ‘Mask’ Lewis Fighter of the Year’ have all come against leading contenders. And he’s barely dropped a round.

The 27-year-old – Aldo is just four months older than Barao – understands how precious time at the top can be, and that sport waits for no man, no matter who you are. Did countryman Anderson Silva’s surprise demise scare him? “Actually, no,” he asserts. “It didn’t scare me because it’s part of the competition and it is how life works. 

“Anderson had been the middleweight champion for a long time and his time to lose arrived. But he is still the same champion who represented our country so well and a fighter who opened so many doors for new champions. His demise was not an end of everything he did in the sport. He is the same person, and some fans need to realize his time may be over now.”

But despite all his success, Aldo, like Silva in the past, has been criticized by fans. Notwithstanding two knockouts and two ‘Fight of the Night’ performances in his UFC reign, he has been accused of coasting through recent tile bouts when compared to the six TKOs he scored en route to capturing the WEC belt at the end of 2009.

Aldo says: “Everybody wishes to get there and put on a show, but in the other corner there are guys who prepare very hard to achieve the same goal. I have to be there and make a good job and I respect the opinions, but I personally go in there to finish the fight as soon as possible. 

“It hasn’t been happening lately, but I always leave the cage with a win by knockout or points, so I don’t take it that I am fighting safely.”

And, despite the criticism, Aldo won’t change his approach. “My fighting style continues the same,” he insists. “Every time I’m inside the cage I walk forward, strike on the feet, so I wouldn’t change my characteristics. Nowadays everybody studies José Aldo when they are going to fight me. This is a point, but my style remains the same, doing the same stuff.”

Even though he boasts the longest reign of any UFC champion, Aldo admits having the belt wrapped around his waist after each new defense still feels as incredible as it did the first time. “Being a champion, first of all, is a dream not only for me but also for all athletes,” he says. “Thank God I was able to make it. The championship represents a lot because it is work that has been done for years, since when I first began to train to become the champion I am today.”

And while Barao may not be on his competitive radar, Aldo insists that the UFC’s roster offers plenty to keep him motivated in the coming years. Another superfight, with UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, in particular, remains one he’s keen on. Although he accepts that business – Pettis is a coach on The Ultimate Fighter 20 – has to take precedence over everything else.

“Everybody wants to see this fight and I think it will happen in the future,” says Aldo. “But I wouldn’t say I felt disappointed it’s not happened already. I think it’s part of the business. This is entertainment, so I don’t get frustrated because it didn’t happen.” 

Growing up in poverty in Manaus only to sleep rough and train on an empty stomach when he first arrived in Rio and joined Nova Uniao, Aldo’s rags to riches life-story is actually the subject of a major movie in Brazil due to be released later in the year. 

“My life has changed so much. The media attention is much bigger than it used to be when I fought for the WEC, and it changes your life a lot; everybody who meets you in the streets recognizes who you are and many doors are open for new deals. But on the other side the interest on the personal life increases so much,” reveals Aldo, who reluctantly admits to having finally bought his own home – a dream he’d had since he first started out in MMA.

“Do I enjoy it, all the extra attention? Well, it’s part of my work and for me I don’t see any problem since we keep going in the right direction. It motivates me to know I am doing a good job.”

Brilliant bantam

While Aldo’s finishing ability has been perhaps harshly lambasted up at 145lb, the TKO prowess of 135lb teammate Barao cannot be denied. Since he outscored Urijah Faber in Canada in the summer of 2012 to claim the UFC interim bantamweight belt, he’s torn through all three of his title challengers and picked up the full world title. Next up is TJ Dillashaw at UFC 173 on May 24th, and already Barao is champing at the bit to get back inside the Octagon.

“I was on a short vacation when the fight with Dillashaw was requested, but I never go too long without training,” says Barao. “So while I wasn’t pushing as hard in the gym as I’m doing now after getting the call, I’m always sharpening my jiu-jitsu and striking. I was in Natal training and relaxing with friends when I received the news.

“The delay between my fights is short, but it is my job so I have to be prepared for all eventualities.”

With two wins over Team Alpha Male captain Faber in his rear view, fans are already asking what threat Dillashaw, a Faber prodigy, can offer the champion. But Barao is taking the challenge of the TUF 14 runner-up as serious as any other.

