Eddie Alvarez, perhaps for the first time in his career, appears to be in a tenuous position.
The 28-year-old Philadelphian, a nine-year mixed martial arts veteran, is ranked outside the top 10 of the lightweight division for the first time in three years. He's coming off a title-ceding, physically taxing loss, just his third in 25 fights. And tonight's bout against Shinya Aoki, the man responsible for Alvarez's second defeat in 2008, is one of two remaining on his contract with Bellator.
"Obviously this fight has got enormous impact for his career," Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said of Alvarez, who was among the promoter's first signings and represented an early lynchpin of the company. "He can jettison himself right back into the top echelon of lightweights in the world, in terms of the overall industry's perception, or not. It's a big fight. There's no denying this is a big fight for Eddie Alvarez."
There's big. And then there's career-defining big. Alvarez is dealing in the latter. Yet he hasn't shown any signs that the stress has gotten to him.
"I'm sort of emotionless. I left all of my emotions in the gym. I've been away from my family training in South Florida and all my preparation is done," he said. "I feel better than I ever have going into a fight and that's not just a cliche statement. I really do. I feel like it's just another day. I don't feel any emotions toward anything.
"There's no questioning. There's no doubt. There's no fear of the future. What might happen? What may happen? I go into fights with a lot of that baggage and I don't know why, but I was able to let that go coming into this fight and it feels really good."
Working with a new camp, the Rashad Evans-led Blackzilians, and its associated management group, Authentic Sports Management, Alvarez underwent a "natural progression in my career," he said.
Regression, however, is a distinct possibility if he doesn't do to Aoki (30-5, 1 NC) what he could not when the Japanese lightweight finished a heel hook submission in 92 seconds.
"I really didn't respect leg locks in 2008," Alvarez said. "I didn't see them used much in MMA. I didn't see many people finished with them in MMA. So I didn't respect them enough to train properly for them. I went about my normal training and neglected that strength of his and I paid for it. It's different this time around. I respect his strengths and I made sure I had the ability to avoid them and defend them, and use what I'm good at."
Aoki comes into Friday's bout at the I-X Center in Cleveland, Ohio, ranked sixth by ESPN.com at 155 pounds. He called the 2008 result "lucky."
"This fight will test both of our skills," said the 28-year-old submission specialist. "That's how the fight will be."
Alvarez was tested to his limits last November against Michael Chandler. The fourth-round stoppage, widely acclaimed as one of the best bouts of 2011, cost Alvarez his standing as Bellator's only lightweight champion and forced him to the sidelines for six weeks with torn rib cartilage. Alvarez said he spent time away from mixed martial arts with his wife and children, all of whom have been fixtures at his fights over the years.
Where MMA takes Alvarez and his family is unclear. Redemption over Aoki, whom Bellator holds options on for multiple U.S.-based fights, would likely return Alvarez to the top 10 ahead of the final fight on his contract with Rebney.
"He was with me driving around in a crappy rental car, flying Southwest Airlines when we were trying to get this thing on ESPN Deportes," Rebney said. "He was a big piece of it. So I want Eddie to do as well as he can possibly do."
Alvarez believes Aoki is improved from the version that beat him three years ago. The Japanese fighter now has better striking, especially kicking, Alvarez said; yet he offers essentially the same threats as he did in 2008.
"He's a little bit different in the cage, but at the end of the day a fight's a fight no matter where it's at," Alvarez said. "The person with the biggest spirit, who comes focused that night, is going to win.
"It will be a display of just how much I've grown in the last three years. I was young, wasn't too confident in my abilities, and made mistakes, just like people who are young and immature do. ... My goal is the same as it was when I first started this sport, and that's to beat the guy on the other side of the cage. It will never change."