Success hasn’t come easily for Eddie Alvarez.
In many ways, the UFC’s lightweight champion and his potential next opponent, featherweight champion Conor McGregor, are polar opposites.
A thirteen-year veteran of the sport, Alvarez has remained one of the world’s top lightweights since 2008. Despite a 28-4 record with two of those losses avenged, the Philadelphian had never quite seemed to garner the respect his résumé demanded. Perhaps as a result of fighting outside of the UFC, the prospect of the former Bellator lightweight champion being an elite fighter was dismissed by all but the most hardcore of fans, by whom he has always been heaped with lofty praise.
So strong is the dichotomy between his broader reception and his standing among MMA’s cognoscenti, that Alvarez took to calling himself the "Underground King”; a fighter’s fighter, a fan’s fighter. Eddie is a perpetual hard worker with an exceptional skillset and exciting style.
Alvarez had fought professionally for eleven years before entering the UFC and going 2-1, scraping together two consecutive split decision victories before laying waste to Rafael dos Anjos for the lightweight championship.
By comparison, Conor McGregor has had it relatively easy. A long string of stoppages saw him enter the UFC as one of the most recognized and touted free agents in recent years. “I thought he was a heavyweight”, Dana White would famously say of the Irish contingent’s requests to see McGregor in the UFC. Just five years into his professional career, he made his promotional debut, destroying Marcus Brimage in just over a minute before completely dominating Max Holloway to a unanimous decision four months later, despite sustaining a serious ACL tear early in the bout.
McGregor’s third fight in the UFC was a headlining bout in July of 2014, against Diego Brandão, in his home county of Dublin, Ireland. The UFC had returned to Ireland for the first time since 2009, almost entirely on the back of McGregor’s tremendous appeal and electrifying performances. He would stop Brandão in the first round that night, before ringing off another four consecutive stoppages, including a 13-second knockout of the greatest featherweight in MMA history, José Aldo.
McGregor would move to lightweight for his next bout, a superfight with the man Alvarez would later dethrone for the 155lb title, Rafael dos Anjos. Dos Anjos pulled out of that bout due to injury, and the Irishman would instead face lightweight contender, Nate Diaz in a two-part series of welterweight bouts that were not entirely dissimilar to Alvarez’s own great rivalry with former Bellator lightweight champion, Michael Chandler.
Chandler submitted Alvarez with a rear naked choke to secure the Bellator title, as Diaz submitted McGregor at UFC 196. Stylistically difficult opponents for the two current UFC champions, both would use defeat as opportunities for reinvention, claiming narrow decision wins in rematches with their respective foes through technical adjustment. After besting Diaz in his most recent fight, McGregor declared “the King is back." For Alvarez and his drubbing of dos Anjos, the "Underground King” simply reminded us that he never left.
Despite the differences in their ascensions, common ground between the two men is most easily found in their tactical acumen and unorthodox implementation of a core facet of boxing: counter punching.
The two champions are both known for their differing approaches to pressure fighting. McGregor is a southpaw boxer who utilizes incredible pace, confidence in the pocket and unusual kicking to press opponents to the fence, where he unloads with combinations on cornered foes.
Alvarez is an orthodox boxer with more traditional boxing principles underpinning his game. Crisp head movement and incredible angular awareness empower punching combinations to the head and body, along with one of the trademarks of hiss game, his leaping right hand along a diagonal axis, which he calls “the Dart”. His diverse arsenal of weapons contains many strikes which can be thrown both leading and on the counter, serving as excellent rhythm-disrupting tools.
Though wildly different to McGregor’s in execution, Eddie’s game is similarly focused on forward pressure and combination striking. Natural pressuring instinct belies what is the true bedrock of each man’s game; aggressive counter punching. Though rarely credited as counter punchers, both fighters have had the most success in their careers while on the counter, and have had the most difficulty while being denied the opportunity to react offensively in exchanges.
Alvarez, especially, is a fighter whose offense is notably less effective when unable to strike reactively. In his UFC debut against now-welterweight Donald Cerrone, Alvarez, a small lightweight, found himself greatly troubled by the size and length of “Cowboy," who relied on outside low kicks, step-in knees and round kicks to the body to wear the smaller man down over time. Eddie was forced to leap in and out of range with punches, and frequently found himself falling short on his combinations.
His two biggest moments of the fight came in the first and third rounds, both as a result of countering Cerrone’s step-in knees with rear hand punches. In the first, he stunned Cerrone on the counter before following up with rapid salvos of right uppercuts and hooks in the clinch. In the third round, the moment seemed to repeat itself, but Cerrone sensed the impending follow up strikes and disengaged from the clinch quickly.
