Print and Go Back ESPN.com: MMA [Print without images]

Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Eddie Alvarez keys in on April return

By Chuck Mindenhall

Eddie Alvarez
Eddie Alvarez, facing, has a rematch with Shinya Aoki firmly in his sights.
The year 2012 will be an interesting one for former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. For starters, his contract with the promotion is up in October, meaning he could end up making the leap to the UFC around that time. That’s a prospect that makes plenty of fans happy, considering how deep the lightweight pool there is.

Or he could stay with Bellator, of which the Philadelphia native has grown into his role as its flagship fighter. In the meantime? Alvarez will have at least one more fight, and that’s an opportunity to try and avenge a 2008 loss to Shinya Aoki.

At least, that’s the nearly official plan.

“As far as I’m being told the fight’s going to happen,” Alvarez says. “I just don’t get why I can’t get it confirmed 100 percent. Right now it’s ‘verbally agreed,’ and that’s where we stand.”

Alvarez/Aoki II is penciled in for April 20 and will be held in the United States, though the exact location is still to be determined. As much as Alvarez would like the fight to take place in Atlantic City or in his hometown of Philadelphia, he doesn’t think that will be the case due to amount of cards Bellator has held recently in those markets. What he does know is that he was asking for this rematch well before he fought Michael Chandler. The last time the two fought at Dynamite 2008 in Japan, Aoki submitted Alvarez with a heel hook just a minute and a half into the fight.

That loss has sat in his craw for a long, long time.

Cut forward three years and Aoki and Alvarez remain two of the biggest non-Zuffa stars going. In fact, you could argue that Alvarez/Aoki is the biggest non-Zuffa fight that can be made right now, with both fighters still considered top-10 lightweights in consensus rankings, even with Alvarez having lost his belt to Chandler this past November. Alvarez has gone 7-1 since his first fight with Aoki, while Aoki has gone 11-2.

“As much as I wanted it, it was something that I thought I’d never get,” Alvarez says of the rematch. “When I went to Japan every other time before [the Aoki fight], it seemed like I was getting fan acceptance because I was fighting guys from other countries, like Brazil and Norway. Yet when I finally fought Aoki, I went over there and they treated me different. They nicknamed me the ‘American Knuckle Star,’ and pitted it as ‘Japan versus America.’ It really changed.

... when I finally fought Aoki, I went over there and they treated me different. They nicknamed me the 'American Knuckle Star,' and pitted it as 'Japan versus America.' It really changed.

-- Eddie Alvarez, on the hostile environment he stepped into when he faced Shinya Aoki

“So it’s good to get the revenge back in my country -- just to come off a loss like the one I just came off of [to Chandler], and get back into a rankings fight finally. It rarely happens in our sport where you get two guys who are actually ranked, top name guys who get to fight each other. It’s a good fight.”

Where does this leave Chandler, who choked out Alvarez at Bellator 58 in a back-and-forth war that many considered the fight of the year? Alvarez says that though he wanted Aoki and ended up with Chandler the first time through, this time he wanted Chandler and ended up with Aoki. His druthers are being met, only completely out of order.

“Yeah, the Chandler rematch was my first option that I wanted,” he says. “But Bellator wasn’t going to let that happen, and I was sad that they opted to put me back in a tournament when I felt like the fight warranted a rematch in some way, shape or form. So, I was disappointed about that, but there was nothing I could do about it. It’s not what I want, it’s what the promotion is willing to give me.
Chandler/Alvarez
Eddie Alvarez, facing, will have to wait on line like everyone else for a shot at Michael Chandler.

“But this Aoki fight was something I asked of them even before the Chandler bout. And although we don’t have 100 percent contract in hand yet, it seems like they’re getting it done. I’m grateful they are going to bring Aoki over, someone who is in the rankings and someone where, if I actually beat him, it would do good for me.”

Alvarez’s future beyond Aoki is uncertain. It’s possible that April 20 will be the last time he represents Bellator in the cage. Whether or not that’s the case, he’s looking to close out his contract with a big bang to put himself in a coveted position.

“With Bellator, I have either two fights or eight months,” he says. “After that, we’ll see. They’re either going to give me Aoki and then another fight, or I have about eight months left.”

Either way, Alvarez refuses to look beyond April 20, because nothing good comes of speculating too far ahead.

“It’s out of my hands at this point,” he says. “Going into the Mike Chandler fight, I was too focused on what everybody else thought, about what the media thought, and things like that. I just need to relieve myself of that, and focus on the things that I can control, and that’s winning fights, going in there and performing and beating my opponents. Everything else just seems senseless to me.”

And to focus, Alvarez is training right now at Imperial Athletics in Florida with the star-studded cast of the Blackzilians. He says he’s proceeding with the understanding of an April 20 fight with Aoki, and in two weeks he’ll relocate back to his familiar Philadelphia gym to dig into the crux of his camp.

What’s he expecting to see come fight night? The same Aoki he saw the first time, with a few new wrinkles.

“I know he’s been in Singapore training a lot of Muay Thai, so I’ll be expecting more kicks to set up his takedowns,” he says. “But, I don’t think it’s any secret -- regardless of whether he wants to stand for a little bit or stand for a long time -- I know his ultimate goal, and that’s to try and get it to the floor. He’ll want to create some sort of scramble and get it to the ground. I feel like that’s his strength and that’s what he’s going to stick to.”