The UFC, for the most part, is not an accurate representation of mixed martial arts. The same goes for this Saturday's UFC 205 in New York.
To casual fans, the MMA they pay attention to may seem like a glitzy and glamorous, albeit violent, affair.
The events are like UFC 202, taking place in front of packed arenas on the always-exciting Las Vegas strip. The competitors are people such as Conor McGregor, who drives a car more than $100,000 in the afternoon, knocks out some bloke at night and cashes an eight-figure check the next morning. The promotion is seemingly on the up-and-up, no different from the NBA or MLB, always keeping fighters' interests at heart and watching their backs when things get hairy.
That’s not the reality of MMA.
The reality of MMA is the vast majority of bouts take place in front of almost completely empty venues. Promoters pay fighters next to nothing, and MMA athletes are little more than bipedal cars in a human demolition derby for fans. They won't walk any red carpets or become patriotic figures, and they'll be lucky if they can make enough money to support a spouse and children.
That's where Eddie Alvarez came from, and that's what makes his sudden rise to the headlining bout of the biggest event in MMA history so special.
The Underground King
Alvarez was just 20 years old when he won his first MMA title, the aptly named Reality Fighting Welterweight Championship. The fight took place in the unremarkable Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in front of a crowd of less than 3,000 against 1-0 fighter Chris Schlesinger.
Still, that was a big step up for Alvarez at the time. His first two legal fights took place in RexPlex, a now-closed venue in Elizabeth, New Jersey, whose most illustrious event was either a youth basketball game or dinosaur-themed miniature golf. The few hundred before that took place in alleyways and parking lots.
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"I had already been in maybe 100 street fights before I ever got in a ring or a cage," he told Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting. "At that time, when I was 18 or 19 years old, there was no way that someone could convince me that someone could beat me in a fight...I wouldn't even believe it."
His street-tested scrappiness translated into the cage (or ring, depending on the promotion). His solid wrestling base complemented his natural punching power, and after three years, seven stoppage wins and zero defeats, he was one of the hottest welterweights in the United States.
That success, for whatever reason, didn't attract the attention of the UFC. It did, however, catch the eye of BodogFight, a globetrotting promotion run by internet betting site Bodog.
In short order, Alvarez became one of its staple fighters, competing four times in four countries in locations ranging from the Ice Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to the beaches of Playa Tambor, Costa Rica. The stronger competition and increased visibility saw him hit the radar of diehard fans, and his gritty, savage style made him a quick favorite.
Owning a modicum of name value, Alvarez finally received a steady gig from a notable promotion in 2008: Japan's Dream FC. While his run was short, it was a crucial chapter in his career that saw him go from internet darling to legitimate high-level lightweight with wins over respected veterans such as Joachim Hansen and Tatsuya Kawajiri.
Those wins didn't make him into a star, but they gave him the credibility to get a long-term deal from an ambitious new promotion by the name of Bellator FC.
Blessings in Disguise
In 2009, Bellator FC was a different promotion from today's Bellator MMA. The Bjorn Rebney-led organization looked to take the sport in a new direction and approached its title picture the same way the NFL or NBA did: tournaments.
It was a risky approach from both a logistical and an entertainment perspective, and it required any long-term signee to demonstrate both competitive legitimacy and a fan-friendly style.
Alvarez fit that role like a glove.
He debuted at Bellator's inaugural event, Bellator 1, competing in the tournament to determine the promotion's first lightweight champion. He defeated imported journeyman Greg Loughran with little trouble and was strapped up as Bellator lightweight champion just two fights later in June 2009.
As Bellator gained momentum as a promotion, Alvarez gained recognition from the larger MMA world. As he continued his winning ways against increasingly stiff competition, Bellator had its first top-10-caliber fighter.
While Alvarez was known for his pure punching power on the regional and international circuit, he became a legitimate all-around talent in Bellator. Training with superior gyms, Alvarez returned more to his wrestling base, evolving his clinch game and refining his takedown skills. His striking took a new form as well, as he stopped wildly blitzing his opponents and began utilizing technical boxing skills to out-land and finish his competition.
These improvements saw him begin his Bellator career with six consecutive wins, with five coming via stoppage. His dominance, however, wouldn't last forever.
In November 2011, Alvarez lost the lightweight title to hot upstart Michael Chandler via submission. The defeat wasn't especially damaging for Alvarez's brand—the fight was highly competitive and concluded with a quick ending sequence—but the outcome left him without a clear place in the promotion, given its shallow roster and commitment to producing stars through its tournament system.
Complicating matters further, Bellator was in a state of transition as a whole. Gearing up for a move from MTV2 to Spike TV, it was actively retooling its roster, emphasizing homegrown talent and fan favorites while phasing out veterans who didn't offer strong returns on its investment.
Bellator was seemingly showing Alvarez the door after he dropped the title, as he avenged his past loss to Japanese standout Shinya Aoki in a one-off fight and competed against Patricky Freire in a non-tournament bout. Because of that, it came as little surprise when news broke that Alvarez had agreed to terms with the UFC in 2012.
