In MMA, one of the most effective ways to ensure disappointment is to place unrealistic expectations on a fight. Eddie Alvarez’s bout with Justin Gaethje at UFC 218 was just such a set-up for failure. People were circling it for not just Fight of the Night on a card chock full of bangers, but for Fight of the freaking Year. Even for a couple of gung-ho brawlers sick enough to try and meet such expectations, that kind of pressure is a bit much.
Yet Gaethje and Alvarez went to Detroit and did their level best to give the people what they wanted. If it fell short the wildest expectations it was only because neither was left for dead at any dramatic moment, only to come storming back (like Yancy Medeiros did earlier in the night against Alex Oliveira — the kind of plot-changing show of heart that gets people to using exclamation marks). It was just a violent collision between violent men, each hacking away until one of them could no longer hack back.
In the end, Alvarez was the one left standing.
He landed a big knee late in the third round that overrode Gaethje’s zombie compulsion to keep coming, making him the first to shut the former WSOF champ down. It was how he did it that will linger. Alvarez happily played with matches with a known arson, as if to prove he’ll go to any length necessary to win. But it was more than that, obviously. He wanted us to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is the “Most Violent Man” in the UFC — as he designated it — and that to achieve such a distinction he’d gladly walk through anybody’s version of hell. That’s an awful lot of philanthropy towards audience appreciation. Alvarez, like Gaethje, literally gave of himself in that fight.
And had he lost, you got the sense he’d have still held his head high. It was his head that told much of the story.
His face was left a disaster, with a distended cheek that looked like a golf ball was lodged in there. His lead leg was a swollen mess, having endured Gaethje’s vicious leg kicks for nearly 14 minutes. There was blood everywhere. He looked as if he’d been trampled by the bulls in Pamplona. But he proved his point. He is the violent supreme.
What a difference a year makes. Eddie Alvarez, who last year lost the lightweight title against Conor McGregor in what could have been a career defining moment, instead got back to what he does best. That is, survive. Persevere. And break the man in front of him. He did it against Michael Chandler in the rematch. He did it against Gilbert Melendez. He was in the process of doing it against Dustin Poirier, before an illegal knee ended the bout. Alvarez has taken out champions, stood toe-to-toe with headhunters, and picked himself up after every setback.
In that way, his performance Saturday night was a thing of beauty. Not that he lacked all sense of self-preservation. Alvarez was a moving target, an elusive thing to track down with anything clean. He got hit plenty, but there was a method to his madness. He took as much as he needed so that he may dish out as much as he could. His movement on defense was really about offense. The numbers were gaudy.
He threw a total of 366 strikes in about 14 minutes, according to FightMetric. That is an astronomical number. Had the fight gone the extra minute, he might have thrown 400. It was a vintage Eddie Alvarez fight, a throwback to his first encounter with Chandler back in 2011. It was the Alvarez that everyone knew would make for a good counterpart for a berserker like Gaethje, who is set to destruction mode for 15-to-25 minutes, depending on the length of a fight.
The fight delivered in Detroit, much like the card itself. Everyone suspected that Gaethje-Alvarez would make the barn flammable. It did. Perhaps it won’t go down as a Fight of the Year candidate, especially given that it (probably) wasn’t even the best fight on the card. But it was an awesome fight, and an awesome show of perseverance by a fighter many began to discard after he lost the belt to McGregor.
Thirteen months later, Alvarez can call himself the “Most Violent Man” in the UFC without so much as a scoff from the faithful. Who could have expected that?