A North Philly wild card rides the Mixed Martial Arts wave.
“It was kind of just a hobby,” says Alvarez. “It turned into something I loved and a career.”
After that he was signed with the promotion ProElite for a while. The company had a broadcasting deal with CBS and Showtime, and Alvarez was scheduled to fight crowdpleaser Nick Diaz on Nov. 8 when the company suddenly filed for bankruptcy and folded. Bellator Fighting Championship, the new MMA fight promotion—which began airing lightweight tournaments on ESPN Deportes last week—immediately swooped up Alvarez.
Alvarez does a celebratory back flip off the top of the Octagon cage in which he just fought Britain’s Greg Loughran. The Mixed Martial Arts emissary emerged victorious during the first round of the Bellator competition, which took place last Friday night in Hollywood, Fla.
The win didn’t come easy. Early on in the fight it looked as if Alvarez was about to succumb to his ghostly British opponent. At one point, Alvarez, ever the aggressor, was intercepted on his way inside by a solid Loughran counter punch. The crowd let out a collective gasp when Alvarez fell to one knee and appeared dazed. For a moment, his fans back home in North Philly were scared—phone calls from the 215 flooded Alvarez’s phone.
But he came back from the verge of sleep and went for a double leg and eventually slammed Loughran to the mat. Alvarez then slithered an arm around his opponent’s neck and tightened a guillotine choke. The fight was over. The hometown hero stole the victory.
It’s an impressive win considering it was Alvarez’s first fight since suffering an injury caused in a loss on New Year’s Eve to wiry Japanese grappler Shinya Aoki. It was only his second career loss, but it was costly. Aoki managed to trap Alvarez’s leg and crank his knee joint like a twist-off bottle cap. Alvarez felt his knee crunch a few times before tapping out. His time off for rehab and training did wonders.
In preparation for a fight Alvarez trains nearly seven days a week: conditioning, grappling, muay thai and game planning. His diet becomes a Spartan menu he doesn’t particularly enjoy so that he can make weight. He is nearly vegetarian. Meat can take too much energy to digest, he says—energy he needs to train.
On a Thursday night in Fishtown, Alvarez is at the Fight Factory putting in work with a contingent of about eight other fighters in the small gym. The brick walls are painted white, and the place is spare save for the necessary equipment.
“In bigger camps there are a lot of jealous egos,” says Alvarez. “All we care about is getting better.”
Tonight they drill takedowns and ground work. Whether Alvarez is practicing a takedown or doing live grappling, it’s apparent the man can generate an improbable amount of force for his size. Alvarez’s eyes go cold as he demonstrates several variations on a series of strikes coming after a change in stance. Then he nods and says, “It’s all off that one switch. Good shit.”
Outside of the ring, Alvarez comes off entirely too affable to be the bruiser who finishes 70 percent of his fights by KO or TKO. He’s a happily married man with two kids and supportive parents who still live in Kensington. He works hard to maintain a balance between family, a close group of friends and a demanding work schedule. A normal guy.
If you ask Alvarez, he’d probably tell you that he has everything that he ever wanted. But many wonder why such a talented fighter isn’t signed with the UFC. It seems a good fit. He’s electrifying in the ring and charismatic outside of it, so Alvarez could be a major draw there. The UFC practically constitutes a monopoly.
Unlike boxing where there are many big promotions for fighters to sign with, in MMA there is the UFC and then a field of upstarts and smaller organizations. Alvarez’s decision to stay in the lesser-known camp puzzles fans throughout the Mixed Martial Arts blogosphere who question why Alvarez hasn’t moved on to the big stage.
His new boss agrees with the fame and fortune part, but there’s no way he’s going to let Alvarez go to a different camp.
“The one thing about Eddie Alvarez is: He has not yet received the nationwide television exposure here in the U.S. that is an absolute, absolute necessary element to creating a superstar,” says Bjorn Rebney, CEO of Bellator Fighting Championship, the new MMA fight promotion that signed Alvarez last November.
From a promotional standpoint, Rebney thinks Alvarez has the story, the looks, the charisma and the skills to cross over into the mainstream.
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.