“I think this might just be his ceiling.”
I recoiled as if struck, but my friend seemed convinced that there was truth in his sentiment.
“Do you even know who that is? What do you really know about him?,” I replied.
I was touchy, as I was about so many things at that point in my life. When it came to the then-upcoming rematch between #EddieAlvarez and #MichaelChandler, I was emotionally invested, perhaps more than I should have been. I didn’t want to see Eddie lose again, but I wasn’t confident that he would win. No one who watched Michael Chandler submit Eddie Alvarez for the #Bellator lightweight championship in their brutal 2011 war could be truly confident of that.
On paper, Chandler was simply a bad stylistic matchup for the "Underground King.” Chandler was a lightning-quick power puncher with imposing wrestling, solid cardio, immense durability, and unwavering grit. Alvarez had his moments in their original slobberknocker, but it wasn’t enough. More importantly, their first duel showed that if Alvarez wanted to regain the Bellator lightweight championship, he needed to change. If his approach remained the same, so too would the result.
“Freak athletes, man. It’s a new wave. All of our favorite guys will go down like this eventually. The sport can’t stay in stasis. The new replace the old.”
That isn’t what’s happening here. What a stupid thing to say.
I wanted to react, but I left these words unspoken. There was something that deeply perturbed me about the way my friend spoke; maybe it was his scaling down of trends to predict the results of individual contests, maybe it was his ignorance, or maybe I found it audacious that anyone would count the "Underground King" out of a fight.
A few nights later, I sat down with an ill-advised fourth (or fifth, or sixth) cup of coffee in the early hours of a cold morning in Ireland. Emanuel Newton had just beaten Muhammed “#KingMo” Lawal again, and I didn’t really care. I was only watching for one reason.
I hardly remember anything about that day, but I remember the fight. I remember hoping that Eddie wouldn’t let me down, and feeling a twinge of guilt. Eddie Alvarez didn’t owe me anything; win or lose, he’d give every ounce of strength in his body, as always. I knew this. Selfishly, I held onto this thought, try as I might to rid myself of it.
I remember Chandler’s speed troubling Alvarez early. Walking the challenger to the fence, Chandler’s jab was razor-sharp, and he could not be deterred from pressuring. Alvarez seemed to notice this, too. He did not attempt to stifle Chandler’s pressure, but instead embraced it, as he would do once again years later when he walked #RafaelDosAnjos into the crushing counter right which secured him the UFC lightweight championship. I remember panicking as Eddie narrowly avoided getting caught in a rear naked choke towards the end of the first round. I remember thinking that the round was Chandler’s.
Things started to change. Chandler found himself missing more and more as Alvarez’s nonchalant head movement carried him effortlessly out of the way of the champion’s strikes. Chandler could still wrestle, and he did, but Eddie was teaching him how to box. An Eddie Alvarez fight is a work of art; as normal a man as he may be to his friends and family, he always carried himself with immense grace within the confines of steel walls. I remember finding hope within the doubt, and being reaffirmed of the reasons why I believed he could win in the first place.
The second round could have gone either way. Eddie did more damage, but Chandler had the positional control. The third round could only be scored for the challenger. Alvarez made it very difficult for Chandler to be the fresher man. As the champion moved his entire body into powerful swings, Eddie casually stepped out of their path. I imagined how frustrated Chandler must have been.
The fourth round was not a good one for Alvarez. A flying knee caught him early, and he spent much of the round on his back eating heavy leather. Still, though Bellator commentator Jimmy Smith had Chandler up three rounds to one, it could have been two rounds a piece. Maybe. Just maybe.
In the fifth round, Alvarez unloaded. I expected him to leave everything in the cage, and he did. After having his back taken in the first minute of the round, Chandler didn’t seem to have much left in him to capitalize. His face was a mess, and the excruciating pace of the bout had taken its toll.
Eddie made him pay. Even in the closing stanza of this 25-minute war, Alvarez’s boxing was clean, sharp, and repeatedly found its mark. Eventually, Chandler’s back was taken in a scramble. Eddie was raining down punches. He was ruthless. Cheers rang out from the crowd.
“Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!”
Damn right, I thought to myself. I was exhilarated, but concerned. There was no way to be sure that either man had won. I waited, hardly breathing. After a few moments, it was time.
"Your third and final judge scores the fight 48-47, for the winner by split decision..."
I only remember the shaking of my hands, and the beating of my heart as I stared, wide-eyed.
"...the new, and now two-time Bellator lightweight world champion, Eddie Alvarez."
I don't have words to describe how I felt in that moment. The next few minutes are a blur, but I remember thinking back to my selfish wish. I hoped that Eddie wouldn't let me down. I had no right to place that expectation on him. He owed me nothing. Yet, he did not let me down. Our guy from the underground had won yet another fight he was supposed to lose. I couldn't help but be happy.
I spoke to my friend the next day. I asked him what he thought of the fight. The question was, admittedly, loaded; part of me wanted to rub it in his face, while another part simply wanted him to acknowledge that he had underestimated my beloved "Underground King." Truthfully, more than anything, I wanted him to be a believer, in the same way that Eddie had made me a believer, years prior. I expected him to protest any way that he could. Maybe question the decision, or insist that Chandler would win a rubber match. I waited, and he spoke.
“Eddie really is a motherf--ker, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. He is.”