Bellator 66 headliner Alvarez sees revenge, leverage in Aoki bout
Eddie Alvarez (22-3 MMA, 6-1 BFC) can raise his future value in mixed martial arts by getting payback for the past.
He'll have vengeance on his mind today when he takes on Japanese superstar Shinya Aoki (30-5 MMA, 0-0 BFC) at Bellator Fighting Championships' show in Cleveland.
Their main-event bout at Bellator 66 (8 p.m. ET, MTV2) matches two of the top-three lightweights outside the UFC and Strikeforce in the sequel to a New Year's Eve 2008 show that saw Aoki win quickly via submission.
The rematch also marks the penultimate fight on Alvarez's present contract. He won't face a more highly regarded opponent before he becomes a free agent. The USA TODAY/SB Nation consensus rankings for lightweights has Aoki at No. 5, six spots ahead of Alvarez.
Another setback for Alvarez could help Bellator in some ways. He likely wouldn't lose much value as a marquee fighter because there's no shame in losing to a top-five opponent, but he wouldn't have as much leverage for negotiations when the current deal expires and he starts soliciting offers from organizations such as industry leader Zuffa, parent company of UFC and Strikeforce.
Yet Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney finds himself openly cheering for Alvarez, the first notable talent to join the organization before it started in 2009.
"Whether he ends up making a lot of money with us or he ends up making a lot of money with the UFC, he deserves it," Rebney says. "I like Aoki, and I like his people, but I hope Ed does great. If he does, surely it will make it more difficult to re-sign him with one fight left than it would have if he lost the fight. But I'm rooting for him."
After the 2008 loss in Saitama, Japan, Alvarez captured Bellator's lightweight championship while compiling a seven-fight winning streak to break into the consensus top six and cement his position as the poster boy for Rebney's organization. But Alvarez always remembered the letdown against Aoki, which Alvarez attributes to a lack of confidence against a highly regarded superstar of mixed martial arts.
"At that point, Aoki already established himself," Alvarez says. "That was sort of a gauge for me to see where I was at. I think I gave him a little bit too much respect. ... I'm a different fighter now — a different person, different mindset."
His opponent sees changes in himself, as well. Aoki has been training in Singapore frequently for the past several months to improve his Muay Thai striking.
"I believe Eddie Alvarez and I have both evolved as different fighters," Aoki says. "I'm more confident in my standup skills."
Out of 37 pro fights, this will be Aoki's second U.S. bout against a highly regarded opponent. An April 2010 fight in Nashville went badly for him as he lost a one-sided decision to Strikeforce champion and consensus No. 3 Gilbert Melendez.
Melendez battered Aoki with punches and turned aside numerous takedown attempts to render his potent grappling game irrelevant.
"When Gilbert fought Aoki, he was able to basically expose how much of a one-trick pony Aoki was," Alvarez says. "He can only use his game and only be effective if you let him be. Gilbert did a good job shutting him down."
This time Aoki hopes to represent Japanese mixed martial arts more effectively against elite competition.
"My main goal in this fight with Eddie Alvarez is to prove myself and Japanese MMA are still at the top level," says Aoki, who did record an April 2011 submission win in San Diego against unranked lightweight Lyle Beerbohm. "I'd like to show my style is MMA, not just grappling or striking."
Aoki, the DREAM promotion's champion and one of the most creative and aggressive grapplers in MMA, defeated Alvarez in their first encounter by applying a submission hold that painfully wrenches the target's ankle and knee to force a tap-out. But Alvarez landed effective strikes and reversed a takedown try to gain top position before Aoki secured the winning hold.
Maturity and greater experience will keep that from happening again, Alvarez says. But he might have to go against his penchant for attacking.
"He brings a whole different skill set to this game that actually plays into people who are aggressive and people who like to engage," Alvarez says. "If you present him with that and give that to him, then he'll take advantage of it. But (if) you never give that to him, it's going to be tough for him to fight."
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