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If you read this column on a week-to-week basis, you're hip to the fact that I consider mixed martial arts, charmingly so, freakish and strange. Many of this sport's biggest names and drawing cards, the Conor McGregor and even a retired Chael Sonnen for instance, have embraced this concept and promoted themselves in such sensationalist ways. On the other hand, they keep up kayfabe and never truly, fully explicate that MMA on the greatest level is really just bread and circuses. Imagine my thrill this week, when UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez called a spade a spade.
This week in an interview with ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto, the newly-minted 155-pound king was adamant that he didn't so much care who the UFC considered his potential first challenger, so much as he was interested in the Aug. 20 outcome of the Nate Diaz-Conor McGregor rematch at UFC 202.
“It's a wait-and-see type thing right now,” Alvarez told Okamoto. “Let's wait and see what Aug. 20 brings and then let's make a big fight after that.”
And then, Alvarez -- a nearly 13-year MMA veteran and a co-author of some of the best fights in this sport's history, a truly historic action fighter -- found a way to win my heart even more profoundly.
“Those are the guys I want to get my hands on,” Alvarez continued. “I've said it from the very beginning: Fighting the best guys in the world doesn't pay as good as the circus. I want to join the circus. I'm trying to get that circus money.”
As I said, right to my heart.
Last week, I waxed poetic about another newly crowned UFC champion, Tyron Woodley, doing his best to finagle a first title defense against either Georges St. Pierre or Nick Diaz instead of accepting legitimate top challenger Stephen Thompson. I applauded his efforts, even if ultimately they prove futile. At this stage in the MMA game, especially with a new ownership group imminently taking over the UFC, it behooves any fighter, especially a current champion, to politick for the biggest fights and most money that they can. Yes, MMA is a legitimate sport, but it nonetheless maintains a degree of spectacle. The biggest fights -- that is to say, the most lucrative fights – aren't always about the best fighting the best or what makes “sense” in terms of rankings. It is a circus.
Alvarez, however, is demonstrating an entirely different level of cagefighting wokeness. The minute he finally rose to the undisputed top of the lightweight division, he wasn't content to just lobby for a big money fight in the Octagon, he actually pulled back the curtain on MMA's subconscious secret: this sport is the modern carnival.
Like Woodley publicly sewering Thompson and trying to drum up hype for a more lucrative fight, Alvarez is deliberately eschewing the righteous potential challengers to the UFC's lightweight title, the winner of November's Rafael dos Anjos-Tony Ferguson bout or perpetual challenger-in-waiting Khabib Nurmagomedov. He wants the winner of the UFC 202 main event and frankly, who can blame him?
Even before Alvarez took the strap, fighters, media and fans alike were on board for Rafael dos Anjos versus Conor McGregor until the Brazilian's ankle injury forced him out of the bout and in turn, made Nate Diaz significantly wealthier. If the megalomaniacal McGregor is able to avenge his loss to Diaz at UFC 202, it would hardly be surprising to see him publicly lobby to fight Alvarez for the lightweight strap; it's not exactly a secret that the “Notorious” one is not keen to return to the weight class he reigns in. There's a massive difference between Alvarez defending against dos Anjos, Ferguson or Nurmagomedov compared to a showdown with McGregor or even a victorious Diaz. The former options are likely Fox Sports 1 main events and the latter are potential major pay-per-views. Eddie Alvarez is trying to make a buck, which is no surprise, because for his entire career the Kensington, Pa., native has been a shrewd businessman.
What is so unique about Alvarez's place in lightweight lore is that he has constructed an unquestionably great record while only recently entering the UFC. Since turning pro in 2003, Alvarez has always figured out how to get paid. He started as a ticket seller in the northeast, first for Lou Neglia's Ring of Combat and then Miguel Iturrate's Euphoria Mix Fighting Championships. Even as a then-welterweight prospect, Alvarez was able to drum up revenue in his neck of the woods via local popularity and his thrilling, knockout-oriented fight style, before recognizing a major opportunity. When Bodog gambling entrepreneur Calvin Ayre decided to try his hand at a competitive MMA product in 2006, Alvarez cashed in big, even while suffering his first career loss: in addition to being paid above MMA market value, his April 2007 BodogFight title defeat against Nick Thompson disabused him of the idea that he was a natural 170-pounder, paving the way for Alvarez's entry into the lightweight division in 2008.
