Any great athlete will tell you that a huge part of success stems from the mind. An unshakeable faith in yourself becomes the biggest tool in your arsenal, especially when battling through injuries or staving off the challenge of someone trying to steal your job or your championship belt.
But that faith is sometimes flexible to suit your own needs. Just ask Bellator
lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez
, who spends most of his camps convincing himself that he stinks and that his opponent may well hold the upper hand against him. For Alvarez, it's all part of the buildup that makes him outwork his foe in training and outperform him on fight night.
"I don't want to be confident throughout the training camp," he told MMA
Fighting just two days before his title bout with challenger Michael Chandler
58. "I want to be fearful. I want to be insecure. I want to be afraid. I want to be uneasy. I feel if you're confident, maybe you skip a practice, maybe you don't focus on the fight or the right things. That fear is my fuel to go the extra mile to do what I have to do to win."
With a 22-2 record and a seven-fight win streak, the approach has clearly worked for Alvarez, who is considered by most to be the best pound-for-pound fighter on the Bellator roster.
Given that success however, it's hard to imagine how Alvarez can regularly convince himself that he is in imminent danger. In each of the seven fights that comprise his win streak, for example, he has been considered at least a 2-to-1 favorite against his opponent, often higher.
"As an athlete, I have my fair share of losses," he said. "Not just in fighting but in wrestling and sports in general. I know what it feels like to lose. I know the pain of losing. That pain never goes away. If you remember that pain, it'll move you and motivate you. It will help you to win in the future."
True to his recent history, Alvarez is still a sizable favorite over Chandler, a 25-year-old former Division I collegiate wrestling All-American at Missouri who is a perfect 8-0 since turning pro. Though early in his career, Chandler has impressed most observers with his strong conditioning, poise and wrestling pedigree.
He sailed through Bellator's season four lightweight tournament, defeating Marcin Held, Lloyd Woodard and Patricky "Pitbull" Freire along the way to set up the showdown with Alvarez. While the champion offers compliments on Chandler's success, as he speaks, it's clear that the days of fearing his foe are as behind him as the training camp itself.
Alvarez says that in the last week or so before the fight, he "comes back to reality" and with that comes his confidence. So he does have criticisms of Chandler's game. For example, he doesn't think he's quite adapted his wrestling for MMA
, and he sometimes falls in love with his boxing at the expense of his true strength. But he does like and appreciate Chandler's own conviction in his skills. Before the tournament, the somewhat unknown fighter predicted he was on a collision course with Alvarez, and lo and behold, here he is, getting ready to stand across from Alvarez at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida.
"I feel like that's great," he said. "I don't want to fight a guy who's insecure and not confident in his abilities. I don't look at my opponents like opposition, but more like my teammate. If you don't fight me, the crowd isn't going to get excited. I need him to come out. I need him to be prepared. I need him to be confident, and I need him to fight me."
But Alvarez is positive he will find a way to win, using his experience as a guide. He says that Chandler has never really been in a fight, and has mostly cruised through dominant performances.
"He can't call himself a fighter just yet," he said. "He hasn't been in a fight. This is going to be his first time. And I think it's important for me to teach him something."
The Alvarez-Chandler bout was originally scheduled to be in October, but an injury forced Alvarez to withdraw, pushing the date back a month. That gave Chandler extra time to prepare, which for a young fighter, could be crucial development time.
Alvarez declined to reveal the nature of his injury, simply saying that rest, doctors' advice and "some needles" were involved, and that he's now back to full strength. Given Chandler's tenacious attitude, anything less might be cause for alarm, but Alvarez is confident in the outcome, believing that with their respective styles, the fight isn't likely to go past two rounds.
"I'm not going to tell you who's going to score the finish, but at the end of the night, you're going to hear the words, 'And still...," he said.
If that does happen, Alvarez is reportedly set for a rematch with Japanese grappling ace Shinya Aoki
in early 2012, a fight that would give him the chance to avenge the only loss in his last 13 fights. Aoki won via heel hook in the first round of their December 2008 fight.
Alvarez says that's not something he'll think about until after Saturday night.
"Until there's a paper in front of me that's signed and I see it, I'm not even going to entertain the fact that's going on," he said. "If I see the paper I'll believe it, but I have no focus in my mind going on other than Saturday night and coming out victorious."
If recent fights have made him nervous and fearful, imagine how he'll prepare for Aoki. But first things first. The time for scared energy is over. There is no fear now. It's been replaced by a champion's swagger, making the transformation complete.
"I'm hard to get to," he said. "And if you do get close enough to me, chances are you're going to get hurt."