Being a world champion has never been Eddie Alvarez’s endgame. For him, it’s about testing himself against the best in the world.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoying the fruits of his labor.
Alvarez (28-4, 3-1 UFC) is living the good life after winning the UFC lightweight belt last month with a dominating TKO victory over Rafael dos Anjos.
“I fly first class everywhere and I’m not giving that up, so you’re going to have to do a whole hell of a lot to get this belt from me now,” Alvarez told Newsday of the perks that come with being UFC champion. “Everybody wants to buy me free [expletive] now, it’s incredible, it’s tough for me to pay for something.”
It took 13 years for Alvarez to claim UFC gold, but now that the belt is his, Alvarez doesn’t regret his long path to glory.
“I wasn’t worried about doing it in a quick amount of time,” Alvarez said. “It was always like a marathon for me, not a sprint. I knew eventually, I’d get there.”
Alvarez started his career in 2003 and was always confident he’d get to the top, as long as he had the resources and time to get there. For the first four years of his career, he worked as a concrete laborer during the day while training to fight at night.
“It was a really tough part of my life where I did a lot of investing in fighting and sacrificed,” Alvarez said. “I couldn’t think about doing what I did again, but we got past it, got through it, kept our fingers crossed and got the contract we needed.”
After fighting in Bodog, EliteXC and Dream, Alvarez found a home with the newly founded Bellator in 2009, fighting at the promotion’s inaugural event and becoming one of its most well-known faces. He won the Bellator lightweight title twice in four years, dropping just one fight to Michael Chandler, a loss he avenged when he retook the title in their rematch.
Alvarez’s eventual departure was messy at the time, he has no ill feelings toward his old promotion and no regrets about his time there. Still, Alvarez knew he needed to make the move to the UFC sooner than later.
“I always tried to look for the best guys outside the UFC and beat the best names possible. I felt like there was a point where I couldn’t go any further,” Alvarez said. “I’d beaten the best guys outside the UFC and I really can’t get my hands on anyone else that’s going to add value to my career, it can only hurt me.
“I think it was time at that point to go ahead and fight the guys ranked ahead of me, and the only way I can get my hands on those guys is to go to the UFC.”
Alvarez got his wish immediately, meeting Donald Cerrone in his first UFC bout in September 2014. Alvarez lost a decision that night but rebounded with wins over former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez and former UFC champion Anthony Pettis to set up his title fight with dos Anjos.
Alvarez is just one of several new UFC champions in 2016 as title belts seem harder than ever to retain, but he believes the mindset that helped him slowly climb the ladder will prevent him from falling fast.
“If you move too quickly to the belt, it means that once you get the belt, you’ll be complacent,” Alvarez said. “They’ll do anything to get the belt, but once they get it, they didn’t think about what their plans were afterwards, they just thought about, when I get there, then I’ll be happy, then I’ve achieved something.
“I had a different mindset. For me, it was never per se about getting to the belt, it was always about growth and getting to the UFC and beating the best guys in front of me,” Alvarez said. “Now that I’m here it still doesn’t change. It’s still about growth, it’s still about beating the best guys and I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”
When it comes to beating the best guys, Alvarez has a few options ahead of him. A few contenders have emerged at 155 pounds, including undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov and No. 3-ranked Tony Ferguson, but the champion would rather those fighters get some bigger wins on their resume or fight each other before challenging for the title. He’s also ruled out a fight against teammate Edson Barboza, currently ranked No. 5 in the UFC’s deepest division.
Instead, he wants the money fight.
Alvarez is determined to fight the winner of UFC 202’s co-main event, a rematch between featherweight champion Conor McGregor and No. 4 lightweight Nate Diaz (that fight will be contested at welterweight).
Alvarez said he doesn’t look at McGregor on the same level as those he considers the true best in the world, such as previous opponents dos Anjos, Pettis and Melendez, and he wants to show that popularity isn’t indicative of skill in MMA.
“I really want to make it my purpose to get the winner of Nate Diaz-Conor McGregor and fight this guy and let the fans know, look, these guys are not what you think,” Alvarez said. “And when they do face a real challenge and a real fighter, this is what’s going to happen.”