Time away has been a blessing and a curse for Alvarez
During Eddie Alvarez's nine-month contract dispute this year with his employers, Bellator MMA, there was one moment that stuck out for him.
Alvarez was driving his eight-year-old son, Ed, to school in their Kensington, Pa., neighborhood. Alvarez told his son that his mother would be picking him up that afternoon; daddy was heading over to one of the properties they owned to pull up some carpeting with Ed's uncle.
"Why, dad?" asked Ed. "You don't do the fighting no more?"
Since birth, Ed had known his father as a fighter and nothing else. As a toddler, he'd run around backstage at shows that his father headlined. Dad's office was a sweat-drenched gym and Ed had grown accustomed to the long hours his father had to spend away from the family there, training for his fights. Dad's "business trips" had taken him as far away as Japan. Now all of that seemed to be gone.
Curious about his son's question, Alvarez asked his firstborn if he liked it when his father fought.
"I don't care. Do what you want to do," Ed said with a shrug, before climbing out of their car to join his classmates. Alvarez, who'd fought professionally since 19 and had become one of the toughest top-10 lightweights in the world, was reduced to tears.
"It was unconditional, completely selfless love. I almost cried my eyes out," said Alvarez. "All the people in my life, me fighting is a big deal to them, and I don't know if they'd treat me the same if I stopped doing this. But my son couldn't care less. He wouldn't look at me any differently if I were ripping carpet out of a house. It was sort of eye-opening to have my son teach me a lesson."
When Alvarez meets Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler (12-0) for a second time this Saturday in Long Beach, Calif. (Spike, 9 p.m., ET), it will end the longest stretch he's had between fights in his decade-long career. It's a rematch that many wanted, but some believed would never happen. For a time, it seemed that Alvarez's career wouldn't resume while he remained in his prime.
Over nine years, Alvarez had strung together one of the strongest careers in his division outside of the world's leading promotion -- a true anomaly for the sport. But now he and his management felt it was time to make the leap. In late 2012, with his Bellator contract fulfilled, Alvarez fielded an offer from the rival UFC. It was what Alvarez wanted. It's what a slew of fans wanted. Yet it wasn't what the Viacom-owned Bellator wanted. Bellator had invested a lot of time, energy and money into promoting its biggest star. So, when it had the chance to match the UFC offer and keep Alvarez, Bellator did so within its contractual rights.
Whether Bellator actually matched the UFC's offer became a question for the courts. It would be a lengthy process, one where Alvarez's case wouldn't be heard until September 2014 at its earliest. Publicly, both sides postured. Privately, Alvarez and his lawyers met multiple times with Bellator CEO, Bjorn Rebney, himself an attorney, and his legal associates.
"I believe it was most frustrating when I would speak with Glenn [Robinson, Alvarez's manager] and feel pretty up and confident about certain matters, and the next day it would change in the blink of an eye," said Alvarez.
In the interim, Alvarez used the downtime to relocate his family to Florida. After losing the title to Chandler, Alvarez had spent his last two training camps with the newly formed Blackzillians at the Jaco Hybrid Training Center in Boca Raton. The trips had been a strain on his family and their finances, but produced impressive results; Alvarez knocked out his two opponents in the first round.
"We needed to make this move to Florida. This was a thing for the future that needed to happen," said Alvarez. "Although people looked at the time away from the cage and fighting as a negative, I had some [injuries] that needed healing and I also needed time just to focus on moving my life here to Florida. That took a lot of time and I don't think I would have been able to train for a fight and make this move all at once."
In Philadelphia, Alvarez, his wife, and their three boys moved out of their home, so he could renovate and rent it out. Alvarez did the same with two other investment properties, one of which they sold outright.
"I was doing a lot of the housework on my own to save money," said Alvarez. "I really didn't have the money to hire contractors to do this and do that. It was very time-consuming."
