For a fighter in Eddie Alvarez’s position, the Bellator model is a system with the virtues of its faults. On the plus side, the tournament structure allowed him to fight his way to a lightweight title without pleading or begging for the shot, he explained to Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour. That system, Alvarez said, helps to maintain "the integrity of the sport" better than any other.
As for the downside? Alvarez found out about that after he came out on the losing end of one of 2011’s best fights, dropping his belt to current Bellator lightweight champ Michael Chandler via fourth-round submission back in November.
"Before I even left the ring that night I went to [Bellator CEO] Bjorn [Rebney] and I said, ‘I know this isn’t your protocol or what you do, but I would like a rematch. I think I earned it and I think the fans would enjoy it. Let’s try to do that,’" Alvarez told Helwani.
He didn’t get an answer right away, but shortly thereafter he found out via internet reports that he wouldn’t be getting his rematch against Chandler. Not unless he signed a new, lengthy contract with Bellator, which he said he "wasn’t super comfortable with" at the time.
The news "disheartened" Alvarez at first, he said, and after the show he and Chandler had put on, he felt the fans would have loved to see an instant rematch.
"At the end of the day, the fans create this sport," Alvarez said. "It’s important to give the fans what they want. If you don’t do that, you’re basically dying."
But at the same time, Alvarez said he still respects Bellator’s tournament system, even if it kept him from getting what he wanted most after the loss to Chandler.
"The way it’s ran, it keeps the integrity of the sport," he said. "It is a sport where a guy who works hard, who is basically an unknown can come out and be a champion. It is that. I think that a lot of promoters and promotions and even boxing does a good job in disguising that, making the champion look like someone who is immortal, someone who can’t be beaten. Bellator, more than anyone, keeps the integrity of the sport by facing guys who are unknown and could be very dangerous. In normal circumstances, some promotions may keep their champion away from a guy like that. Bellator doesn’t do that. That’s what makes it honest and true and keeps the integrity of MMA."
It’s also what kept Alvarez out of a rematch with Chandler, and thrust him into a bit of a gray area. Alvarez has two fights left on his current Bellator contract, the first of which will come against Shinya Aoki at Bellator 66 on April 20. It’s a rematch Alvarez has been trying to get for over three years, he said -- ever since Aoki submitted him with a heel hook at the Dynamite!! 2008 New Year’s Eve show in Tokyo.
But with his contract so close to completion, revenge isn’t the only thing on Alvarez’s mind headed into the rematch with Aoki, he said.
"I need to go in there and I need to perform the way I usually do, then we can talk about other things. Because, right now, I can go in there and if something doesn’t go my way that night, I don’t have much to stand on. I need to go in there and show my value."
The first time he lost to Aoki, Alvarez said, he was unsure of himself. There was a huge gap between his ground game and Aoki’s, and a part of him wasn’t even sure he was ready for that level of competition.
"I was sort of thrown to the wolves right when I first went to 155 [pounds]. I was still battling with my own confidence and my own issues with competing with top ten guys and top five guys. Now, I don’t have those issues anymore. Even with the Aoki fight, I let it define me for a little bit. I even [told] myself that maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was."
But after getting back into action and racking up a seven-fight win streak that was only recently snapped by the loss to Chandler, Alvarez got his confidence back and evolved as a fighter, he said. The latter is something he doesn’t think Aoki has managed to do, as evidenced by his loss to Gilbert Melendez in Strikeforce.
"I still don’t think he has the ability to adjust. He’s very good at what he does, and he’s tricky. He’s able to get people where he wants to get them, given the skill sets he has. But I don’t think he’s evolved enough."
He’ll get his chance to prove it soon, and after so many years of asking for another shot at Aoki he expects to be "smiling the night of the fight," Alvarez said. As for Chandler, Alvarez still thinks he’d beat him on most nights, and still hopes to get another shot at him.
"It’s one of those things, if you fight ten guys in MMA, no matter how good you are, you’re going to lose to maybe one of them, no matter how good you are. I got in there with a dangerous opponent and it wasn’t my night," he said.
For now, he has to focus on avenging a different loss. If he’s successful in that effort, maybe he won’t have to wait quite so long for a chance to avenge another.