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June 29, 2016

Eddie Alvarez's journey towards becoming Philly's first UFC champ nearly complete

MMA UFC

Eddie Alvarez is from Philly. And he fights.

But for years, outside forces left Alvarez unable to prove he's the best in the world at what he does, what he’s always done. 

On July 7th, however, that’s going to change.

The North Catholic grad will try to become the first MMA fighter from Philadelphia to earn the title of champion on the sports’ biggest stage when he faces Rafael Dos Anjous for the UFC lightweight title in Las Vegas.

For a city steeped in fighting tradition — from Joe Frazier to Bernard Hopkins and, yes, even Rocky — it’s somewhat surprising that Philly has had to wait until 2016 to see one of its own contend for a UFC title. But for Alvarez, it’s been more than worth the wait.

“It’s incredible,” Alvarez said. “I started this sport as a hobby. I said, ‘Hey, I’m good at fighting, let me try it as a hobby.’ I never said, ‘I’m going to start fighting and become the best in the world at it.’”

At 32-years old, it would appear on the surface that Alvarez is a career fighter who has finally worked his way up the rankings and into position for his first title bout. But that couldn’t be any further from the truth. He spent the majority of his career fighting under a different promotion (Bellator) and once he was able to get out from under that contract and into UFC less than two years ago, the 5-foot-9, 155-pounder was already considered a top-10 lightweight. In his first bout, Alvarez found himself facing Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone as part of the co-main event at UFC 178.

Alvarez lost a unanimous decision to Cerrone, his only loss since making the move to UFC, but remained in contention to face big-name opponents, largely due to the 25-3 professional record he’d compiled over the years, back when he was widely regarded as the best fighter outside of Dana White’s promotion.

And in his two fights since, a pair of split-decision wins over Gilbert Melendez and Anthony Pettis, Alvarez has proven his success prior to joining the UFC was no fluke. 

“My original mindset when I started was that no one could beat me in a fight," he said. "I was 18 years old. You couldn’t convince me that I could lose a fight. You just couldn’t. I’d laugh at you. And then I went 10-0 in my first 10 fights. I said, ‘I told you so.’ In my head, I’m like, ‘I told you no one could f**k with me. I’m the baddest dude ever.’ 

"But after a while, losing, it taught me humility. It taught me a bunch of things. And it brought me to here [having a chance at the title]. I learned a lot along the way, became a better person along the way. 

"It’s been a long journey.” 

'I met a couple guys in a basement in Frankford.'

Alvarez wrestled in high school at since-shut-down North Catholic. But -- even when you put his extremely competitive nature aside -- he's always been searching for something more. It's not just the quality that led him to finding MMA, but also the one that's made him one of the best in the world.

It's why the former Bellator champ can't bear to sit still. It's partly about being the best. More so, it's about being able to discover what it means to be the best. 

"I don't know," Alvarez said. "I've been like that -- my dad said since I was young, and I see it now in my son, Eddie. [My dad] is like, 'You always just wanted to know. You f**king wanted to know. I couldn't say something without you asking me 10 questions about it. You had a thirst for wanting to know.' And I think as an adult, I'm the same way. I want to know how far I can go. I want to know what something else looks like, something new."

Growing up in Kensington, however, that kind of attitude was rare among the kids in his neighborhood. It's not something he saw often and not a characteristic Alvarez adopted from his friends or family. It's just the way he's always been.

"It's something that was unique from a really young age," he added. "I was just kind of different from the time I was really young. When I write a book finally, it will start off like this. It will start off with an eight-year-old kid packing a backpack full of books and running from G and Westmoreland all the way to Richmond and Venango. Running. To go to school. Getting changed into my Catholic school uniform -- because I'm sweaty -- in an alley and then walking into school. I'm eight.

"And I didn't realize at eight that this was weird and not normal, but at eight, this is what I was doing. ... I was just doing s**t different from the time I was really young. Like, s**t that would make people go, 'What the f**k? You run to  school? It's three miles and you're running through the most terrible neighborhood on Philadelphia."

