Ahead of UFC 205, #ConorMcGregor was characteristically lively in his active assault on #EddieAlvarez. The featherweight champion bombarded the lightweight kingpin with insults while Alvarez, for his part, appeared to take it in stride.
A McGregor conference call is a virtual lock to contain any number of divisive, controversial, or even outright ludicrous statements, but in a space where every sentiment McGregor expresses is quick to find an echo chamber among his supporters, it’s worth examining the intent and validity of one quote in particular.
“He’s just one of those journeyman fighters”, McGregor said, “bounces around, coast to coast, gym to gym, team to team.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. As a disclaimer, it would be foolish to put undue weight behind McGregor’s words. He is a showman, and his dismissal of opponents in the past has been in sharp contrast to his measured, calculated in-cage performances. Though McGregor may purport not to think highly of Alvarez, he is likely approaching their showdown with the diligence required of a world title fight.
The word “journeyman” has become a somewhat misunderstood term in the modern sports fan’s lexicon; to be a journeyman is viewed as a failure of ability, one unable to succeed in their chosen field. This is not the case. A journeyman fighter is one who has had a consistent, fruitful career, but remains unable to challenge the elite fighters of their divisions. MMA is a sport where the vast majority of fighters will never attain any elite-level success, and to be a UFC-level journeyman places one firmly above almost all of their contemporaries. It is a remarkable achievement, worthy of adulation.
To state the obvious, Eddie Alvarez is no journeyman. He is a championship-caliber fighter competing at the very highest level of the sport, but that was not always the case. Recently, the still-developing landscape of MMA has seen the rebirth of several would-be journeymen into world champions, with many of these transformations catalyzed by a change in camp. “Gym to gym, team to team,” McGregor claimed of Alvarez. In a sense, he is correct. Though never a journeyman, Alvarez had faltered against elite opposition prior to seeking tutelage under Mark Henry, notably suffering a unanimous-decision loss against Donald Cerrone in his UFC debut.
Amid the recent wave of also-rans turned UFC champions, this has been a common occurrence. Prior to a move to #Roufusport, #TyronWoodley was a fighter with incredible athletic gifts who seemed to have reached his technical ceiling. A KO loss to Nate Marquardt and a dominant decision loss to Rory MacDonald, who thoroughly dismantled Woodley’s skillset, seemed to end talks of Tyron Woodley as a future elite welterweight. In July of 2016, when Woodley sent then-champion #RobbieLawler’s unconscious body crashing to the canvas at #UFC201, it seemed that we had underestimated his potential for growth.
Lawler himself had followed this trend, a long-time veteran of the sport with middling results at the elite levels before reinventing himself at American Top Team as a welterweight contender and eventual champion.
So too was the case for the man Alvarez defeated for the UFC lightweight championship, #RafaelDosAnjos, and his former Kings MMA stablemate, #FabricioWerdum. Starting his UFC career with a 4-4 record inside the Octagon, prior to claiming and defending the lightweight title, dos Anjos was a credentialed fighter who could be described as a journeyman. Werdum, meanwhile, had experienced immense highs during his career, but struggled with consistency before submitting #CainVelasquez in a huge upset in Mexico, winning the UFC heavyweight championship in the process. The resurgences of both men were preceded by a switch to the same camp, training under Kings MMA’s Rafael Cordeiro.
The importance of synergy between student and coach cannot be understated, and fighters who mesh effortlessly with their first set of trainers are extremely rare. Perhaps more importantly, to dismiss journeymen fighters is to ignore some of the most beautiful moments of the sport’s recent history.
By understanding how much effort and ability is required to become even a regional-level journeyman, one may come to appreciate the great difficulty of being a UFC-level journeyman. To witness a UFC journeyman ascend to championship status, on the back of his incalculable will, effort, and determination, is a truly special occurrence. That we’ve experienced so many of these moments in the last couple of years should serve not to diminish such an accomplishment, but to create a sense of wonder. All things are cyclical, and the resurgence of the also-ran will not be an indefinite trend. If Eddie Alvarez is a journeyman-turned-champion, then this statement should stand as a monument to his incredible desire for success, and a tireless dedication to his craft.
When the tides turn, and the championship level of the UFC is once more dominated by extraordinarily talented super-athletes, perhaps we will begin to long for the everyman’s underdog; a fighter who is special exactly because of their normality and the incredible heights which they reach in spite of it. After all, there’s something admirable about that. By the nature of sports, such stories are as rare as they are fleeting, and it is up to the onlooker to appreciate these moments for what they are, while they last.