Kensington, a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, wasn't exactly the roughest, toughest part of town. Nobody's saying it was a posh haven for the well-to-do, but it also wasn't a place that demanded Eddie Alvarez grow up fighting -- at first.
For the most part, gritty Kensington was safe. Then, a slow metamorphosis got cooking. Gritty became something darker, nastier. Drugs slithered their way into the community. One dealer, then two, then whole blocks were infested. Race wars became more common and turf warriors tried to impose crude regulations and order in a vacuum where chaos and lawlessness reigned supreme.
Kensington turned into a neighborhood where, if you didn't move, you'd better become a fighter. Not necessarily with your fists but to capitulate to the atmosphere and not push back physically and mentally would mean that the town's negatives would seep into your character and play too large a part in your destiny.
Alvarez was destined to become a battler. In the streets, he'd take on any comer, square off, and get to work. His boxing skills, honed in street scraps and slap-boxing sessions with his pals, were respected in the hood. He'd never turn down an invite to go at it; sometimes he was the one pressing for a physical resolution to a disagreement.
When he was 11, though, one of those street beefs impacted him and made him rethink his path. It set Alvarez on the route he's on now, which is to becoming one of the very best lightweight mixed martial artists in the world.
Eddie was walking down the street, minding his own business, heading home from a hangout session with some pals. He saw two guys, who looked to be in their 20s, squaring up. Usually he'd stick around to watch the mayhem unfold. This time, an inner voice piped up.
This isn't going to end well.
Alvarez quickened his stride and bolted away from the two combatants as they began to throw down. Thirty seconds later he heard a couple of pops. He knew the sound, knew it wasn't someone lighting off a string of firecrackers. He knew the sound of sirens would be next. Sure enough, cop cars converged a couple hundred yards back where the two guys had been trading haymakers. Turns out one of the guys was packing a pistol. He pulled it out, blasted the other kid and ran. The victim was lying in the street with a hole in his torso. Eddie knew the guy, by reputation, and he knew that was his older brother cradling him, bawling, begging him to hold on, begging him not to die.
"He was dying," says the 25-year-old Alvarez. "I was 11. I knew then that in these situations, there was no clear winner. No matter who wins, it always ends up bad. Even if you won, maybe someone was gonna come back and off ya."
Eddie watched, substituting himself and his brother Lou, two years older than him, for the two men playing out the tragedy on the street. He saw himself with that hole in his gut, the red stain growing larger as his breaths grew shallower. He knew then that if he wanted to keep fighting, it would be better if he did it in a more controlled, structured atmosphere.
There were altercations and lapses in judgment on the way, sure, but Alvarez threw his heart into wrestling and boxing, and then into mixed martial arts. He tried the sweet science, but the gym he found, Front Street Gym, catered mostly to pros. So he found a home in MMA, at the Fight Factory, run by submission grappler Stephen Haigh. After less than a year of MMA immersion, he turned pro at 18.
College wasn't really an option after his parents moved to Florida. In December 2003 he knocked out Anthony Ladonna in a small New Jersey show. He went 10-0, all by stoppage, before dropping a fight to Nick Thompson in April 2007.
Alvarez peeled off another five wins but experienced a hiccup in his last outing (Dec. 31, 2008), against Shinya Aoki at a K-1 show in Japan.
Alvarez argues he went into the Aoki fight with a leg injury, and Aoki coincidentally targeted that weakened right leg with a heel hook.
Alvarez wants to keep his standing as one of the top five or 10 best lightweights in the world, with a win in his next scrap, which comes on the inaugural Bellator show on Friday, which will be at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla. Alvarez (15-2) takes on one of the best-known mixed martial artists in Ireland, underdog Greg Loughran (18-11), who is a carpenter by trade and works security at a Derry pub weekends to augment his earnings.
The Philly fighter is psyched to grow his rep in the U.S. after fighting his previous four matches in Japan.
"I'm ranked in the top three among lightweights in some polls," Alvarez said. "I feel that's correct. But this is my shot to show people in the U.S. what I have. I like the tournament format that Bellator has, and it is important to impress the Hispanic people here."
Bellator has a deal to show their events on ESPN Deportes, the day after the live event, and is counting on Alvarez to be one of their breakout stars. Bellator co-founder Bjorn Rebney, who previously ran Sugar Ray Leonard's boxing promotion, worked with Oscar De La Hoya early in the Golden Boy's career and saw the passion Hispanics have for their fight sports. Rebney feels Hispanics will take to Alvarez' skills, looks and finisher's instincts.
"Eddie is spectacularly well rounded," Rebney told ESPN.com. "When he gets off a plane in Japan, it's a big deal but in the U.S. he doesn't have that following yet."
A win Friday will go a long way to boosting Alvarez's recognition in the United States.
Michael Woods, the managing editor of TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.