Even when BodogFight's vain structure collapsed and even as the UFC continued to grow its global influence and popularity, Alvarez continued to march to the beat of his own drum: EliteXC, K-1, Dream, whoever would pay him a solid high-five or low-six figures to do his thing without the constraints of a UFC contract. An obviously savvy opportunist, it only made sense for Alvarez to cash in on his Puerto Rican heritage when Bellator MMA started up in 2009, with the promotion originally gunning for a Hispanic-oriented MMA product. Alvarez served as the company's first poster boy, won their lightweight title and made thrilling history with rival Michael Chandler by contesting the company's 155-pound championship twice, losing and then regaining that title in a pair of classic bouts. After he recaptured the title from Chandler, Alvarez took the first opportunity to slip out of his Bellator deal and get to the UFC, the increasingly appealing option, even at the expense of legal brouhaha. He didn't care; at every step of his career, Alvarez has known where he needed to be to earn the biggest purse.
And so in August 2014, new Bellator boss Scott Coker granted Alvarez his unconditional release from the promotion. By September, Alvarez was in the Octagon, getting leg kicked to a decision loss by Donald Cerrone at UFC 178. While Cerrone went on to be destroyed by then-champ Rafael dos Anjos, Alvarez eked out decisions in his next two fights over Gilbert Melendez and Anthony Pettis. With 23-0 Khabib Nurmagomedov's title candidacy stagnated by his two-year absence due to a spate of injuries, Alvarez snuck into a title fight with dos Anjos this past July and knocked his lights out in the first round. Winning the UFC 155-pound title after over a decade in the sport, Alvarez had finally checked just about every box you could possibly check at a lightweight. Somehow, even without facing the UFC's stable of elite fighters for most of his career, Alvarez found a way to construct one of the best résumés in the history of his division and then on top of that, as if it was no big deal, he strolled into the promotion and its grabbed lightweight title, so casually.
Eddie Alvarez has forged one of the most unique paths to both historical greatness and serious greenbacks that MMA has ever seen. At every turn, he has played the most apt promotional suitor for the most money and now after almost 13 years in the game, he is the alpha in the most talented division in the entire sport. When typically taciturn folks like Tyron Woodley win UFC titles and suddenly become shot callers, it only stands to reason that a career-long dollar grabber like Eddie Alvarez is going to seriously campaign on his own behalf.
And so, in spite of a plurality of worthy and accomplished challengers to Alvarez's title, bring it on. If Nate Diaz reigns supreme over Conor McGregor once more, or even if the Irishman evens the score, let Alvarez have the fight he wants. The UFC, actually, this entire sport, is at its best when it can produce major events and make mainstream money. One of the prickly facts of Zuffa's UFC ownership is that other than B.J. Penn, no 155-pounder has really drawn money, despite the fact that the MMA populace has unanimously agreed, several years running, that the lightweight division is this sport's best weight class. Contrary to wisdom from 15 years ago, this is not a function of size; if a 155-pound division was categorical promotional poison, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, nevermind a whole slew of boxing legends, wouldn't even be on the map.
A century of commercialized prizefighting tells us that people don't necessarily care about size or nationality or even entertainment value -- again, see Floyd Mayweather -- they want a spectacle. People want fights that feel epic, a cultural happening, even if that hype is ephemeral and fleeting. Regardless of who wins UFC 202's main event, that particular fighter is going to be the hottest thing the UFC has at this moment in time, with the likes of Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey indisposed. If the UFC can turn that into the biggest draw in lightweight history, good. This division deserves it and frankly, so does its current champion, however long he reigns.
Eddie Alvarez is just about the best example you can find of a fighter who did it his own way and got paid the entire time. We are in an MMA world where Dan Henderson, going on 46 years old with three wins in his last nine fights, is about to fight a UFC championship. More than that, even the crustiest, most pessimistic fight fans are on board for that fight, knowing full well that there's at least a half dozen 185-pounders who deserve that title crack more than “Hendo”.
If Alvarez beat the winner of Diaz-McGregor 2, his next title defense is that much bigger having beat a legitimate star and having drawn some real money. If he's dethroned and his bid to get paid turns out to be a pyrrhic victory, the likes of dos Anjos, Ferguson and Nurmagomedov will benefit by getting to fight an even bigger star for the lightweight title. There is potential major benefit and no real downside for the UFC and isn't that what good business is about?
I think so. More importantly, Eddie Alvarez thinks so and he's spent the last 13 years getting paid handsomely in a sport where that's often a pipe dream, even for great fighters. Who am I to argue with his plan?