When referee Herb Dean stepped in and stopped the July 7 fight between Eddie Alvarez and Rafael Dos Anjos at 3:49 of the first round, the new lightweight champion of the world was happy, but not too happy. Excited, but not too excited.
For him, 32 fights and nearly 13 years of professional combat had not just taught him to act like he had been there before, but that one win is never the ultimate destination.
“I enjoyed that belt for about three days, and then my mind already started thinking about what’s next,” Alvarez said. “It wasn’t long before I was thinking of how I can better it, what opponent’s next, and what’s the next step in my career. To get here was just one part of it. Now the real journey begins.”
It’s a journey that takes him to Madison Square Garden this Saturday night to face featherweight champion Conor McGregor. It’s a historic fight for many reasons. McGregor can become the first fighter to hold two UFC belts at the same time, Alvarez can stun the world by sending his opponent back to the featherweight division, and the pair will be headlining the UFC’s first fight in New York City and in the hallowed Garden.
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Alvarez sees it as still just a fight, though, and he’s prepared accordingly. The physical part takes place in a gym, the mental part in his quiet times. The rest is in his blood as a native of a city known for producing fighters who have a little something extra in their chest when it comes down to biting down on the mouthpiece and going to war.
I don’t need to tell Eddie Alvarez what it means to be a Philadelphia fighter, but I do have a story that illustrated it to the eyes of this New Yorker.
In 2002, Eric Harding rose from being knocked down by former light heavyweight boxing champion Antonio Tarver. As he stood, referee Bill Paige looked him in the eyes and asked if he was all right to continue. Harding, as if shocked by the question, responded immediately.
“Yeah, I’m from Philly.”
The fight continued. Harding would ultimately lose, but it didn’t matter. He repped his city well, telling me later, “The average guy on the street wouldn’t understand. To a fighter from Philadelphia, it means everything. It means pride, it means heart, it means that ‘never give up’ attitude. It’s not over till it’s over. You have to take me out or I’m gonna die right here in this ring. This is everything to a Philadelphia fighter.”
I ask Alvarez what the phrase “Philly fighter” means to him.
“It’s just that,” he said, referring to the Harding story. “We epitomize fighting. A lot of people who are in the sport of MMA are athletes, and when it comes down to a fight and dealing with adversity or dealing with being in a bad situation, the way you deal with that defines whether you’re a fighter or not. And I think there’s nobody better than the fine citizens of Philadelphia who do that, who deal with being in bad situations and understand that it’s just temporary and that, eventually, they’ll get to where they’re going. It’s just a no quit attitude.”
At 32, Alvarez’ career has been defined by never quitting, by dusting himself off after setbacks and getting right back to work. But Philly plays a role in his success, and when he left the Blackzilians team in Boca Raton to return to the City of Brotherly Love, it’s no coincidence that he scored the biggest wins of his career over Anthony Pettis and Dos Anjos and became a world champion. There was no bad blood, no animosity with his former team, just a need – for him and his family - to be home.
“I think coming home was part of the process of becoming a champion of the UFC, I truly do,” he said. “In order to go to war, you need to be at peace, and in order to have peace, you need war. The two need each other, and when I came home, I just had a better sense of peace, that my kids were where they should be, in a comfortable place with their family, enjoying the holidays as they did before I ever moved to Florida. And I think everybody had a better air to them. So coming home was an important part of it. But who’s to say? We don’t know if I’d be champion if I was still in Florida, but I think this was definitely part of the process.”
But the belt will not sit idle at home. Four months after winning it, he will face McGregor on the biggest card the UFC has ever put together, and in the capital of the world, no less. There has been plenty of talk between the headliners, but one thing Alvarez has made a point of repeating is his belief that McGregor is “an eight-minute” fighter.
So what do those first eight minutes look like?
“He (McGregor) is a tough guy in the beginning rounds of the bout,” Alvarez explains. “But at eight minutes, even if he’s dominating, he doesn’t like to fight past that and he doesn’t like to get into a fight. He likes to dominate and he’s a little bit of a frontrunner. Those eight minutes should be a bit doubtful for him. That’s how I feel those eight minutes will go, that we’re going to implant nothing but doubt inside his head constantly, and I don’t think he’ll do well in the face of that.”
Of course, that’s the neighborhood Eddie Alvarez grew up in.
“I don’t look forward to being in bad situations when I’m in a fight, but when I’m in them – because I expect to be in them if I’m taking risks and I’m in a fight – how I deal with that situation is gonna really depend on whether I keep my title or not,” he said. “And at the top level, you need to know that you’re gonna be in these situations and you need to be prepared to deal with them correctly and not wilt under pressure. I’ve had a lot of experience in being in them and being perfectly fine, understanding that situations are just temporary and you just fight through them.”