LAS VEGAS -- Why attend a sporting event? You might like the drama-with-no-script. You might like the razzmatazz. You might like the food (if you're into masochism). You might be a connoisseur of athletic prowess. You might like the bonding experience with friends or family especially if you can focus on an event and avoid having to talk to such people. You might go because of an irrational, delusional, mouth-foaming love for a team or participant, in which case you're a pretty normal human being.
Myself, I like my own involuntary gasps, and sports cause more involuntary gasps than anything I've known, well ahead of challengers such as the cinema and gossip from my hometown. You must be careful with involuntary gasps, lest they forfeit their involuntariness, so you cannot go to an arena planning them. For them to feel best, they must creep up on you and burst from the lungs spontaneously.
On Saturday night in an electric arena, I lost count of my involuntary gasps at about five, all because of a Brazilian man named Jose Aldo.
Now, you may not have heard of Jose Aldo, and that owes partly to another chapter in the voluminous annals of life being absurd. Back in the 1990s, when our cranky uncle in the United States Senate, John McCain, railed against the existence of mixed martial arts, the sport often got overshadowed by debates about its morality -- even as the nation continued to celebrate the violent NFL.
In that noisy process, I believe, a reality about the Ultimate Fighting Championship and other bygone leagues often went unrecognized: These are phenomenal athletes.
We don't know if what makes them extraordinary is real or pharmaceutical, but that's true in every other sport we watch. We don't know quite what we're watching, but that's also true in every other sport. In a world so fraught with artifice that it has seen doping in synchronized swimming, that's the reality we face.
Still, we can flex our brains to be large enough to hold this in mind while still reveling in the involuntary gasp. I have seen Roger Federer use a tennis racquet to hit optical illusions, Lionel Messi approach goalkeepers as if one second for him is longer than it is for everybody else, Vernon Davis running routes forever into the clear, Chris Paul playing point guard.
Now I also have seen Mr. Aldo raise his leg with such kicking swiftness that, well, there goes the gasp.
On Saturday night in his featherweight title defense against the commendable Frankie Edgar, Aldo dredged two minor gasps out of me in the first round, and a major gasp from me and the entire 10,000-strong audience in the second. Two minutes and change into the second, he almost cut down the tough Edgar with a kick, and 20 seconds after that, he went ahead and did cut down the tough Edgar with a kick. Early in the third, another kick wreaked another mass gasp. Early in the fourth, a spinning back kick brought another.
Hearing of Aldo's renowned kicks had been one thing, seeing them on TV or video another, but seeing them in person is unreal. They were so swift that, even after you started looking for them, you can still easily miss them they're so quick.
In fact, it's plain hard to see how somebody, anybody, could raise a leg from the floor to the sky with such dispatch.
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Even if the general public may not be aware of Aldo, UFC followers know bits of his story by now: hails from Brazil's seventh-largest city (Manaus), son of a bricklayer (father) and electronics-factory worker (mother), played soccer as is required under Brazilian law (just a joke, sorry), saw the soccer dream end and took up jiujitsu (of which Brazil serves as a global capital), reached Rio de Janeiro, could not afford three meals a day, would come to the gym where they would ask him if he had eaten that day or the day prior because sometimes he had not.
Now he stands as the only featherweight champion in UFC's record books, having won his title once and defended it thrice, at 22-1 without defeat in the last seven years. And when he stands there in the cage, this muscular wisp of a man from Manaus stands ready to challenge the eye as it strains to follow.
"I knew I had to work [against Edgar]," Aldo said after the narrow, unanimous decision, and so he did, through the five rounds, after the early flourish, after the challenger Edgar started to earn UFC president Dana White's plaudit of, "You've got to love and respect the kid." Said Aldo, in Portuguese, "The plan was to kick him and keep him from moving a little bit but I started to see he was checking my kicks."
The kicks dissipated as Edgar toughened, and we were left with morsels of one man's unfathomable speed within a confined area. Edgar would move to take him down, would grab some skin and Aldo would seemingly vanish.
Here was a marvelous athlete by any measure, and as he held on to win, he helped yield one of UFC's still-charming moments, the kind of thing when White stands before the media and says he just got a text "about 10 minutes ago" from somebody who wants to drop to 145 and fight Aldo.
"Who?" everybody wants to know.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" White volleys, and then he tells it anyway: The 155-pound lightweight Anthony Pettis wants to shed pounds and chase Aldo.
Deeply respectful of opponents, and clearly amiable, and coming from a deeply compelling country, Aldo stayed after the press conference to do some interviews with Brazilians and with English interpreters. As he stood there in his flip-flops, in that cozy way UFC fighters still mingle with the public and media, I looked down at his legs: good legs, athletic legs, but maybe not quite the legs that would make some guy walk up in the gym and ask him which exercises he'd been doing. In their stillness standing there, I tried to imagine that those things could rise so breathtakingly, but it just made no sense. Therein, of course, lies the gasp.