Eddie Alvarez became MMA's version of a free agent after an All-Star season, finishing Patricky "Pitbull" Freire in the final fight of his Bellator contract with a head kick in the first round at Bellator 76.
While Alvarez has not been lightweight champion since his title loss to Michael Chandler in one of MMA's all-time classic fights last year, it was obvious on Friday that he is still Bellator's biggest star and, with the possible exception of King Mo Lawal, its most valuable commodity. In a sea of talented fighters who often appear interchangeable, Alvarez has the ability to connect with the crowd and become a genuine superstar in the sport if he had the right wins on the right platform.
And given the limited number of fighters who fit that bill, Alvarez can write his ticket, as much as any lightweight is going to be able to in a world with only a few options. For Bellator, there could be no bigger blow than to lose your most crowd-pleasing fighter prior to the company's biggest shot at breaking through, its move to Spike TV in January.
But for that same reason, above and beyond his ability, he's every bit as valuable to UFC to take away from Bellator. He's the only person on the Bellator roster with a proven track record of being able to move numbers, making him not only one of the best fighters but one of the biggest stars in the sport not already under the Zuffa umbrella.
What makes the situation unique is that if Bellator was like any other fighting company in the world, it would immediately match Alvarez up with Chandler as a way to kick off its new television partnership with a bang. But the problem, and others would argue the beauty, of Bellator's strict matchmaking rules, is that they only allow a champion to defend his title against someone who wins a grueling three fight in three months tournament. Alvarez decided against entering the tournament this year.
Instead, he's logged first round wins over Shinya Aoki, a Japanese superstar, and Freire, both with via knockout. While those are higher profile wins and against tougher competition than he would see in most Bellator tournaments, the wins put him no closer to Chandler.
Instead, his role in Bellator can be as one of its major television headliners.
In UFC, the potential upside is bigger, as is the challenge. UFC is loaded with lightweight talent. It's the deepest division in the company. If Strikeforce goes away next year, the addition of Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson to the ranks will likely make it the most exciting weight class in the sport.
Alvarez (24-3), would be one of more than a dozen exciting fighters in a sea of sharks. While he has the personality that will enable him to stand out if he continues to win, it is far from a guarantee he'll be able to reach championship status, a level he's been at everywhere else for years.
Alvarez said nothing about his future after his win, which would have been impolite given he was on Bellator's television show.
The fight, Bellator's first marquee bout of the season, lived up to expectations just seconds into the skirmish.
Alvarez dropped Freire (10-4) with a left hook on the first punch that landed. But Freire, before the first minute was up had hurt Alvarez twice with punches that knocked him flying and had him in trouble.
"I don't know, it happens to me every fight," said Alvarez about the point where he looked in serious trouble. "You know, my boxing trainer, we work on it and work on it and work on it. I don't know. It's something to learn to deal with and learning to embrace it instead of trying to resist it."
But as in most fights when he's in trouble early, he showed strong recuperative powers and was soon back in command. Later in the round it was Freire who was knocked backwards from an Alvarez punch. There were other strong exchanges until Alvarez landed a right kick to Freire's face as he was ducking, that knocked him the Brazilian out at 4:54 of the round.
Alvarez after the knockout rushed out of the cage, hugged his wife, and sprinted up the steps at the arena at Caesar's Hotel and Casino in Windsor, Ontario, to celebrate with the fans who were chanting his name during the fight, a move somewhat similar to what Jose Aldo did earlier this year when after he beat Chad Mendes in Brazil.
"It was only right, I've got a ton of respect for Pitbull," said Alvarez. "You had two of the most exciting lightweights in the world in this cage tonight. Thank you Canada for bringing it the way you guys did tonight."
The win by Alvarez followed a night of strong finishes with the first round of this season's featherweight tournament for a shot at champion Pat Curran.
The night started out with a bang as Mike Richman (13-1) knocked out Jeremy Spoon (12-2) in just 23 seconds.
Richman threw a left high kick that appeared to first miss Spoon, but in the back swing, the heel caught him behind the neck. Richman followed with two punches on the ground before referee John McCarthy stopped it.
"Yeah, that's actually kind of one of my specialities in the gym is lulling people into a boxing match, and I've got a sneaky high kick and we worked on that a lot," said Richman, who noted he set it up right away.
"You know you better buy some lawn chairs and hammocks, or I'll buy them for you, because I'm going to lay some guys out," he said.
Wagnney Fabiano (15-3), the 37-year-old former IFL champion returned after a two year absence from the sport to finish Russian Akop Stepanyan (12-4) with a scary armbar finish.
Fabiano took the game away from the crisp striker with two early takedowns and grappling domination. He worked to an armbar, and Stepanyan, perhaps foolishly, was refusing to tap. Stepanyan held out for 26 seconds of his elbow being hyperextended to the point it was uncomfortable to watch, before tapping at 3:24 of round one.
Another Russian, Shibuya Shamble (10-1-1), stopped Cody Bollinger (13-3) at 4:49 of the first round. Shamhalaev tripped Bollinger to the ground early and remained on top, landing hard punches throughout the round. At one point he held up and looked at ref Yves Lavigne, seemingly asking him to stop it. Bollinger had been unable to get out of a bad position, but also had not taken that much punishment at the time.
Unfortunately for Bollinger, Lavigne let it continue, and he unleashed a torrent of punches until Lavigne had to stop it.
In the final tournament fight, former Clarion University All-American wrestler Rad Martinez (13-2) won a straight 30-27 decision over Nazareno Malegarie (22-3). Martinez is a sentimental favorite in every fight he's in after garnering national publicity on ESPN's Outside the Lines. He dedicates his life taking care of his father, left a paraplegic and with brain damage, from an auto accident more than a decade ago.
The former college wrestling teammate of Frankie Edgar, who was talked into trying MMA by the former UFC lightweight champion, showed improved striking to score two first-round knockdowns on a quicker stand-up fighter.
He scored a third knockdown in the closing seconds to clinch the third round.
The fight was a lot closer than the score indicated as all three rounds went down to the wire and could have gone either way.