It is hard not to be impressed by what Eddie Alvarez has done in the fight game.
Despite entering the UFC late in his career, the 14-year veteran has long been considered one of the most talented lightweights in the world, seizing gold in nearly every organization he set foot in. His list of victims stands now as an imposing read, overflowing with championship pedigree with names like Aoki and Chandler to Melendez and Pettis.
But when Alvarez looks at what his next challenge presents, a battle against UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night 90, he sees an opponent unlike any he has ever faced.
"I think Rafael, out of everyone I've fought, is the most complete fighter," Alvarez said Tuesday on a media conference call. "When I look and watch him fight, it's hard not to be sort of a fan. He does things quickly, violently. I like the way he fights. It's the kind of fight that I welcome. I like when guys are aggressive. I like when guys are mean and violent. It gets me excited and it makes me move in ways, always -- I always fight up when I fight guys like this, and especially guys who are southpaw."
For Alvarez, the showdown against dos Anjos is the culmination of an opportunity that, at times, felt like it would never come. Alvarez languished for years as an unhappy resident of the Bjorn Rebney era in Bellator. He tried to jump ship in 2012 to sign a lucrative free agent deal with the UFC, only to end up stuck in litigation with Bellator's legal team and sidelined for 13 months of his athletic prime.
That uneasy relationship stretched until Aug. 2014, when new Bellator boss Scott Coker granted Alvarez a release from his deal with the promotion. Alvarez debuted in the UFC one month later and promptly lost to Donald Cerrone, falling short in the moment he had been clawing towards his entire career. But he was not deterred.
"I could've done what a lot of fighters do and fought a top-30 guy and build myself back up," Alvarez said. "But it was important to me to stay with the same plan that I came here with and to fight the absolute best that the UFC had to offer. So, instead of fighting ‘Cowboy' and then maybe going and taking an easier fight, I fought the guy who was ranked ahead of him -- Gilbert (Melendez), who was No. 3, and then (Anthony) Pettis, who was No. 1. And I just thought with that mindset, as long as I'm fighting the guys who are in front of me and beating them, that I couldn't be denied a title shot.
"I know fighters, and I how they think and how they feel, and that's what a lot of fighters do. They like to build their confidence back up and maybe get a big win against whoever it is. It's just not my style, it's not where I'm at in my life now. Where I'm at is I want to fight the absolute best. I think we're defined by the people we fight, we're defined by our opponents, and I want to make sure my opponents are always quality, good, and the best, and that's the only way I can legitimately tell people that I'm the best in the world."
The strategy worked. Alvarez rebounded from the Cerrone loss to pick up back-to-back split decisions over Melendez and Pettis, adding further to his collection of championship scalps. The run propelled Alvarez back to the forefront of the division and earned him a shot at dos Anjos on the UFC's stacked UFC 200 showcase week. Now, with his longtime coach Mark Henry back by his side, Alvarez is confident he can finally accomplish the goal he set out to accomplish in 2012.
"I have a high finishing ratio and I feel like, if [dos Anjos] feels confident in his stand-up, then it could hurt him," Alvarez said. "I feel like I can catch him if he gets over-aggressive and it can go bad quickly. So this is going to be highly explosive, violent from the very beginning.
"Everybody has weaknesses, everybody has holes," Alvarez added. "I'm not the thinker in this equation. Mark Henry does all the thinking for me. I'm the performer. I just go out and fight, and Mark has found every hole, every weakness that Rafael has, and he has helped me move in ways that exploit everything that we need to get the win and come home with that gold belt. I'm going to attribute a lot of this to the brains of Mark Henry."
Just as he has been in each of his past five fights, Alvarez is a betting underdog heading into July 7. Several global sportsbooks have him listed as high as a three-to-one dog. But Alvarez is used to this spot. And really, any other way just wouldn't feel right.
"There's always pressure, but pressure is really about me putting the pressure on myself to perform at my peak, so I know how to go out there an do well," Alvarez said. "It's really about just going out there and performing like I do everyday in sparring and putting my best out there. When I do that, I beat everyone I fight. I beat champions my whole career."