"Is this going to be the toughest fighter you've faced in Bellator?"
My question, posed during a phone conversation with Eddie Alvarez a little over a week before Saturday night's lightweight championship defense against Pat Curran, was a setup. What I really wanted to ask Alvarez about was what it was like to step up in competition against former UFC fighters, as he did in his last two bouts. I figured this was a good way to get at that.
"No, I wouldn't say he's the toughest ever," said Alvarez, who'll be headlining Bellator 39 (9 p.m., MTV2) at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
Aha! I thought, smiling inside (even though we were on the phone, so smiling outwardly would not have betrayed my little scheme). Now we can talk about the challenge of facing Roger Huerta (whom Alvarez TKO'd in October) and Josh Neer (Alvarez by technical submission last May), both of whom used to compete in the biggest and most star-studded promotion in mixed martial arts, Huerta even on the periphery of the lightweight title chase. And maybe Alvarez will even reveal that he dreams of fighting in the UFC himself someday.
But no, he was too busy throwing me a curveball. "The toughest," continued Alvarez, "would have to be Toby Imada." Who? The guy Alvarez beat in 2009 to win the first Bellator lightweight tournament and, with it, the promotion's championship belt? The 29-15 veteran who's been fighting since 1998 but never in the big show? "He's been around forever," Alvarez said, "but he's overlooked by a lot of people." You don't say, Eddie.
Speaking of being overlooked, Alvarez does not intend to make that mistake with Curran, who beat Imada to win last year's Bellator tournament. "I'm expecting a killer in there," he said, "and that's what I'm preparing for."
He's been preparing for a long time. Alvarez, who fought only twice in 2010 while recovering from knee surgery, was supposed to fight Curran last fall, but Curran, cousin of former WEC featherweight contender Jeff Curran, had to pull out with a shoulder injury. Alvarez got Huerta instead, and dominated the bout before the cage-side doctor stopped it after two rounds.
Alvarez (21-2) has gotten used to dominant performances. He's won six straight fights, all by stoppage or submission, since submitting to a Shinya Aoki heel hook in 2008. And his blueprint for Saturday night calls for more of the same.
"I expect nothing but dominance by myself," said Alvarez, a 27-year-old who turned pro right out of high school, where he was a two-time national prep All-American wrestler. "I want to control this fight, and I want to get him out of there as soon as possible."
So he can move on to thinking about the UFC, maybe? I mean, when he's training with that organization's lightweight belt holder, Frankie Edgar, as he does once or twice a week, doesn't he ever wish he were the one who gets to test his skills against the likes of Gray Maynard, B.J. Penn, Anthony Pettis, Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk and the others who make the UFC lightweight division so deep?
"You're just mentioning names," Alvarez responded. "And they're only important names why? Because they fight for the UFC. Or else they'd be nobodies. The UFC does a great job of pushing them, and they're popular. It doesn't mean they're talented. It just means they're known."
Wait a second. Alvarez is boiling down those fighters' first-rate reputations to promotional muscle? He's refusing to acknowledge that even UFC guys who've never worn a belt, like Maynard and Florian, would be dominant in Bellator, as pretty much everyone in MMA believes?
"I guarantee that if you put them in a tournament structure like Bellator, they're not going to win it every time," Alvarez said. "Gray Maynard? Kenny Florian? All these guys, they're UFC fighters, that's all. They're pushed by the UFC, but when they leave the UFC, they're forgotten. When's the last time you heard Josh Neer's name? You haven't. When's the last time you heard about Roger Hurerta? You haven't. They're no ones anymore. What were they two years ago? They were superstars."
Alvarez is a Philadelphia fighter, which means he stands his ground, whether in a rugged bout or in simply stating his opinion. So while most everyone else in MMA views the UFC as the big leagues and other promotion as various levels of the minors, Alvarez cites Bellator's new weekly live telecasts on MTV2 with the hopefulness of a guy thinking he and other top guys might well become what MTV has forever helped create: rock stars.
"We're on the right track," he insisted. "The exposure can only make us bigger."
Jon "Bones" Jones might as well have been George Clooney, relaxed and engaging and flashing a big smile on The Tonight Show last Thursday night. And being flirted with by a famous actress. So Hollywood.
This scene was even more astonishing and surreal than his domination of Mauricio "Shogun" Rua five nights earlier. Jones was launching MMA not simply into the sports mainstream but into the bedrooms of Middle America. At that very moment in the Nevada dessert, Dana White spilled champagne all over his pajamas.
Then, four days after Kirstie Alley was seen by millions cozying up to Jones with Jay Leno cracking jokes, the UFC was back on NBC's late-night schedule, as ex-heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar was a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Though he looked like a kid stuffed into a sports coat when he'd rather be climbing trees in the backyard, Lesnar did pretty well. He promoted both his new book, Death Clutch, and also Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter, the Spike reality show on which he's coaching against Junior dos Santos, his opponent in a June heavyweight No. 1 challenger eliminator. Lesnar unveiled a nice sense of humor and even participated in a schtick in which he put Fallon in a choke hold and announced that '60s rock band Vanilla Fudge was coming up next. Brock opening for Vanilla Fudge. Surreal.
But as cool as it was for the UFC to have two guys on television, Lesnar never was transformed into anything more than a fighter by late-night TV. However, Tonight showed off Jones as a crossover star. While I was watching, my wife strolled into the room. She tends to walk out whenever I have MMA on the tube, but this time she sat and watched. She laughed at Jones' amusing tale of fight-day crime fighting in New Jersey. She melted when he spoke of his mom.
"I love this guy!" she finally said. "You have to interview him, so I can come along and meet him."
Note to Jones' management: Let's schedule something soon ... over the phone.
• "I was healthy physically, but mentally probably not so. I mean, I don't think it really registers to the general public on my year last year -- you know, from being sick and losing 42 pounds and ... just to get my ass to the gym to recover and put that weight back on. And on top of that, while I'm training for a title fight, a new baby boy. And then fighting Shane Carwin. And then I was expecting some time off, because I really needed it mentally more than anything. And then I booked a fight against Cain."--Lesnar, during a media teleconference for The Ultimate Fighter, speaking about what he believes went wrong in his heavyweight title fight loss to Cain Velasquez last October.
And then there's that whole matter of not liking getting punched in the face.
• "It's something that I saw a long time ago on the Internet on video. It's one of Eddie Bravo's techniques. It's something I practiced because it just looks fun."--Chan Sung Jung, speaking through an interpreter, telling interviewer Joe Rogan about the twister submission he pulled off to beat Leonard Garcia at UFC Fight Night 42 last Saturday.
So now that You Tube is an elite MMA training venue, what next? Fighters learning moves 140 characters at a time on Twitter?
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.