But like most things Alvarez does, his daily dash to St. George's grade school, one that took him down the same streets as the iconic training scene in Rocky, served a purpose. 

In this case -- and most cases with someone this competitive -- that purpose was to gain an edge.

"I was on the track team," Alvarez said with a laugh. "And I thought, no one else is running to school, so if I run to school, I'll win because they're not [doing it]. It was a simple thought process, but it's a formula that I've taken since I was eight and applied it to almost everything in my life. I just want to find out what the other guys aren't doing, and do more of it."

I was just hanging out with wrong crew of dudes, fighting every weekend. Down in Old City, outside of McFadden’s and always just getting in fights. Stupid s**t.

That desire to think outside the box, especially in hindsight, has served Alvarez well over the years, especially in the early stages of his fighting career. 

Otherwise, he may never have found the sport at all. It was hiding in a place you may not expect.

“I met a couple guys in a basement in Frankford," said Alvarez, when asked about his introduction to the world of mixed martial arts. "I went down their basement, and there were four guys in there [including Alvarez's first trainer Steven Haigh]. I said, ‘Alright, what are we doing? Where do you guys fight at?’ They said that they couldn’t fight here in Philly because [MMA] wasn’t sanctioned so they were going to grappling and MMA tournaments down South or in the Midwest. But it wasn’t even known, the sport wasn’t really anything. No one knew about MMA."

The story could have ended there -- it nearly did -- and it already would've had a happier ending than most that start with "I met a couple guys in a basement in Frankford." But, as we know now, it was only the beginning.

"Then I went back to wrestling for my high school," he continued. "But when I left, and didn’t go to college for wrestling, I was just hanging out with wrong crew of dudes, fighting every weekend. Down in Old City, outside of McFadden’s and always just getting in fights. Stupid s**t. Sooner or later I was like, 'I’ve got to go see those guys that I met in that basement. I need to see if they’re still training.'"

When Alvarez went back, not only did he find that they were still training, but they'd expanded to an actual team. And they were no longer working out of a basement, but the Fight Factory team was training out of Angel Cartagena's Body Arts Gym on North Second Street, which usually specialized in Muay Thai. 

Alvarez, who booked his first professional fight after just eight months of formal training, still keeps in contact with a bunch of those guys, including UFC flyweight and Drexel alum Zach Makovsky.

For the last eight years, however, Alvarez has done a majority of his training alongside New Jersey native and former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. Just two days after Alvarez faces Dos Anjos, Edgar will take on Jose Aldo for the interim featherweight title at UFC 200.

"For us to both win belts, at any point in our careers, would be cool," Alvarez said. "To do it in the same year would be even cooler. But to do it on the same weekend is just crazy. To win dual titles in one weekend, both against Brazilians, [so we're] representing America in Vegas is pretty damn cool. 

"It'll be a special moment, that's for sure."

'My peace is chaos.'

Just over a year ago, Alvarez was in a much different place. Literally.

Following the loss to Cerrone in his UFC debut, he decided to make a change, one that he hoped would put him in a better place. After years training in Boca Raton, Fla., over a thousand miles from his wife and kids, Alvarez returned home to Philadelphia.

The distance allowed the fighter to remain laser focused on his next opponent. But Alvarez learned that he was more than just a fighter; he was also a father and husband, causing the distance between he and his family to actually become more of a distraction.

"It's ironic," he said. "There's a saying that in order for peace, we need war. And for a fighter, in order to go to war, you need peace (in your life). So it's hard to go to war when there's turmoil in your life, when things aren't good, because you're distracted. Coming back home -- being with my family and being around the people I feel comfortable with, my friends -- I'm at peace here. So it's easy to step in the cage and go to war when everything's peaceful in the rest of my life."

She didn't know me long and she jumped on this dude's back and started punching him in the face. And I thought to myself, I'm going to marry this girl.

Does that mean life in Northeast Philly with his family has been easy? Far from it. The father of four is constantly trying to balance two co-dependent forces in his life: work and family. 