What did come as a surprise was Bellator's invoking its right to match the UFC's offer and refusing to let him leave the company. This sparked an ugly legal battle that saw Bellator become one of MMA's greatest villains. After months of courtroom wrangling (and a yearlong layoff), the two parties settled, with Alvarez returning at Bellator 106 in November 2013 for a rematch with Chandler.
While Alvarez functionally lost his battle with Bellator, he had spent months at the front of the MMA news cycle. Without throwing a single punch, he went from being a favorite of diehards to one of the most talked-about fighters in the sport. When the day of his return approached, MMA fans were clamoring to see what this so-called Underground King had to offer.
At Bellator 106, he showed he had everything they could possibly want.
In the cage-fighting equivalent of a war of attrition, Alvarez and Chandler spent 25 minutes punching pieces off each other. It was a performance that flashed both the grittiness of the man who had torn up New Jersey's bingo halls and the skillful veteran who had clawed his way to elite status in MMA's deepest division. Just as importantly, it was a performance that earned Alvarez the Bellator lightweight title for a second time.
The Champion of the World
Despite winning the title in dramatic fashion at Bellator 106, Alvarez saw his position in the company remain the same. His contract prevented him from leaving. There were no exciting fights. The pay wasn't good. And, eventually, he was staring at another fight with Chandler.
The rubber match was booked for Bellator 120, and Alvarez was once again put into a high-risk, low-reward matchup...until he wasn't. A concussion during training forced him to withdraw from the fight and go on the shelf briefly.
That short time, however, saw wholesale changes in the promotion. Led by former Strikeforce founder and CEO Scott Coker, the new leadership structure nixed the transition to pay-per-view and pruned the roster. In August 2014, Bellator unconditionally released Alvarez, who signed with the UFC just 12 hours later.
His first UFC fight, however, did not go especially well. Facing Donald Cerrone on the much-maligned UFC 178 in September 2014, Alvarez struggled to deal with the long reach of Cowboy. While the fight was reasonably competitive, the now-former champ of Bellator came out on the wrong end of a clean-cut 29-28 decision.
While Alvarez was fairly lost after dropping the title in Bellator, the UFC had a clear plan for him. It had amassed a collection of former indy darlings over the years and, as a result, was capable of putting together the dream matches hardcore fans had clamored for in the past.
The UFC pitted Alvarez against former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez in June 2015 and then former WEC champion Anthony Pettis in January, and he defeated both via narrow split decision. Already holding wins over One FC poster boy Aoki and Chandler, the new face of Bellator, Alvarez's victories over Melendez and Pettis gave him a unique but strong case for a title shot.
Opportunity knocked at International Fight Week leading into UFC 200 on July 9. With the UFC putting on three cards in as many nights, it looked to include as many of its champions as possible. Reigning lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos was set to open the action, and Alvarez was the best contender available.
When the pair faced off at UFC Fight Night 90 in July, Alvarez posted a performance straight out of 2006. After roughly three minutes of back-and-forth action, he landed a picture perfect right hook on the champ. Dos Anjos remained upright, but Alvarez followed it up with a flurry that lasted nearly a full minute. Referee Herb Dean would wave the fight off at 3:49 of Round 1.
Just like that, Alvarez went from Underground King to King of the World. With his hand held high and a new belt around his waist, Alvarez was finally in a position to make the fight game work for him.
Alvarez walked out of UFC Fight Night 90 as the UFC lightweight champion and, arguably, the single greatest lightweight fighter in MMA history. Unfortunately, he didn't exit the MGM Grand Garden Arena a rich man.
At the post-fight presser (via Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole), Alvarez discussed the brutal nature of MMA:
We don’t make a ton of money fighting, especially if you’re not fighting in the UFC. I’d made some investments and I had to sell them, just so I could stay afloat when I was going through that court case. I was really dwindling down toward nothing. My mind was really getting bitter toward MMA. MMA asks everything of you, every inch of your soul. It wants everything, but sometimes it gives back nothing. It tells you when it wants to give back. Every day, I put my heart and soul into it.
It’s tough and I dealt with a lot. But I’m a pretty positive guy and I kept my eye at the little light at the end of the tunnel.
Winning a title in the UFC, more often than not, means little in terms of being able to retire comfortably. More than a few former UFC champions have walked away from the sport with broken bodies and a empty bank accounts. Alvarez didn't want to join that lot, and so he wisely angled for the biggest payday possible.
"I've been taking on the top guys in the division, so I might ask [UFC President] Dana White to please give me an easy fight against Conor McGregor," he told reporters. "I deserve that. I've been fighting the best guys, so I deserve a gimme fight. I would welcome that."
While he likely knows McGregor is no easy out, it was a brilliant move by the champion that set him up for the fight and the payday of his life at Saturday's UFC 205. It's long overdue too. It took Alvarez 13 years to get a crack at UFC gold and 11 to get his shot on the sport's biggest stage.
The lights will be brighter than anything Alvarez has experienced to this point, but that's not a bad thing. He's risen to every challenge MMA has put in front of him, and satisfying the biggest audience in the sport's history will likely wind up being his latest triumph.