“Despite both of them coming from wrestling and the same team, they are very different opponents, so we will try to set a strategy to be even more effective. With ‘Dede’ (Andre Pederneiras) we’ll get there on fight night with a plan to be executed in my mind.

“TJ Dillashaw is a good fighter and I think he deserves his shot at the title. Plus, I am a UFC employee so whomever they decide for me to face I will go for it regardless. It’s not my place to disagree about challengers. I have to be humble, keep doing my work with my team, and that’s it. The more opponents, the better.”

He adds: “I’ll fight anyone because for me it is just about being ready to do my work and defend the belt. What really matters to me is my UFC belt and I don’t want anybody to take it from me.”

Barao’s dominance of the 135lb weight division has been so absolute that the injury-based downfall of former champion Dominick Cruz has failed to upset fans too much. It seems Barao, regardless of never beating the man who formerly held the belt, has been universally accepted as the best bantamweight in the world – and one who could yet rule for a very long time.

Although Barao admits to “not enjoying” cutting to the 135lb limit and sees his long-term future at 145lb, he explains: “I have to work hard to stay on top but that’s what I am doing. I’m used to training with heavier fighters at Nova Uniao and so I feel good in this weight class because I feel good at every stage in every fight, although I have no immediate plans to move up competitively just yet.

“Perhaps one day my coaches, my masters, Jair Lourenco and Andre Pederneiras, will decide it is time for me to move, and then I will. But I think what is best for the team and for my career is what is going to happen.”

The next big thing

Aldo and Barao aren’t the only Nova Uniao men putting on stunning world-title-clinching performances. In fact, they’re helping polish the rest of the team’s prospects – and one in particular. Nova Uniao also boasts Bellator bantamweight champ Eduardo Dantas. The 25-year-old former Shooto Brazil champion debuted for Bellator back in 2011 and racked up six consecutive wins for the promotion, taking the bantamweight tournament and belt in turn.

Despite a 2012 knockout loss in Shooto Brazil, Aldo remains a big fan, revealing: “‘Dudu’s best quality is he learns the techniques so fast, is very responsible and looks to learn each time more and more.”

Fighters are a product of their environment, and sharing a gym with Aldo and Barao means Dantas doesn’t take his opportunity for granted. Speaking about sparring days at Nova Uniao when all three are in camp, he says: “They’re for real, for sure. It’s no joke when we train together and this is the reason why Nova Uniao is the best academy for lighter fighters right across the world. The sparring sessions are absolutely on fire!”

Like his two ‘bigger brothers’ he’s learned a lot from being at the top, including when, as Pederneiras alluded to earlier, he had to defend his belt against teammate Marcos Galvao. Aldo has warned Dantas against taking risks inside the cage. About allowing his youth and inexperience to take over when he should be fighting to a set game plan. 

He says: “I am trying to hold my rhythm a little more because I am so intense in the fight – I just go all-out against my opponent. So I try to be colder, but my aggressiveness is just the same. Being colder is something I (could have used) in the past; I was more emotional and didn’t set the pace as I do now.”

It’s how “complete” Aldo and Barao are as fighters that inspires Dantas, he says. “In ‘Junior’ (Aldo) I look up to his coolness, he is very calculating and only throws strikes with precision, so he inspires me (to) hold the belt for a long time.

“And as for Barao, wow, he is very aggressive. A guy who walks forward constantly. He is very tough and I like his style a lot too. I think all fighters want to be like him, to never step backwards, and that’s also why the fans like to watch him fight.”

Calculating and ferocious? It might be the dream combination for a young champion to be taught. Coach Pederneiras, who has raised all three from the streets to stardom, is extremely excited about Dantas’ future. 

“He has an absurd potential and learns very fast,” the respected BJJ black belt says, before adding with a laugh, “if only I could get him to the gym at the right time to train and not have to go wake him up. Once he arrives he has incredible potential.”

Nova world order

Although Aldo, Barao and Dantas all hold titles in their respective promotions, they believe it’s just the beginning of Nova Uniao’s world domination.

“Nova Uniao is like a factory that just keeps on producing champions, and me and Renan are an example of it,” Aldo explains. “Hernani Perpetuo, who recently debuted in the UFC, is a guy I believe in so much. Felipe Olivieri is also a great fighter. We’ve also got Nicholas and Felipe Jesus, but they are just starting out and will all be champions in the future.”