"My toughest battle is always balancing how much time and effort I put into fighting vs. how much time and effort I put into my family," Alvarez continued. "That's my toughest battle. That's the biggest thing I struggle with on a daily basis. Are my wife and kids getting enough attention? And is my career getting enough attention? And when I give one too much, the other one suffers. So it's always a tug of war. And they both need each other. I need to fight to provide for them, and I need them, period."

Helping him with this balancing act is his wife, Jamie, who he met in after-hours club on Aramingo Avenue when they were both just 15-years old. 

"It was like, cocaine and fight central," he recalled with a nostalgic chuckle. "But me and her, we never did drugs or anything. We just liked to dance."

And it didn't take long for him to realize that she was one. All he had to do was see her fight. Not because of how she fought, but because of why.

"I didn't know her long, but I got in a fight at Deveraux playground," Alvarez said. "I was beating the s**t out of some dude and his brother kicked me in the head, in the face, and split my eye open. Out of all my friends there from high school and everyone, no one jumped in except for my wife -- well, my girlfriend at the time. She didn't know me long and she jumped on this dude's back and started punching him in the face. And I thought to myself, I'm going to marry this girl."

In the 16 years since that fight -- and eight since they've got married -- Jamie, a St. Hubert's grad, has continued to have her husband's back. 

Still, with four kids, a husky named Niko and a cat named Max, life at the Alvarez residence has to be a busy one. But if that's the case, it's not impacting Alvarez once he steps in the octagon. The results speak for themselves.

"Look, for me, I fight for a living, so my peace is chaos," Alvarez said. "I live in chaos. That's where I find peace. I have trouble relaxing. ... I don't like myself when I'm standing still. I eat like s**t; my mind goes bad. I like to be moving and feel like I'm growing somehow, or seeing something new."

Bringing home a UFC title? Yeah, that qualifies as something new.

'It's never been about the belt.'

In order for Alvarez to reach the pinnacle of a sport he's spent half his life working at -- more if you count the playground fights he often found himself in as a kid -- he'll have to overcome some pretty big odds. Currently, he's a +325 underdog to beat reigning champ Rafael Dos Anjos (24-7).

But -- just like when he an eight-year-old running to school in the morning or a teenager training in a Frankford basement -- Alvarez has a plan.

Fight.

"Dos Anjos is a guy who, if you let him gain momentum, I wouldn't say he's a bully, but he works off momentum," Alvarez said when asked about his gameplan against the Brazilian. "But if you return against a guy like that and let him know that he's not the boss and you're the boss, they don't do well. 

It's never been about the belt. ... The belt is for the fans; for the people. ... The real goods of it, the real value that we gain as fighters from this, is what we learn along the way. That's the real value."

"Whenever he's put in bad situations, I don't think he bounces back well or deals with the adversity well. He's very good at being dominant. And when he is dominant, it looks incredible. But if you look at his history and the fights he's been in, whenever he's presented a problem, especially against guys like myself ... guys who are going to pressure him and wrestle him and put him in bad situations, he doesn't fight well. He never has."

In essence, Alvarez believes that in a fight between two physically even opponents -- their measurables are almost identical -- his mental toughness will give him the edge.

"I rarely, almost never, go into that cage without getting into a fight," he added. "And by fight, I mean a back and forth battle. A battle of wills. I'm looking forward to getting into that with him because that's where I win fights. That's where I know I win all my fights. No one can beat me at that."

Should he upset Dos Anjos next Thursday night, Alvarez has no intentions of slowing down. How could he?

"You can't see the belt as an end means," Alvarez said, after pointing to Philly boxer Bernard Hopkins as an example of someone who reached the top and never slowed down. "That's why when people ask me, 'How is going to feel to win the belt?' and I don't have this extraordinary answer for them, it's because it's not about the belt. It's never been about the belt. It's been about growth -- in myself as an athlete, in myself as a human, and in myself as a whole, my spirit -- and growing every day, not just about a belt. 

"The belt is for the fans; for the people. That is just a small byproduct of what I've done. The real goods of it, the real value that we gain as fighters from this, is what we learn along the way. That's the real value."

After a decade and a half of learning, perhaps his time has arrived. 


Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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