By Jordy McElroy | 28 August 2020
The weight an inanimate object can hold on such a young soul is immeasurable in a poverty-stricken world where hopes and dreams are sometimes the only escape. So Jose Aldo clung to his soccer ball as tight as he could when the storms got rough.
He still clings to it to this very day.
Long before the bright lights of the UFC—before words like legend and featherweight king were thrown around in the same sentence—Aldo was just another kid with a dream. That isn’t uncommon in a favela, where hopes of success are often juxtaposed with the harsh realities of poverty.
There’s also the fact that literally every kid has the same dream of one day growing up and playing professional soccer. But can talent outshine being a drop in a bucket?
Could it outshine dire circumstances where simply making a living and basic human survival trumps dreams? That was the mental beast Aldo grappled with on a daily basis.
A Dream Within a Dream
The beast never defeated Aldo.
He continued to cross up ankles like Ronaldo on the soccer field, while also laying bricks at a job site with his father to help put food on the table. Work life wasn’t out of the ordinary for Aldo, who held down a job at an age where most kids were still learning to tie their shoes.
It was by sheer determination to make a way out for himself, even if it meant staying the course on the most improbable path.
But professional soccer was never in the cards for Aldo. That path led to the same dead end road discovered by countless others that travel far enough on the journey. The talent was clearly there, but Aldo lacked the resources to develop it. Few things in this world are comparable to the pain of having the door to a childhood dream slammed in your face.
It was a stake right to the heart.
Aldo could have turned around and headed back to a life of bricklaying with his father in the favela. The thought must have crept in his mind—until a road veering right suddenly appeared on the path. That road led to the discovery of Capoeira and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It led to a UFC title, skyrocketing fame and a chance to travel the world. But most importantly, it led to a way out.
Don’t expect to find an old, worn-out soccer ball abandoned on that path, even after all of these years. Aldo never gave up on his dream of playing soccer. Quite the contrary, he has continued to play the sport religiously and even translated some of those abilities into his overall fight game.
Just ask Urijah Faber what it’s like to get mangled by a man with a lifetime of experience kicking soccer balls and banana bags. Aldo’s kicks have turned more bodies into corned beef hash than HORMEL.
Yet, they’ve also served as a reminder that a dream doesn’t have to end simply because one door closes.
It would have been easier for Aldo to give into the path of least resistance, but his persistence in finding a way out of his situation wouldn’t allow that to happen. He kept moving forward until he found the next open door.
A dream within a dream—there’s nothing coincidental about it.
The Childhood Symbol
Discovering a dream and finding the right path was only half the journey for Aldo.
The greatest treasure from self-discovery is the ability to repackage that knowledge and gift it to someone else. Deep within the heart of Brazil, there are other young dreamers with similar backgrounds and stories. They spend their days coming face-to-face with the harsh realities of life, while star-gazing at night, praying for a way out.
Aldo has dedicated his life outside of the cage to being that helping hand that offers another road on the path. He has teamed with former heavyweight contender Pedro Rizzo in finding the Usina de Campeões, a social project aimed at bringing martial arts to underprivileged youth. The only requirement to attend is staying in school and getting good grades.
It’s basically the same opportunity Aldo was given all of those years ago, when professional soccer was no longer a reality and Capoeira lessons got too expensive. Legendary BJJ coach Marcio Pontes stepped in and offered another path.
Aldo accepted and ultimately found MMA.
The best part is the fact that he never let his failure to make it as a professional soccer player devolve into some bitter memory. Even if he had the resources to fully commit to the sport, there were never any guarantees he’d actually make a club, much less forge the same legendary career he found in MMA.
He still embraces soccer with the same fervor he had as a kid. There have been sightings of him riding the subway to games and sitting in the same cheap seats he sat in when growing up.
But don’t mistake his quiet and humble presence in the sport for weakness. He hasn’t hesitated when called upon to compete in celebrity soccer matches for charity events throughout Brazil. At one event aimed at raising money to feed people in need, he stupefied soccer legend Neymar Jr. with a brilliantly executed rainbow flick.
How’s That for Fulfilling a Childhood Dream?
Although playing soccer professionally was never in the cards for Aldo, his dedication to MMA ultimately brought everything full circle. Opportunity will always be ready and waiting for those who choose to seek it, and sometimes the reward is beyond measure.
Soccer is symbolic of a return to humble beginnings for Aldo—a return to a time when he was forced to balance his childhood dreams with his growing adult realities. It’s symbolic of what might not have been rather than what could have been.
If that first door never slammed in his face, he might still be out there somewhere trying to make ends meet as a bricklayer. There’s a possibility he wouldn’t be traveling the world to soccer matches, where the best players in the game are just as eager to meet him as he is to meet them. There’s a chance he wouldn’t be in a position to hold out his hand and offer others the same opportunity he got when he was a kid.
A Linear Dream Is Often a Dead One
Things change, new challenges arise and adjustments have to consistently be made. Success is reserved for the ones capable of waiting out the storm.
Throughout the raging winds and pouring rains, Aldo held on to his dream as tightly as he could and never let go. He held on long enough to finally learn the greatest lesson that often eludes dreamers: Sometimes our first big “no” in life might be preparing us for the “yes” we’ve always waited for.