The triumvirate’s confidence in the team’s future begs the question: what’s going on inside the gym to help produce all these championship-quality mixed martial artists, who have a penchant for spectacular knockout victories? According to Dantas, it’s simply iron sharpening iron.

“Everybody here is tough, there’s nobody just passing time at Nova Uniao. Four or five years ago, there were guys who did so well in striking and others were more comfortable on the mat, but not today. Today every fighter strikes well, takes down well, defends well and is great on the ground, so the sparring is 1,000 times worse than any fight.”

The more these three Nova Uniao dynamos say, the more it becomes apparent that behind all great champions is an even greater coach. In fact, Dantas can’t praise Nova Uniao head trainer Andre Pederneiras enough. After all, he’s a man who’s had so much success we’ve started to match his title-holders against each other. “In my opinion he is one of the best managers,” Dantas confirms. “As a coach he is always showing something new and whenever you ask him something, he shows you the tiny details that make a lot of difference. He is the best in the world.”

He adds: “As a leader, he has a strong way with his words. Everybody here respects Dede so much, whatever he says is an order. I think Nova Uniao will never split up because everybody believes in him.”

Barao agrees, and goes one further, stating Pederneiras is “like a father” to the team. “He is always there suffering together with us during the weight cut, always finding the best game plan for us to manage the bout and get out the Octagon with the win.”

In fact neither Aldo, Barao, Dantas nor any of the future challengers out of Brazil’s most successful gym of the past five years would have achieved what they have without Pederneiras. In many instances he’s given them more than just a title belt, through fighting he’s equipped them with the tools to escape poverty. That’s actually quite incredible.

It only seems appropriate to give Pederneiras the final say. So, for a team that’s already achieved so much, what’s next? He states simply: “We intend on winning as many championships as possible to turn Nova Uniao into the team with the most champions in the world.”

Sounds like a plan.

Such a lightweight

Just how many times has UFC featherweight leader José Aldo been linked to a move to lightweight?

Earlier this year it appeared the UFC’s first and reigning 145lb champion was heading north for a lightweight title fight with 155lb king Anthony Pettis. The fight never came off for Aldo – who actually fought at 155lb several times until his first and only loss in 2005. But it wasn’t the first time an upward weight class shift had been mooted by, or for, the Brazilian.

  • OCTOBER 2010: Then the WEC featherweight champ, Aldo said he’d be happy to fight in the UFC’s 155lb division. Days later it became known ‘Junior’ had actually turned down a lightweight fight with Kenny Florian in the UFC. Soon after UFC president Dana White declared the WEC would merge into the UFC and Aldo be 145lb champion.
  • DECEMBER 2010: Aldo said: “I want to fight three times in 2011 and keep my featherweight belt, then to move up to the 155lb division and battle to be (lightweight) champion in 2012.”
  • APRIL 2011: His weight cut to 145lb, prior to meeting Mark Hominick in front of 55,000 people in Toronto at UFC 129, was reportedly a torrid one – leading to speculation a 155lb shift was coming.
  • OCTOBER 2011: Aldo confirmed he would likely have to move to lightweight one day. Although his head coach, Andre Pederneiras, said it would only be for an immediate title shot. 
  • JANUARY 2012: Pederneiras said the same when Dana White gave Aldo the OK to go to lightweight after he KO’d title challenger Chad Mendes at UFC 142 in Rio.
  • FEBRUARY 2013: José was called out by Anthony Pettis after he beat former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 156. UFC boss Dana White promised him a lightweight title fight should he beat ex WEC 155lb champ Pettis at 145lb.
  • AUGUST 2013: After defeating Chan Sung Jung at UFC 163, when asked if he wanted to fight at 155lb next Aldo commented he “would love” to.
  • SEPTEMBER 2013: Andre Pederneiras pitched the idea of Aldo next fighting Pettis, who had just become 155lb UFC champ, at lightweight.
  • OCTOBER 2013: Aldo reiterated his desire to challenge for Pettis’ lightweight belt, saying: “That will always be remembered in the history of the UFC and of MMA itself.”
  • FEBRUARY 2014: Aldo beat challenger Ricardo Lamas and he, Dana White and Anthony Pettis all agreed to Aldo vs. Pettis for the latter’s lightweight title – but the fight never got signed.