Once in Florida, Alvarez went back to work full-time. He found a comparable training partner in Michael Johnson, the runner-up of The Ultimate Fighter 12.
"I have my eye out for guys that are accountable, responsible and put in the extra hours -- not just what's required of them," Alvarez said. "Mike's one of those guys and I'm definitely one of those guys. I'm always looking for guys like that. That's the real secret to success. "
In August, Alvarez cornered Johnson against seasoned veteran and hometown favorite Joe Lauzon at UFC Fight Night 28 in Boston. Johnson managed to pull off the upset.
"We called it 'Operation Silence Boston.' We kept saying it all through the training camp," said Alvarez. "Mike's going to get booed, he'd be told he'd get submitted. The only thing that was important was that Mike didn't believe any of it."
Alvarez gives nothing but high marks for the Blackzillians, a patchwork team of fighters and coaches who have left other camps in search of something better.
"If you use our resources at our gym, use everyone that's available, there's no reason why you should lose a fight," he said. "If you lose a fight, and you're a Blackzillian, I feel it's because you didn't lose your resources properly."
It's been an adjustment for Alvarez and his family. He took great pride in his Kensington roots. He said his three boys spent their first weeks in Florida skyping with their friends back home. But slowly they drifted away from the computer screen and into the sunny weather. There have been fishing trips and beach excursions. On Halloween, the boys -- who went as Peter Pan, Tonto and a zombie soldier -- didn't need to wear jackets over their costumes.
"I love where I'm from. I love my block. I love the people," said Alvarez. "It's just that my goals and ambitions -- I feel this is going to put me in the best position to achieve them, to be the No. 1 in the world and to stay No. 1 in the world."
As Alvarez and his family settled into their new surroundings, the goal became to get him back in the cage as quickly as possible. When the two parties resumed their places at the negotiating table, it was clear that Alvarez's and Rebney's once symbiotic relationship had crumbled. Alvarez said that only after the reportedly hotheaded Rebney was extricated from the talks, was any progress made.
[Bellator President] Tim Danaher is the reason this deal got done," said Alvarez. "I tell that to everyone that asks."
The nine-month litigation also created a rarely seen by-product in the sport. Alvarez's offers -- both from the UFC and Bellator -- were made public through the court filings. Promotions work hard to keep their contracts with fighters secret simply to keep their asking prices down. While others wouldn't be so keen to have their private affairs laid out for the world to see and scrutinize, Alvarez wasn't upset about it.
"What really, sincerely made me happy is that when [the offers] came out, I know of three or four lightweights that have gotten raises immediately," said Alvarez. "That made me know that whatever I was going through was not in vain because changes were already happening for the positive. When any fighter gets a raise, it's better for all of us."
Alvarez's revised deal with Bellator, which was leaked practically before the ink even dried, is a unique one. He rematches Chandler and if he loses, he's free to go on his way. If he wins, he owes Bellator one more fight -- the rubber match against Chandler. Win or lose, Alvarez can then exit the promotion. Under the non-disclosure terms of his agreement, Alvarez won't confirm this extraordinary deal, but there are other ways of corroborating such things in the loose-lipped MMA industry.
"Yes, I feel like it's a better deal," is all Alvarez would say. "I'm happy with the deal I signed."
What fighter wouldn't be happy to avenge a loss many dubbed 2011's fight of the year? Alvarez admits he didn't fight his best that night and that's weighed on him for two years. It's also a chance to win his freedom, a fact he's tactfully hinted at between the lines when the media has asked him if he's angry or disappointed that he's currently not fighting where he really wants to.
"One thing I learned about fighting very early on is there're crazy highs and lows," said Alvarez. "I always say this to everyone: this is always been a marathon for me, not a sprint. This is a quest to become more than just the best fighter in the world. It's a quest to be a good human being and to teach my kids and myself more about life and more about myself. This is a journey for me. This has been one of the lows, but I've found that they're usually followed by one of the crazy highs."