Bellator Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez is one of the most compelling MMA fighters going, and you know what? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Eddie Alvarez has a unique niche in that he represents Philadelphia in the broader sense than the city’s earliest noteworthy combatants. Going back to the turn-of-the-century’s “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien—who The Ring’s founder/editor Nat Fleischer ranked as boxing’s No. 2 best all-time heavyweight—to Bernard Hopkins, who at 47 years old is the reigning WBC Light Heavyweight Champion, “The City of Brotherly Love” has had its share of bigger-than-life characters in the prize ring. This even extends to fictional characters—Rocky Balboa is synonymous with the fiber of the city.
Alvarez, though, is the first big-name martial artist to emerge. The times are changing, and Philly-brand pugilism has taken on layers. Remember when Hopkins likened MMA to “gay porn?” It was Alvarez who changed Hopkins’ perception, when B-Hop saw a Golden Boy recruit get his ass whipped in a sparring session by the MMA fighter. Alvarez inspires a specific kind of reverence, and it’s been a tough
paddle to where he’s at, as one of the best lightweights in the world.
He got the bug to scrap growing up in the Kensington area of Philly—the same area that the original Rocky movie was filmed in—where he’d find himself in plenty of fisticuffs. He was shuttled to a Catholic school when the neighborhood got rough, but in fifth grade, he attended a local school to relieve the financial burden on his family. It was during that time that he’d stop in at the Front St. Boxing Gym and soak things in. He had some pedigree, already. His grandfather made it to the Pan-American games back in the day. His father, Louis, an orphan from Puerto Rico, was a fight game enthusiast and made sure there were speed and heavy bags to hit in the garage, and whenever Alvarez wanted, Louis would hold mitts for his son. Yet, this was all a strange racial netherworld for the young Alvarez, who was in a town that was in flux.
As a Puerto Rican descendant in a predominantly white area, the white kids would get in his face and make things tough on him. When Section 8 housing moved in, the Puerto Rican kids would get in his face because he was a white kid to them. In other words, Alvarez wasn’t enough of the one and was too much of the other, and this peeved just about everyone. So, he did what he had to. He threw up the dukes and started settling fools.
“I don’t put a whole lot of thought into it,” Alvarez says. “There’s really nothing I can do about my race. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, and it kind of set me apart. It always made me different. My race always made me different from the kind of environment I was in. It got me into a lot of fights. I was in an all-white neighborhood and it got me called ‘spic’ a lot. So, I was in a lot of fights. But I’ve always been proud of who I was. A Puerto Rican heritage is very family-oriented, very open, and very loving.”
At just 27 years old, Alvarez has emerged as one of the most talked about 155 pounders going, ranked as high as No. 2 or 3 on some lightweight lists. He is the current Bellator Lightweight Champion, and he has won seven in a row, including the title fight against Toby Imada. He treated UFC vet Roger Huerta as a modest challenge, and broke down upstart Pat Curran for five rounds. Alvarez is putting the Fight Factory on the map, and his name is mentioned among the kingpins of Zuffa’s stable, including his training partner and friend Frankie Edgar, who holds the UFC’s strap.
How? For one, he is a rare wrestling antidote. Athleticism and quick reflexes allow him to dictate a fight even against what has become MMA’s go-to discipline—wrestling. That’s why his next title defense, against Michael Chandler on Oct. 15 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is a match-up he likes. Whereas singlets put many fighters off, Alvarez sees them as smashing posts.
“Chandler is basically more of a college wrestler that is intrigued by MMA,” he says. “I wouldn’t yet call him an MMA fighter. I think he’s had like eight fights. So I think he’s a wrestler that is very excited about the sport of MMA. And he’s going to be successful because he’s bringing the same work ethic that he brought to college wrestling. However, he’s a great match-up for me.”
Alvarez can strike with the best of them, but he can also submit guys (he tapped four guys between Bellator 1 and Bellator 12). This translates to “well-rounded” territory. Even with an impressive résumé—and an overall record of 22-2—there are those who want to see him test himself against Zuffa brand names. After the Chandler fight, Alvarez will still have two fights on his contract with Bellator, and the promotion has first right of refusal when time for negotiations heats up in a year or so. What it means is that Alvarez won’t have any say in where he ends up, so don’t think he’s ducking anybody. He’s willing to fight anybody, anytime.
“If all goes well, I will finish out my contract, and it’s not going to be up to me,” he says. “What I can control right now is going out these next couple of fights and trying to put on fights that people want to see—exciting fights that are going to grab people and make people want to watch me. I can’t control what goes on a year from now, because the contractual things are not in my control. I can’t make the choice to go with Bellator or go to the UFC. In a year, that choice is going to be up to either Bellator or the UFC to bid on, because that’s the way my contract is written. It’s going to be up to the highest bidder. I can’t do anything about that, and I want people to understand that. People ask me ‘Why aren’t you going to the UFC?’—they talk as if I have the choice, but I really don’t.”
Right now, he is fine with being a parallel champion with Edgar and wouldn’t want to put a crimp on that. If it came down to it, and the fight was inevitable, he says he would do it—but there are so many fights at 155 pounds in any promotion that he doesn’t see the need. However, there is one guy that he circled awhile back that still piques his interest, and that’s the current Strikeforce Lightweight Champion Gilbert Melendez.
The fight was discussed last summer as part of an open dialogue with cross-promotional fights between Strikeforce and Bellator. It didn’t materialize, but the idea stuck in the back of Alvarez’s mind.
“The only reason I think of fighting Gilbert is because I felt like I was close to getting that, and he had some sort of recognition at the time,” he says. “Gilbert was the highest ranked guy that I had the possibility to fight. So, that’s sort of what made me excited about the matchup. I was stupid to think that I could actually get it, in retrospect, but I really did think we’d be able to make that fight. I love that matchup, that style matchup. He rarely ever puts on boring fights. He takes some risks. And I like fighting guys like that, guys who fight to finish fights, not necessarily to win, but to finish. When I am out there, winning is important, but my main focus is finishing a guy. I want him to feel like he never wants to fight me again. I like fighting guys like that, who are smart about the way they do things. They aren’t stupid in their approach by just trying to please the fans, but they are just trying to finish.”
It’s all down the road for Alvarez, who is just as happy to defend that Bellator belt a few times first and let the chips fall where they may. Philly’s own is only coming into his prime, and he understands how fast that carpet can be taken out from under him in this game.
“This is a sport that’s very ‘What have you done for me lately?’” he says. “So, I’m going to keep my training up and stay excited and make this next year count. I could be worth what I am now and then shit tomorrow.”
That’s Philly blunt, right there.