Outside the Octagon is a weekly column from UFC.com editorial director Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC encyclopedia.
“I was born and raised in Kensington and I’m Irish and Puerto Rican. I think I was destined to fight.”
By way of introduction, meet Eddie Alvarez. If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with Alvarez, a longtime lightweight standout making his highly-anticipated UFC debut against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in this Saturday’s UFC 178 co-main event.
You may not be familiar with Kensington, a section of north Philadelphia that accurately can be described with the cliché “mean streets.” A search of the term “Kensington Philadelphia” will produce the following results:
Man Killed, Another Hurt in Kensington Shooting
Separate double shootings leave 1 dead, 3 hospitalized...
Homelessness is on the rise in Kensington
Top 10 Drug Corners
Philadelphia's most desperate neighborhood
“Certain parts could kind of look third world-ish,” Alvarez said, well aware that the primary goal in his hometown isn’t to get out, but to survive. Getting out? Only a select few achieve that, and the 30-year-old was one of them.
His way out? His fists. But even as a kid, Alvarez never thought fighting would get him out of Philly. He just liked to scrap, and in a Kensington basement, he learned how. He laughs about it these days, talking from the relatively luxurious setting of the Jaco Hybrid Training Center in Boca Raton, Florida, where he trains as a member of the Blackzilians squad.
“From where I started to where I am now, I couldn’t be any more spoiled as an athlete, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it because I literally started in a basement with four guys who liked to fight. To come this far and to see the sport come this far, it’s crazy to me.”
When Alvarez was beginning to fight as a professional in 2003, mixed martial arts wasn’t where it is today. Two years removed from the finale of The Ultimate Fighter, which kicked off the sport’s explosion in the United States, MMA was still the red-headed stepchild of the combat sports world. If Alvarez was going to compete with his fists in Philadelphia, boxing was probably the more lucrative option. And though he spent his share of time in the local gyms, he knew it wasn’t for him.
“I think from my experiences being in the boxing gym, it’s a different world,” he said. “It’s a different sport completely. And I think people say ‘oh, you can fight, so you can box,’ and that’s not true. To me, that’s like saying if you can play hockey you can play football as well. They’re completely different sports. If you’re successful in one, that doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in the other. I enjoy boxing, but I know my lane, and MMA is my lane and that’s where I’ll stay.”
Alvarez was in the fast lane of MMA, quickly building a reputation as an exciting and talented fighter to watch. He was also a Philly fighter, a tag that has more than a zip code attached to it. Asked what makes a Philly fighter, Alvarez doesn’t hesitate in his response.
“The honesty. We wear our heart on our sleeve. We have the grit, we do the hard work, and we’re the working class, the blue collar guy who isn’t afraid to be honest with himself and make himself vulnerable. I’m that guy. I’ll fight anyone and I need to find out. Regardless of how talented you are or what resources you have, which in Philly are usually very little, you’re willing to defy the odds and willing to work hard, put your head down, and find out if you’ve got it.”
Fans immediately gravitate to fighters like that, and to promoters, the end result is plenty of ticket sales.
“I really owe Philly and my fan support because local promoters were more interested in Eddie Alvarez the fighter who brings 500 to 800 people than they were interested in Eddie Alvarez the crazy talent,” he laughs. “They saw the money that was involved and they saw the following, and that was the reason why I was given opportunities.”
He took them all, but it wasn’t due to his quest to get a call from the big show or to line his bookcase with championship belts. This was just for fun and some pocket change while he did concrete work. So when he was making the trip to Atlantic City to fight for promotions like Ring of Combat, Reality Fighting, or Euphoria, he wasn’t carefully selecting opponents or figuring out his weight cut to give himself the best advantage over his foes; he just showed up, fought, and picked up his check.
“I didn’t fight lightweight; I fought at whatever I weighed,” he laughs. “I didn’t cut any weight, and I was a very undersized welterweight. I think I walked around at 168 and I didn’t make the cut. It was sort of a hobby for me. I was making extra money. I was doing concrete work at the time and fighting as well. Fighting for me was like what bartending would be for other people. I never really looked at this as a career. I enjoyed being competitive, and I enjoyed fighting.”
He was good at it though, and when the sport started to take off, so did Alvarez’ career, one he never even thought he’d have.
“I fell in love with it and it was paying me back tenfold so I sort of rode the wave and kept going.” Alvarez said.
After less than a handful of pro fights, Alvarez, who was managing himself, got a call offering him a deal that would pay him five figures per fight, a sizable fee at the time. He walked upstairs after hanging up and spoke to his wife Jamie.
“Hey,” Alvarez said. “I’m not doing concrete work anymore. I think it’s about time we start taking this serious.”
He’s never looked back, gaining worldwide acclaim, big wins over the likes of Derrick Noble, Aaron Riley, Joachim Hansen, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Toby Imada, Katsunori Kikuno, Josh Neer, Roger Huerta, Pat Curran, Shinya Aoki, Michael Chandler, and Patricky Freire, while also earning the title of “best fighter not signed to the UFC.” In August, that changed when the 30-year-old got the UFC deal that begins with the Cerrone fight. Those salad days in Philly are long gone, but he hasn’t lost that hunger associated with the fighters who come from there.
“I have a saying on my phone, it says ‘success is never owned, it’s just rented, and the rent is due every single day,’” Alvarez said. “Regardless of how successful I ever am, it’s only a byproduct of what I do every day, and if I stop doing that, it will slip from my grip. I understand that, I believe that, and that’s a reality to me because I’ve been there in my career. That keeps me on my toes, it keeps me waking up early in the morning and going to bed late at night, just thinking about how I can beat these guys in front of me. That keeps me hungry. I’m not number one yet, so I’m gonna be uneasy until I am, and I’ll probably still be uneasy and make different goals when that time does come.”