Eddie Alvarez's Lightweight Title Defense at UFC 205 - Rolling Stone
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Eddie Alvarez on ‘Tough’ Road to Top of UFC

“I want to go down as the best lightweight in UFC history,” he says before UFC 205 fight against Conor McGregor

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Eddie Alvarez prepares to defend his title against Conor McGregor at UFC 205.

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Conor McGregor says Eddie Alvarez is “blessed” to be a part of the historic UFC 205 main event. In his opinion Alvarez just so happens to hold the UFC Lightweight championship at the time he chases the goal of being the UFC’s first simultaneous two-division titleholder, and McGregor feels the monumental opportunity simply fell into Alvarez’s lap.

It can’t be denied that timing is a huge part of prize fighting. It determined who fights who, where they fight, and when they fight. A successful career is all about fighters properly positioning themselves to maximize their situation. That’s what Alvarez did, but the road to getting there was full of turbulence, emotion and questions of whether the hard work and sacrifice would all pay off.

For Alvarez (28-4 MMA, 3-1 UFC), whether he wins or loses at UFC 205, no one can argue he hasn’t had an illustrious and successful career. Winning the 155-pound title with a first-round TKO of Rafael dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night 90 in July finally provided Alvarez the recognition he deserves, but he solidified his status as one of the best fighters in the world long before that by fighting top competition in notable organizations around the globe.

The showdown with Featherweight champ McGregor (20-3, 8-1), which headlines Saturday’s card at Madison Square Garden in New York (10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view), is merely the reward for nearly 13 years of professional experience. However, Alvarez admits there were times where he never thought such a moment would come, specifically when he lost nearly two years of his career due to a contract dispute with UFC rival promotion Bellator.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I was put throughout the ringer,” Alvarez tells Rolling Stone. “We don’t make a ton of money fighting, especially if you’re not fighting in the UFC. So, I made some investments and I had to sell them just so I could stay afloat when I was going through that court case. I was really dwindling down. My mind was getting really bitter toward MMA because it asks everything of you. Every inch of your soul. It wants everything but gives back nothing. It tells you when it wants to give back and that you should just every day put your heart and soul into it. I call it the ‘B’ word sometimes. It’s really tough.”

Alvarez fought 10 times for Bellator from 2009-2013. Despite capturing the organization’s Lightweight belt, he became displeased with his position somewhere along the line and wanted out. MMA contracts can be difficult to navigate around, though, and the next thing Alvarez knew he was locked in a legal battle with the Viacom-owned organization, which had nothing but time and money to spare. As an athlete with a small window for success, Alvarez didn’t have either of those things at his disposal.

There were glimmers of hope and large stretches of sadness as Alvarez tried to figure out how to best move forward with his career. He eventually agreed to a settlement with Bellator, but one that was hardly favorable to his side of the situation.

He says the lows of his life at that point were unlike anything he’d experienced prior. He somehow managed to keep his head up through all of it, though, maintaining the attitude everything would eventually pan out for the better.

“(My low) was when we sat down and we had to settle with Bellator,” Alvarez says. “We had a settlement agreement and I thought I was going to get out of it. We had to end up settling. The settlement agreement was insane and I thought, ‘I’m never going to get out of this alive.’ It was just a terrible settlement agreement and I was just really disappointed in that time in my life.

“So many things were going not well that I kept telling my wife, ‘Something big is going to happen,” he continues. “Something has got to go our way in life, because this is really bad right now.'”

Alvarez eventually got the break he was looking for. He had one final fight with Bellator, and earning a victory over Michael Chandler at Bellator 106 in November 2013 that eventually set up a release from his contract. He quickly signed with the UFC, but the hardships didn’t stop there.

Over the course of his career Alvarez has competed for 11 different fight promotions. He would constantly rise to a top level everywhere he would go, fighting the best on only losing on the most infrequent of occasions. Nevertheless, he never truly got the proper level of attention, which birthed the nickname “The Underground King” from hardcore fight fans.

Once Alvarez finally got to the UFC things didn’t go as smoothly as he’d hoped. He lost his Octagon debut to Donald Cerrone at UFC 178 in September 2014, and immediately garnered criticism that he was unable to hang with UFC-level talent and wasn’t as good as promised. He took that criticism personally.

“I had a tough time paying attention to my wife and kids after I lost to Donald Cerrone,” Alvarez says. “Just enjoying life was really tough for me. I had to overcome that and not be a sore loser about it and go fight another guy. I dealt with that, but I’m a pretty positive guy. I kept my eye on the little light at the end of the tunnel and we got through it. We persevered and we overcame.”

His sophomore UFC appearance came soon after, and that’s when the tides began to turn. He faced former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez at UFC 188 in June 2015, overcoming a broken orbital in the first round to win a split decision. He then fought former UFC champ Anthony Pettis at UFC Fight Night 81 in January, taking another split decision to position himself as No. 1 contender for the UFC belt.

He beat dos Anjos in quick and destructive fashion, silencing all his naysayers and finally claiming a place atop the 155-pound mountain where he felt he belonged all along. Moments after winning the belt Alvarez was asked about next fight, and with a plan clearly already in mind, targeted McGregor.

“To be able to come out with a win over (dos Anjos) and before him was Pettis, before him was Gilbert (Melendez), these are the best guys in the division,” Alvarez said. “I’m not taking on top 15 guys. I would ask (UFC President) Dana White please to give me an easier fight like Conor McGregor. I deserve that. I’ve been fighting the best guys. I would like a gimme fight. So, Conor? I more than welcome that.”

Although McGregor has proven to be one of the best fighters in the world over his UFC career, and would make history by winning at UFC 205, Alvarez says his claim that the brash Irishman is a “gimme” fight for him is not just fight-hype. MMA is a sport where styles make fights, and he says McGregor’s style is perfectly suited for him to beat.

“I went in the UFC and they put me against every single killer in the division one by one by one by one – I didn’t know why,” Alvarez says. “I thought it was because I was coming in a foreign champion from a foreign promotion, but I felt like they put me against murderer’s row and I survived, I won the world title. I wasn’t kidding to the media that I thought this style matchup was a good style matchup for me. I thought it was easier than what they were feeding me, and I thought financially it would be the best decision. I was killing two birds with one stone.”

Alvarez vs. McGregor is a historic fight that will top a historic card, with the UFC making its return to New York after a more than 20-year ban of the sport in the state. McGregor says he thinks the card will set a UFC pay-per-view record at more than 2 million buys, meaning the event will receive more attention and be more financially lucrative than any before it.

But for Alvarez, his goals are much greater than just this one fight. He’s not content with simply being in a position of prestige at UFC 205, he wants to win, as well. And once he moves past McGregor, he says his goals revolve around further etching his place int he sport’s history books.

“I want to go down as the best lightweight in UFC history, that’s what I’ll go down as,” Alvarez says. ” I’ll start with him but then I’ll make UFC great again and continue to fight the number one guys who belong here. I sincerely feel, and felt I deserve a break. This will be my break and then we’ll get back to some real shit. Fighting the real number one contenders who fight the best guys and earn their way to the title. Not the guys who have a funny accent and sell tickets.”

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