From there, Donald walked Alvarez down for the remainder of the round, brutalizing him with kicks and knees which left Eddie visibly hurt and almost unable to walk. He barely survived the round and took a clear unanimous decision loss.
In his following bouts against Gilbert Melendez and Anthony Pettis, Alvarez showed strategic and tactical adjustments to his game, notching close decision wins over two elite fighters through commitment to gameplanning. Eddie is a slow starter, something that Bellator commentator, Jimmy Smith frequently noted, as well as the fact that he is dropped in almost every fight before coming back to win.
A former, long-time member of the Blackzilians under head coach Henri Hooft, the preternaturally aggressive forward motion of the Dutchman’s preferred striking style put emphasis on attacking first above all else, and seemed to hinder Alvarez’s success as a striker. Before his bout with Anthony Pettis, Alvarez left the Blackzilians to seek the tutelage of one of MMA’s finest boxing coaches, Mark Henry. Under Henry, tactical acumen and counter punching ability have been brought to the forefront of his game once again.
Benching his pathologically aggressive combination striking in favor of a more measured approach, Alvarez made the best possible use of his skillset against a stylistically difficult opponent in “Showtime” Pettis, the former champion.
Eddie ruthlessly implemented the forward movement which Rafael dos Anjos had used to dismantle the then-champion, utilizing improved defensive savvy and parrying to take away many of Pettis’ weapons. Pressuring "Showtime" to the fence constantly, he relied on his understated offensive wrestling and tight footwork to deny the Milwaukee native the open space, which is fundamental to his dangerous and opportunistic kickboxing game. Throwing body kicks with far more regularity than in previous bouts, Alvarez refused to concede even kicking distance to one of the most dangerous kickers in the UFC.
Having barely bested the man that dos Anjos had thoroughly dominated to secure the lightweight crown, the former Bellator lightweight ruler was a substantial underdog against the Brazilian striking machine, himself a master of the art of pressure. Dos Anjos is an incredibly quick starter who presses forward immediately and never relents for the duration of the bout.
For a notably slow starter, it seemed too difficult a style to overcome. Alvarez, however, did not fight like an underdog. In the most intelligent, measured and technically dazzling performance of his career, he left absolutely no doubt that he was the better man on that night.
From the opening bell, Alvarez was prepared for dos Anjos’ pressure in a way which no one had proven capable of since the Brazilian claimed the lightweight belt. Hammering low kicks to the lead leg, he did not try to match the Thai stylist strike for strike, nor did he try to out-pressure the superior pressure fighter. Instead, he gradually measured dos Anjos, picking up on his tendencies, and met the champion’s violent offensive whirlwind with grace, speed and precision.
Without hesitance, the Philadelphia native placed himself in the eye of the storm, deftly evading the southpaw’s thudding punches and firing back with his counter right. Though he's always been one of the sport’s finest counter punchers, under Mark Henry's tutelage, we finally saw the results of an Eddie Alvarez who was willing to commit to that skillset.
"Talking to coach Mark Henry, he said it's very important that Eddie react quickly to any left kick or left hand thrown by Rafael dos Anjos. They want Eddie to counter with two or three punches at a time.” – Brian Stann
Dos Anjos pawed with jabs early and often in order to measure distance, and Alvarez quickly picked up on this tendency. After the midway point of the round, dos Anjos had forced his foe back to the cage. Probing repeatedly with his lead right hand, the champion ate a clean counter, somewhere between a hook and an uppercut. Aggressively seeking the outside angle, Alvarez covered up as a highkick and a right jab intercepted his circular movement. He again attempted the rear counter, but was foiled by a swift forearm block. Dos Anjos would extend his lead hand yet again to measure the distance, and this would be the last time Alvarez would need to see it.
The "Underground King" had come to understand his opponent so well in their few brief exchanges, that he was able to time the counter to the exact moment that the champion pulled back his elbow in preparation for the pawing lead. Having read the Brazilian perfectly, he did not flee the fence. Unbeknownst to dos Anjos, by the time he had extended his probing jab, Alvarez’s decisive answer was already in flight. Stepping to the outside of dos Anjos' right foot, he turned all of his weight into a picture-perfect right hook counter, badly staggering the champion. He would not recover.
Following up with repeated flurries of high-low combinations along the fence, referee Herb Dean mercifully called a stop to the contest. Eddie Alvarez had done it. The razor-sharp counter puncher had decimated the seemingly unstoppable lightweight champion in a matter of minutes. After thirteen years, the "Underground King" was now undisputed, and uncontested.
