By the time Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler began their rematch for the lightweight championship on Saturday night, the main card broadcast of Bellator 106 was already three hours, six minutes old.
Just shy of a half hour later it was over, with Alvarez reclaiming the title from Chandler via wild split decision (47-48, 48-47 x 2) in a fight so good it gave the rest of us a reason to forget everything else that had happened during those previous 186 minutes.
Prior to the main event, nobody had given us much to remember them by, anyway.
For most of the night, Bellator MMA failed to get the home run it needed from the most anticipated event in its history. A trio of tepid decision finishes—including Joe Riggs’ sloppy FightMaster finale victory as well as unexpected losses from Pat Curran and Muhammed Lawal—sucked the air out of our sails, making an already long show seem even longer.
The crowd in Long Beach, Calif. had been apathetic throughout and the television audience bombarded by a glut of ads for video games, motor oil and underwhelming upcoming Bellator shows.
We all applauded last week when, in the wake of Tito Ortiz’s untimely neck injury, the company pulled this event off pay-per-view and put it on free television. We knew all along though that Bellator had essentially emptied its roster to put together this stacked card, and that planning any kind of suitable encore would be difficult.
All the while—as one fight after another turned tiresome—there in the background were Ortiz and erstwhile opponent Quinton Jackson, sitting close enough to each other in the crowd that they both could be framed neatly on our widescreen TVs. For most of the night, it appeared Jackson was staring studiously at his phone.
For Alvarez and Chandler, it all seemed to set an impossible stage. To wash the stale smell out of Bellator 106 their fight would likely have to equal the action of their instant classic first meeting from Nov., 2011, when Chandler launched himself to prominence by taking Alvarez’s title via fourth-round rear-naked choke.
Surely on this night where most everything else broke bad for Bellator, Alvarez and Chandler would fall short of expectations, right?
If the second bout between Bellator’s two best lightweights (let’s be honest, two best fighters) didn’t improve on the first, it at least came very close.
Chandler's and Alvarez's stellar, back-and-forth battle unfolded at a tremendous pace, one that for a time appeared it might be too much for the defending champion. Chandler threatened Alvarez with a rear-naked choke near the end of the first round, but by the start of the third he was fading and his left eye was on the verge of swelling shut.
Just when it seemed like he might wilt, though, Chandler rebounded to dominate Alvarez in the fourth.
He opened the action in that round with a flying knee and then controlled the rest of the frame on the ground. Five minutes later, Alvarez was busted up too, but as the final seconds of the fight ticked away with Chandler struggling to keep him grounded on the mat, Alvarez looked directly into the camera and gave a thumbs up.
“It takes two people to put a fight on like that,” Alvarez said in the cage after the decision was announced. “It ain’t all in my hands, it’s up to Mike, too. We did it together. Another fight of the year.”
It was fitting that in the end both Chandler and Alvarez wowed us at an event when most of the rest of Bellator foundered. It also seemed like sweet justice that Alvarez himself triumphed, in his first bout back in the cage after nearly 13 months of legal wrangling between the fighter and his promoter.
On this night, as the hour grew late and the audience grew bored, Bellator needed a savior, and of course it was Eddie Alvarez. It had to be.
The implications of his victory make an already rocky relationship with Bellator all the more awkward. Alvarez spent much of this year locked in a bitter contract dispute with the company for which he is now 155-pound champion.
According to reports, the settlement the two sides reached in August would’ve made him a free agent if he’d lost this fight to Chandler. With the victory and the title back around his waist, he’ll have at least one more bout in Bellator before he again can test the open market.
That next fight will almost certainly be against Chandler, as a third clash between the two would give Bellator the encore it badly needs.
Alvarez-Chandler III even shapes up as a fight the company could potentially sell on PPV.
Not that there’s any way that could go wrong.