The early matchup highlight of Bellator's seventh season might indirectly serve as one of its most conflicting developments. On Oct. 12, the promotion will present an intriguing lightweight bout pitting former champion Eddie Alvarez against Patricky Pitbull. Yet the Bellator 76 bout, set for a headlining spot at Ceasars Windsor in Ontario, is almost certainly to be Alvarez's final fight in a Bellator cage.
The longtime world-ranked fighter has spent the last few months flirting with the UFC from afar after company president Dana White publicly expressed an interest in him in April. "I think Eddie Alvarez is a great fighter," he said then. "You know us, man, we're always looking to get the best fighters in the world in the UFC, and he's one of them."
For a time afterward, Rebney seemed intent on keeping Alvarez, who has been in the fold since the formation of the company in 2008. In fact, as the first fighter Rebney signed to a contract, Alvarez was a building block for the promotion's quick growth. But in a recent interview with MMA Fighting, while touching on Alvarez's fight with Pitbull, Rebney all but acknowledged Alvarez's time with Bellator was nearing its end.
"It's a fight I wanted to see two years ago," he said. "I always thought it would be an amazing fight, and it will be in all likelihood Eddie's last fight in our organization. God bless him, he's been awesome for us, and win, lose, or draw, he'll do incredibly well if he ends up going to the UFC. I know they have a huge amount of interest in him, and I think he'll probably win their title."
Asked if that meant he was conceding that Alvarez's future was elsewhere, Rebney didn't explicitly agree, but indicated the likelihood of it was high.
"I'm pretty excited about what we've got at 155," he said. "Obviously, Michael Chandler without any question or controversy, he submitted Ed. So he's the best of that group. I think Rick Hawn is a monster. "Tiger" [Alexander Sarnavskiy] isn't well known in the States but he's 21-0 and the top prospect in the world at 155. He's a beast. Pitbull is a monster. We have a stacked 155 division. I'm thrilled with what Sam and our team have done.
"I know that [the UFC] have had a lot of interest in Eddie for a real long time," he continued. "And given how strong our 155-pound division is, I think we're hyper-focused on the Chandlers, Hawns, Pitbulls, and all the monsters we have at 155. I think win or lose, Ed's probably going to make that decision."
That means that plenty will be riding on Alvarez's fight with Pitbull. If he wins, he will enter free agency having won nine of his last 10, and back on track with two straight victories since losing to Chandler. If he loses, he will have been defeated in two of his last three and not hold quite the same leverage in negotiations.
At 28 years old, this is likely Alvarez's best chance to cash in with a major deal. He's still a highly regarded talent near his prime. There are other groups like the upstart World Series of Fighting that are waving around cash. And he is one of the few major fighters coming available.
While the UFC's lightweight division is loaded with talent, Alvarez would likely immediately enter against the top 10-level. And in a strange way, any success he has there could end up as a positive for Bellator, with that promotion housing the man that not only beat him, but also finished him.
While the potential departure of a Bellator original results in a net loss to the organization's talent level, the lightweight cupboard is hardly bare. Rebney can boast an intriguing future title match between his young champion Chandler and former judo Olympian Hawn, while his season seven lightweight tournament features eight fighters with a combined record of 141-30. Poetically, that tourney kicks off on Oct. 19, one week after Alvarez sails off into the sunset.