A North Philly wild card rides the Mixed Martial Arts wave.
A rough neighborhood is often enough to produce tough individuals, but Kensington isn’t your typical bad area; it’s steeped in fighting tradition with boxing gyms peppered throughout the community: Kensington Ramblers, Front Street Gym and Harrowgate.
Fighting influences were also exerted in Alvarez’s Puerto Rican household. His grandfather was a boxer who made it to the Pan American games, and his father, Louis Alvarez, also had lessons to impart on the sweet science. He made sure his son knew how to defend himself, and how to throw a proper punch. He supplied him with boxing gloves, a punching bag and equipment to work out with.
“I always found myself having fun when we did stuff like that at my house,” says Alvarez. “My dad was a huge inspiration to me as far as fighting.”
Bill Hunter was Alvarez’s first wrestling coach and a police officer working the 25th District at the time. He kept an eye on Alvarez when he was in the neighborhood. Hunter describes Alvarez as “a perfect gentleman” who largely kept himself out of trouble, a kid who was street-smart and street-tough, but also very intelligent. Hunter says that Alvarez never shied away from confrontation, and he excelled at sports, participating in everything from track to baseball, football and wrestling.
Alvarez entered the martial arts scene in the late ’90s through a basement door. During his senior year of high school he met Stephen Haigh, an art student at community college who was competing in MMA on the side. At the time, Haigh was training at the Philadelphia Sambo (a Russian hybrid martial art) Academy. When the gym closed, Haigh bought the mats for cheap, and set up a training facility in his uncle’s basement.
He had 12 guys preparing for fights out of the small space when Alvarez showed up. Haigh admits that back then it felt more like an underground fight club than a legitimate school.
Alvarez, a pure wrestler at the time, mucked around a bit and liked it, but shortly after he graduated from high school he had to find a job. He fell into the rhythm of a normal work life, and Haigh didn’t hear from him for months.
But Alvarez’s love of fighting and his natural skill created the itch to compete, so he got back in touch with Haigh, who’d begun teaching classes at Body Arts. With only eight months of formal training, Alvarez made his pro debut in Atlantic City with the Ring of Combat promotion. He would go on to carry his self-professed undefeated record in unsanctioned fights over into sanctioned fighting.
It seems fast, but in those days MMA was only beginning to evolve as a legitimate sport, and the boxing commissions were just beginning to get involved. There was no pro/amateur divide because there was no amateur circuit.
“You just went pro,” says Alvarez. “There was no other option if you weren’t pro.”
In his first fight, Alvarez knocked his opponent out cold in the first round. That’s when it hit him: “You know what? I’m pretty good at this, and I could probably make some money doing it.”
The neighborhood brawler quickly amassed a perfect 10-0 record.
Alvarez didn’t have a hard time booking fights. He was a promoter’s dream, an electric fighter who brought a crowd by virtue of his regional ties.
“A big part of that was the fans, and my friends, the support from Philly coming to my fights. I not only did well performing for promoters, but they knew I brought a lot of people. In promoters’ eyes, that means money,” he says.
These days when he fights in the area, he brings anywhere from 700 to 1,000 rowdy Philadelphians behind him. His fans sport Eddie Alvarez T-shirts and root for their hometown kid.
After three years in the game Alvarez was offered a contract with the Bodog Fight promotion.
The body odor permeating the confined South Philly arena runs about as deep as the 700 people packed inside. The floor is sticky. Many in the crowd are drunk. On this July evening, they’ve come from near and far with a common goal: to witness someone “get knocked the fuck out,” as one fan puts it, during a night of mixed-martial-arts cage fighting.