In listening to interviews and conference calls with Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez this week, the same theme kept coming up over and over again: asking why he wasn't fighting somewhere else, almost in a tone of pity.
But why should anyone pity someone regarded as one of the best 155-pounders in the world, someone who admits he makes six figures per fight and is the crown jewel in the world's largest non-Zuffa promotion?
Because he doesn't have the magic three letters on his resume: U-F-C. Because he doesn't compete against names like Edgar, Penn, Pettis, Melendez, Maynard or Guida. Because the mainstream fan still doesn't know what Bellator is and therefore, don't see Alvarez at the level of a star.
Yet, the Philadelphia native seems just fine with his situation and in all honesty, it's a pretty good one to be in if you really think about it.
"With MTV2, every fighter is exposed to millions of people and they won't have to take a monster pay cut to do so," Alvarez told reporters Wednesday during a media conference call. "A lot of UFC fighters have to pay to get that exposure and get it taken out of their check. I didn't have to take that cut and I'm still exposed to millions of fans and viewers."
Now before you start comparing ratings and scoffing, he's accurate in the sense he's not taking a pay cut. He hasn't revealed how much he's making (Wrestling Observer scribe Dave Meltzer speculated it's roughly $100k per fight), which is definitely more than the base pay of a lot of UFC talent. Don't believe me? Look at the salaries (and yes, I understand all about undisclosed bonuses).
However, the argument can be made about exposure and what that can do for sponsorship and other opportunities. Just last week, a peak of 2.4 million viewers stopped into UFC Fight Night, while 150,000 viewed Bellator—rough considering both events ran back-to-back, not concurrently.
Granted, Bellator has no competition this Saturday for Alvarez' championship tilt with Pat Curran, but advertisers love eyeballs on hot products in general. That's a tough evaluation right now with Alvarez. Saturday's number will tell an interesting story.
"When I speak to Bjorn (Rebney, Bellator CEO) when we have a big win, we sit down and strategize. We're willing to co-promote. That's a lot of advantages for a fighter that most fighters can't get in the UFC or Strikeforce. It allowed me to go to DREAM and go in Strikeforce if I was able to and fight the better guys. Bjorn was ready and willing to do that for me and pay me what I felt I deserved. To me, that was a better choice," Alvarez said on Wednesday's call.
Bellator employs the same setup as Strikeforce does (did?) with fighters being able to compete in other places. It's something that can drive fans crazy as the UFC has done well by enforcing that the Octagon is where the big boys play and that fighting outside it is fruitless and futile.
When Japan was running hot, that wasn't the case. Now, North America is the only place fighters can hope to make money and get seen, as the overseas market for major headache-free organizations seems to be at its end.
Alvarez said he wants to fight three or five times this year, which seems realistic and promising for Bellator if they can find good opponents and decent timeframes. Any more than three, however, would seem difficult given their schedule.
So then, where else would Alvarez compete? Shark Fights? Maximum Fighting Championships? Take a risk with FEG in Japan if they resume? Doubtful on all counts. Unless Japan's MMA scene suddenly revives itself, Bellator is the place you'll see E.A. in 2011—a nice win for them.
One Of A Kind
For those familiar with pro wrestling, you've heard of Sting, the only true major American star to never compete in a WWE ring. Whether it was the timing or just a lack of desire, Steve Borden just never wanted to cross the line and is living out his wrestling days for the much smaller and less successful TNA promotion.
Earlier this year, online speculation ran wild that Sting was going to take a shot with WWE and compete at this year's Wrestlemania against The Undertaker in a dream match. There was never any real truth to it, but people were excited—even for someone that hasn't competed on the main stage since WCW was bought.
Alvarez is unique in that people know who he is and want to see him in big fights, even though he's not in the UFC. Joe Rogan mentions him on broadcasts. As you can tell, Alvarez gets asked about moving all the time.
Demand drives prices up, especially if it's something that the public wants to see. With the UFC/Strikeforce merger as eventual as winter in New England, E.A. can continue to make a case for himself as the best non-Zuffa fighter in the world. That creates interest, buzz and allows him to increase his brand as the man everyone wants.
That also means potentially more money...but also more risk.
Losing to perceived weaker competition is the biggest potential drawback, as well as beating guys that people see as inferior. Ask any athlete who wants to be at the top of their game—they want to test themselves against guys as good or better than they are. Alvarez is no different.
Alvarez and Rebney have an interesting relationship in that they are as much business partners as promoter and fighter. Alvarez is Rebney's biggest draw, which is why he's paid so much. Rebney has shown they he will go out and find talent (Roger Huerta for example) to fill in the gaps between tournament winners.
"They're growing consistently and so am I. I'd like to help them build their brand as well as build my brand at the same time," Alvarez said Wednesday.
Rebney said Wednesday that he'll never abandon the tourney format as it makes them unique from the UFC. That's smart, but I'd like to see the tourney be used to get younger talent over as support for more traditional big matches.
Right now, it's a mix but the more Rebney can obtain name value free agents and grow young talent quickly, the better the chance Alvarez will be there long-term as he'll have plenty of worthy foes to defend his gold against.
But as we know, the fight game is unpredictable with the Zuffa purchase of Strikeforce as Exhibit A. Alvarez is only 27 years old and has plenty of years ahead, but a smaller amount competing at such a high level. The law of averages is still in Alvarez's favor...for now.
As he enters the cage Saturday at Mohegan Sun, Eddie Alvarez is in the driver's seat. He just needs to decide whether he wants to try off-roading sooner than later.
Josh Nason is a New England-based freelance MMA journalist that contributes to FIGHT! Magazine and WrestlingObserver.com. He frequently does radio/podcast appearances and asks for your "like" for ESPN Boston to cover MMA. Follow him on Twitter and check out his coverage of Bellator 39 this weekend for BleacherReport.com/MMA.