Eddie Alvarez had a tough old time getting here. He was the stand out performer in a tournament of top lightweights back in 2008 but an injury kept him out of the final. He ran through the Bellator lightweight division and won their belt, but got locked into a grueling contract dispute when he wanted to make the move to the UFC. After a bumpy start on the biggest stage in MMA, Eddie Alvarez fought for the UFC lightweight title last night and before the glove touch, where a fighter will normally look on that line between anxious and pensive, Alvarez just looked ecstatic to finally be there.
Rafael dos Anjos was fast becoming recognized as perhaps the best lightweight that ever fought after his decimation of Benson Henderson, Nate Diaz, Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone back to back, and Alvarez stopped him inside the first round. A serious surprise for those who only saw his last fight and expected wall wrestling.
In a one round fight it is always surprising how much you can see in a fighter. In this single round fight we saw both a lot of good work from Alvarez and a lot of good work from Rafael dos Anjos. Alvarez has always been best when he is playing the ghost with the hammer in his hand, and Dos Anjos has always been at home as the aggressor so this match up was always going to be interesting. Right from the start, Alvarez was using those low kicks out in the open. We discussed this in our pre-fight piece, Side Stepping a Buzzsaw. Alvarez is from the Fedor Emelianenko school of low kicking: he has learned to do it really well, visibly hurts opponents when he throws them, but still just sort of forgets he has them a lot of the time. But against Dos Anjos, Alvarez was just as active with his kicks as the champion.
We discussed Alvarez's tendency to duck in, head to sternum as a classy boxer will, in that pre-fight essay:
Additional tactics which Dos Anjos does not show too often but which might have been a good investment through this camp would be use of the double collar tie along the fence and the uppercut as he enters because Alvarez has a tendency to duck in on opponents when they step in.
Sure enough, Dos Anjos' lead uppercut found the mark on one such entry early on.
Though Alvarez did a good job of threatening takedowns on his level changes which gave Alvarez a way out if his back foot was coming too close the fencing and he had little room to circle.
Dos Anjos landed a corker of a knee from the front headlock on one of these shots.
What made this fight intriguing from the moment it was signed was that Alvarez has historically been good at staying disciplined and circling out of bad spots. That shone through in this fight in spite of Dos Anjos' usual pressure. What we saw was Alvarez getting hit with the odd left straight as he circled away from it.
Here Alvarez lands his darting right and circles away or parries Dos Anjos' returns. The dart is one of Alvarez's favorite weapons which he tells me he learned from Bernard Hopkins, it becomes even more valuable against a southpaw opponents.
From a strategy stand point that is taking a stretched, glancing blow and avoiding follow ups. Those follow ups were what did Anthony Pettis, Benson Henderson and Donald Cerrone in. Far better to get hit once and have time and space to walk it off than to be under constant attack. In the few exchanges along the fence, Alvarez looked crisp, especially given he is almost always slow to get his eye and his timing in: there was a period where Alvarez would get dropped in the first round of every fight and then come back to win the others with little difficulty. Notice here that even while Dos Anjos is the aggressor, Alvarez counters with his favorite right hook to the body, a left hook to the head, deflects a jab upwards, slips a jab and lands that short right hook counter (which we talked about being a valuable weapon due to Dos Anjos' absentee left guard), then circles away from another one-two.
Even more of a feat when we remember how good Dos Anjos can be in the pocket, getting down behind his shoulders and elbows against Anthony Pettis.
Something which Dos Anjos was starting to do, which we again discussed in the pre-fight examination of the bout, was throw up middle kicks to dissuade Alvarez from crouching or slipping deep to avoid blows. Here's a nice little where Alvarez throws one of his weirder punches, a straight armed uppercut of sorts, then ducks down to his right and almost eats the Dos Anjos left round kick, before getting his head off to the left and landing that same short right hook inside of Dos Anjos' wide left again.
The right hand which snuck through and wobbled Dos Anjos wasn't anything out of the ordinary—it wasn't a counter or particularly well hidden and it seemed to surprise even Alvarez—it simply looped around the champion's guard when he was out of position. But that's all that needs to happen when Dos Anjos is such an aggressive fighter. A figther who uses his presence to create pressure is always going to be there in front of his man, so defensive slip ups become even more costly. Dos Anjos wobbled and Alvarez went berserk. If you haven't seen the 2008 DREAM lightweight tournament which made Eddie Alvarez famous, you just learned why. Alvarez didn't used to have a lot of craft to his striking, he found out that he could hit really hard and take a beating and made sure to do that in every fight. He was like a Leonard Garcia who actually connected on punches.
The ending of the bout was one of those tense moments in MMA where you think that if the referee is happy for the hurt fighter to keep taking damage, the fighter who should be awarded the TKO might gas himself out on the other guy's skull. The old Carwin versus Lesnar folly, and one which Alvarez did fall victim to in his UFC debut against Donald Cerrone. After wailing on Dos Anjos for what seemed like an age, Alvarez chased him across the cage and leapt in with a flying knee—connecting the strike but landing on his back underneath the champion! It looked like he had blown it but Dos Anjos couldn't hold the challenger down in such a beaten up state. Alvarez worked his way back up, shellacked Dos Anjos' body a little (a moment of strategic fighting amid a surge of emotions) before landing half a dozen good blows to the head which saw Herb Dean wave the fight off.
Luke Thomas pointed out in the aftermath that Alvarez now holds victories over the last Strikeforce champion (Gilbert Melendez), the last WEC champion (Anthony Pettis), the incumbent Bellator champion (Michael Chandler), and arguably the most highly regarded UFC lightweight champion in history (Dos Anjos). That is a superb list of feats but this is lightweight, the most talent filled division in mixed martial arts: anyone who even gets a shot at that belt is going to have had to do a hell of a lot to get there. For Alvarez it has been a long and meandering road just to get the chance. I would use this opportunity, while lauding Alvarez, to point out to fans that the lightweight division is so rich with talent that we should avoid getting caught up in the UFC branding. Bellator's current lightweight champion, Michael Chandler is 1-1 against Alvarez in close fights, Justin Gaethje is perhaps the most entertaining fighter alive and decimating the competition in World Series of Fighting, and at UFC 200 Bellator's previous lightweight champion, Will Brooks will be testing the waters of the UFC division.
The toughest part is yet to come: defending that belt in the most cut throat division in MMA. There's a reason that no lightweight has even come close to the record for UFC title defenses. But for now let us congratulate Eddie Alvarez on his greatest achievement yet, and be glad that he silenced his detractors so emphatically.
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