"From a personal point of view, my own preference would be a lightweight title bout against reigning champion Eddie Alvarez next.” – John Kavanagh
Pressure fighting with emphasis on counter punching is an exceptionally rare style. Pressure fighters, by nature, tend to enjoy initiating engagements on their own terms. Counter punchers generally prefer to react to offence. To marry these mindsets and blur the lines between the two styles requires a set of mental qualities which very few fighters possess. It is, in many ways, a style which defies reason; standing constantly on the precipice of defeat, a certain level of madness is required to bait the fangs of a cornered animal.
In a sport where the narrowest of margins separate success and failure, aggressive counter fighters accept a level of risk which is uncommonly high. There are many types of confidence in combat sports, and many types of instinct. The variants which lend a fighter a natural predilection for such a style are a unique blend. As a result, two such fighters facing off against each other at the elite level is almost unheard of. In the reigning lightweight and featherweight champions, this is what we are promised.
The battle between arguably the two best counter punchers in the UFC could come down to how each implements their auxiliary tools to create opportunities for the counter.
McGregor is a massive featherweight, and would likely be the larger man against the undersized lightweight champion. Through maximizing his five-inch reach advantage, he could create similar issues for the lightweight champion to those posed by Cerrone. The Irishman's straight kicks to the legs and body would serve to stifle Alvarez’s ability to create momentum and control the tempo of the bout. These kicks are difficult to catch and even more difficult to score takedowns off of.
By wearing down the lightweight champion's legs and body, keeping him on the end of his punches, McGregor can remove the threat of the smaller man's leaping counter strikes and force him to fight more proactively. An Alvarez who is forced into predictability is a far less potent fighter. From there, he will be more susceptible to McGregor's crippling southpaw counter left.
Eddie Alvarez, however, is no man’s fool. With Mark Henry in his corner, he is likely to have surface-level answers for all of McGregor’s pugilistic questions. McGregor has shown susceptibility to reactive takedowns in the past; by timing his aggressive left hand and ducking underneath it, a specialty of the 2016 incarnation of Alvarez, opponents have been able to find opportunities to plant the featherweight on the mat. Though a competent grappler himself, McGregor is not the wrestler the lightweight champion is, nor the ground player. The same hair-trigger timing and reflexive instincts which make Alvarez an elite counter fighter also make him a high level reactive wrestler.
For Alvarez, presenting the threat of the takedown will open up his deadly right hand. For McGregor, causing hesitation with his attritive offense will create opportunities for his destructive left.
The lead straight has been a staple of Eddie Alvarez’s fights for many years now; Eddie himself has used the lead right to great effect, while opponents such as Michael Chandler have used it as a potent weapon against him. In a southpaw vs orthodox matchup, this effect is even more pronounced as the fighters’ lead hands often mitigate each other.
Against southpaws such as dos Anjos, Alvarez has shown great preference for the outside angle. By stepping to the outside of his opponent’s lead foot as he punches, he gives his right hand a straight trajectory to a southpaw opponent’s head, opening up the right cross as both a lead and a counter. McGregor, it must be stated, is no average southpaw.
At UFC 194, José Aldo, one of the sport’s finest orthodox strikers, marched towards McGregor and feinted with his left before stepping to the outside of the Irishman’s lead foot. With the angular advantage, Aldo committed to a right hand. In an instant, the greatest featherweight in MMA’s short history found himself crashing to the mat. Allowing Aldo the angle he desired, McGregor simply launched his left counter directly across the axis of Aldo’s body, landing destructively on the charging champion’s chin and rendering him unconscious.
Though they will skirmish on the outskirts of their skillsets to create advantages, the duel between the UFC’s two kings of counter punching could end in an instant. When Alvarez steps to the outside of McGregor’s lead foot and launches into his darting right hand, McGregor’s counter left will move gleefully to intercept it. Should the two decide to exchange crosses, the titanic collision, and the one who bears the brunt of it, will be decided by fractions of a second, single degrees of angular dominance, and the conditions which the two men have created to ensure that their strike is the first to land, and the last.
For Eddie Alvarez and Conor McGregor, their entire lives as martial artists could culminate in a single, decisive exchange. Both have shown throughout their careers that they are willing to stand defiantly on the edge of the abyss in search of resounding triumph, the difference between victory and defeat is often a matter of milliseconds. For men such as these, this is not something new, nor something to fear. It’s simply life and death; nothing more, and nothing less.