Bellator’s newly-crowned lightweight king Michael Chandler and predecessor Eddie Alvarez left it all in the cage Saturday at Bellator 58 in Hollywood, Fla. Three days removed from what some are already ranking among the top three fights of 2011, the dynamic pair both have the war wounds to prove it.
Chandler (9-0), who secured a rear-naked choke in the fourth round to unseat the long-reigning Alvarez (22-3), hobbled away from the cage with a sprained right ankle from a hyper-extended kick to his opponent’s body, two black eyes and four stitches to his face.
“It was the first time I’ve felt pain during a fight,” said Chandler, who earned a crack at Alvarez by winning Bellator’s eight-man tournament earlier this year. “Thankfully the adrenaline kicked in and I went into the mode where I knew I’d be swollen and bruised anyway the next day, so why not go for it?”
Alvarez, 27, didn’t fair any better. On Tuesday, he made his way to the doctor’s office for X-rays, fearing he’d torn cartilage around his ribcage and to check the still-swollen left side of his face for a possible fracture. This was in addition to the 45-minute stitching session he endured backstage for a severely split lip, courtesy of a bell-beating knockdown Chandler delivered at the end of the first round.
The Philadelphia-bred fighter said his lip was so torn, he could feel it “flopping in the wind” between rounds. Alvarez tucked the dangling flesh into his mouth and answered the second-round bell, hoping the referee wouldn’t notice it.
“(Bellator’s cutman) told me I had to go out there and knock him out because the doctor was going to stop it. This sort of f—ed up my mentality and made me feel a little desperate,” said Alvarez, who was Bellator’s biggest signing when the promotion debuted on ESPN Deportes in April 2009.
As the fight wore on without interruption, Alvarez shook off his doubts and found his groove, rebounding by the third round to trap his challenger against the cage. Alvarez fired away with punches during Chandler’s most dire moment, but said he realized it was the rare occasion where he and his opponent seemed to be cut from the same cloth.
“There were a couple times I hit him clean, but he has the same attribute as me: he’s hard to put away,” said Alvarez, who credits his conditioning for his ability to recover phenomenally from two heart-stopping first-round knockdowns and Chandler’s constant pressure. “I realized I had to go all five (rounds) or submit him.”
Chandler beat Alvarez to it, knocking him down before locking in the fight-ending choke for the tapout after 18 minutes of back-and-forth action.
The Xtreme Couture fighter, who went from freshman walk-on to Div. I All-American for the University of Missouri wrestling squad, said he had a clear-cut strategy from the opening bell that served him well.
“I had to attack his presence in the cage from the start,” said Chandler, who wrestled alongside fellow Bellator champion Ben Askren and Strikeforce standout Tyrone Woodley at UM. “Everyone lets him take the driver’s seat, lets him control the pace. I knew I couldn’t let that happen.”
Alvarez, who made his name beating a handful of the world’s top-ranked lightweights abroad and had gone unbeaten since December 2008, admitted he was caught off-guard by Chandler’s initial attack.
“A lot of fighters have said they’re going to get in my face, but they don’t,” said Alvarez. “I didn’t expect Mike to come out as aggressively as he did. He got me good, too.”
By taking the highly regarded Alvarez out, the 25-year-old Chandler finds himself a star overnight by the sport’s standards. He spent Monday and Tuesday granting more media interviews than he has since he started fighting in 2009.
So far, Chandler seems to be keeping the sudden rush of attention in perspective, as the simple, cursive tattoo on his left pectoral reads “Blessed” for a reason. He also marks his fight clothing that way in the same spot, a reminder that the son of a carpenter and a secretary has much to be grateful for.
“You see it from my area, from any area, really, so many who want to be great and have the drive, but don’t have the resources,” said Chandler, who hails from High Ridge, Mo, a suburb of St. Louis. “I’m very blessed that I have a family that was financially stable enough to get me to tournaments and camps and to practices so I could wrestle year-round. It’s allowed me to get where I am today.”
Not short on good karma, Chandler also made a point to voice his admiration for Alvarez, though the former champion probably doesn’t need it.
Alvarez, who’s married with three sons, is already onto his next fight. Having reviewed Saturday’s fight to pinpoint weaknesses, Alvarez said he’ll alter his training and preparation for next time.
“I fought the entire fight with my hands down and I’m pissed with myself,” said the unflappable Alvarez. “I need to make changes. There’s no reason I should be making these fundamental mistakes.”
If both lightweights keep their careers on track, delivering performances like they did Saturday, they’ll have a home with Bellator for as long as they want one.
And with big moves on the promotion’s horizon, it’s not a bad place for either. Last month Viacom announced that it had purchased a majority share of the promotion and will begin aggressively airing live events on its cable property Spike TV in 2013 to fill the void left behind by the UFC’s move to Fox.
And if the cards play out right, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney could be looking at something down the road that all promoters dream of — a long-awaited rematch.
– Loretta Hunt