A North Philly wild card rides the Mixed Martial Arts wave.
Eddie Alvarez loves to beat the shit out of people—he’s been doing it most of his life. Much like Philly’s beloved Rocky Balboa, the 25-year- old relied heavily on his strong fighting spirit and quick hands to overcome a lack of size—at 5-foot-8-inches tall, he’s built like a Ninja Turtle—while defending his honor and life during the numerous street fights he encountered growing up in Kensington.
“I’m not that big a person so people aren’t that afraid of me. So people would mess with someone like me,” he says.
By the time Alvarez was 18, he was rumbling on a regular basis. In those days, street fights were a popular pastime in Philadelphia’s roughest areas—Alvarez shrugs it off as something that guys just “liked to do”—and brawls spontaneously erupted throughout the city. Armed with a weekly paycheck and his brother’s ID, Alvarez spent much of his free time hanging out in bars with friends who didn’t believe in peaceful conflict resolution. As a result, he fought almost every weekend for the next two years—and he was winning.
Six years later, Alvarez still battles every weekend, but the forum has moved from the streets of Philly to metal Octagon cages all over the world.
Alvarez, aka Silent Assassin, is now the No. 2 ranked lightweight in the burgeoning world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
Training out of the Philadelphia Fight Factory—with an impressive record of 16-2—the prizefighter is a long way from his scrappy, street-fighting days in the hood: He no longer spends his Friday nights pummeling his way through impromptu melees, with nothing but the will to win. These days he prepares for fights diligently and professionally, and spends his weekends taking on highly skilled opponents for ESPN Bellator’s new lightweight tournament.
Alvarez has become a well-rounded fighter—both an excellent wrestler and a dangerous striker. He has a flair for the knockout, and often begins his fight with finesse: moving lightly on his feet and picking his shots. But he’s still willing to brawl, and has developed a style that resembles a one-man blitzkrieg; a rapid concentrated attack.
His accomplishments come at a time when extreme fighting is finally gaining mainstream respect. After decades of being touted as a barbaric sport, Mixed Martial Arts has enjoyed a surge of popularity over the last five years. Once known as the inhumane spectacle that John McCain referred to as human cockfighting, extreme fighting has gone from barbarous game to legitimate combat sport on the same plane as boxing.
The stigma is eroding and endorsement money is flowing. Naturally, when money’s at issue, all things illegal and hated quickly become legal and beloved. Subscriber fees for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view events raked in more than $220 million in 2006.
Following suit, the mainstream media has descended on the sport and its new breed of lucrative gladiator. Various mixed martial artists can be found mugging on the covers of magazines and on TV.
While this sort of exposure has been limited to fighters signed to the sport’s largest promoter, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), cutting-edge fighters of relatively unknown camps, like Alvarez, are also reaping the benefits of this money-making industry.
Locally, the sport is taking off as well. In February, Pennsylvania became one of 39 states to legalize extreme fighting and allow professional Mixed Martial Arts contests to be sanctioned. The state will host up to five MMA events per month, and anticipates generating roughly $80,000 per year in revenue for the athletic commission.
Alvarez is not your typical participant in the MMA. Studying martial arts disciplines can be expensive, and students typically come from middle class families. Many of the fighters have college degrees, like UFC lightweight champion BJ Penn, who comes from a prominent real estate family in Hawaii. Another lightweight, Kenny Florian, has a degree in communications from Boston College.
Nevertheless, Alvarez, a blue-collar guy whose formal training began in a basement, is building a viable career on the strength of some incredible performances and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality.
“I came from a pretty shitty neighborhood,” he says. “A pretty rough neighborhood. I fought. I never had much. So I wouldn’t be your typical MMA fighter who came from a well-off family and just decided to do whatever.”
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.