Ask Eddie Alvarez how quickly the tables can turn in mixed martial arts.
Three years ago, Alvarez appeared in control of his bout with Shinya Aoki at K-1 "Dynamite" 2008, tossing his opponent over his hip and gliding smoothly into mount early in round one. The American held his dominant position for only a moment, however, as Aoki executed a hip escape and wrapped up Alvarez’s leg. Though the Pennsylvanian tried gamely to roll out of Aoki’s inverted heel hook, the Japanese submission ace eventually slapped on the clamps and torqued Alvarez’s knee, quickly forcing the future Bellator champion to submit.
Tonight, Alvarez will finally receive his rematch with “Tobikan Judan,” as he meets Aoki in the main event of Bellator 66 at the I-X Center in Cleveland. Also featuring the middleweight and welterweight tournament semifinals, the main draw airs on MTV2 and Epix. “I've been asking for this fight for about three years. Now I finally have my chance, and I'm just ready to go out there and take advantage of it,” Alvarez recently told Sherdog.com “I think I'm a much better submission artist than I was the last time me and Aoki fought. I think I have a lot more tools on the ground now. I also just think that I'm a better all around fighter than I was three years ago. I've been able to grow leaps and bounds.”
Alvarez rattled off seven consecutive victories following his defeat to Aoki, winning Bellator’s inaugural lightweight tournament in 2009 and defending his belt successfully against Pat Curran one year ago.
Most recently, however, Alvarez was upset by Season 5 tournament winner Michael Chandler, who snatched away Alvarez’s title with a fourth-round rear-naked choke in “Fight of the Year” nominee at Bellator 58 this past November.
“I made a couple of small mistakes in my fight with Michael Chandler, and I paid for them. That’s just the way things go sometimes. You have to fight the perfect fight every time,” said Alvarez. “I think I went into the fight with Chandler with too many expectations of how the fight would go, instead of just going in there and reacting and fighting on instinct like I normally do. I had too many expectations and the fight didn't go the way I had planned in my head.”
Despite suffering his third career setback in his last in-cage appearance, Alvarez says he will enter the cage on Friday night with his confidence riding high.
“I know I can compete with the best lightweights in the world, and I was still questioning that when I fought Aoki the first time. I think that when you believe in yourself it really reflects on how you compete, and I have that now,” said Alvarez. “It's really important to get a hold of a guy ranked in the top five and to prove myself against a guy that's in the upper echelon of the division like Aoki. That's the only way for me to get back to the top of the division and the only way to get fans to tune in.”
Known for his world-class ground game, Aoki has finished 19 of his 30 career victims by submission. Though the Japanese fighter has dedicated himself to improving his standup as of late, Alvarez believes Aoki will nevertheless look to drag him to the mat.
“I know Aoki has been focusing on his muay Thai lately, but I think he's just doing enough so he can hang in there on the feet. He's always going to go back to his bread and butter. At the end of the day, no matter how much striking he does, his goal is always going to be to get me to the ground,” said Alvarez. “For me, knocking my opponent out is pretty much the goal in every fight. If I get in a shootout with most guys, I'm going to put most guys away. That's always been my strength and that will always be an advantage for me.”
Regardless of what Aoki brings to the table, Alvarez says he will not repeat the same mistake he made against Chandler last year. Searching for vindication, the former champion is eager to avenge his defeat and even the score by stopping Aoki in their upcoming rematch.
“I feel like I owe Aoki one, so I can't just win a decision. He finished me, so I would love nothing more than to return the favor. I definitely feel like I owe him one for the way he got me, so I'm going to come after him and try to finish him in the same manner,” said Alvarez. “I'm going into this fight with zero expectations. I don't know how it's going to go down, I just know my hand is going to be raised when it's said and done.”