Bellator 106 had long been underway in Long Beach, Calif., on Saturday night (Nov. 2, 2013), but I had not seen one punch, kick or takedown, save for checking live updates on my iPhone.
The reason? I was on Amelia Island -- a small barrier oasis just outside of Jacksonville, Florida -- to attend a memorial service for my girlfriend's uncle. Since I was in a hot-bed area for college football, there wasn't a chance I was going to find a television at a bar later on that night either (those are all reserved for Seminoles, Hurricanes, Gators, Vols, Bulldogs and the like).
I had a better chance at petting an alligator and living to tell about it.
When the memorial concluded, we moved on to Omni Resort, a palatial hotel where the television was held hostage by the Miami vs. Florida State game. Maybe, with some luck, I would make it back to our room at The Days Inn, which may or may not have had Spike TV. I managed to maintain idle conversation, while constantly checking my iPhone for results.
So there I was, on an island resort with no charger and no Spike TV ... panic began to set in. Yes, I was DVR'ing at home, but I wanted -- as I'm sure all my media brethren can relate -- instant gratification! As luck would have it, and after a newlywed couple jumped in the gigantic pool with their dress and tuxedo still on, I looked up at the bar television and the news was on.
The game was over!
That's when I made my move toward the bartender. "Excuse me, is there any chance you can switch the channel to Spike?" I asked. "No problem," he replied before asking, "What's on?" "The Bellator fight card," I say, hoping he won't change his mind.
The channel changed over to Spike TV just in time for the pre-fight announcements. "Is this a big fight?" says the man completely clad in Georgia Bulldog attire. In case you are wondering, where I was staying was a half-hour drive from the peach state and the Florida vs. Georgia game had taken place just a few hours prior. "Yes it is," I tell him. "It's for the Bellator Lightweight title." I then bring him up to speed on the back story, minus the contract dispute, and how it's a rematch two years in the making. I point out who Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez are on the screen, and he asks, "Which one is the champion?"
"The one in the white shorts," I tell him. The fight is about to begin, and the graphics of both fighters are promptly displayed on the screen. "They're both American?" the Georgia fan asked. "Yes, they are," I replied. We both high five and shout "Merica!" That didn't actually happen, but I wish it had! What did occur was an exciting opening round that saw Chandler nearly finish the fight with a rear-naked choke while a few more people migrated over to the television.
"What fights are these," says the newest viewer. "Bellator," I tell him, as Alvarez starts to land his jab. "Are they under Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)?," he continues. "No, they are there own promotion," I tell him. My eyes are glued to the screen like they usually are during fights of this magnitude, yet I'm still able to bring him up to speed, and answer any questions the Georgia fan is throwing my way. "How many rounds is this fight?" is his latest question. "Five," I tell him. "Title fights are always five." Chandler's left eye is now a bloody mess, and the second round has ended with the champion getting the takedown and landing some punches in the final seconds.
I would normally jump on to Twitter between rounds with the rest of the MMA media world, to bring up a decent point, state the obvious or look at who is giving out 10-8 rounds like candy on Halloween; however, my iPhone is dead, so I settle for the 60-inch at the Omni and getting random college football fans curious about an epic fight.
Did I mention there is no sound on the television? I'm having separation anxiety from my set in Astoria, N.Y., and Sean Wheelock and Jimmy Smith's voices. I can only live vicariously through the closed caption subtitles on the screen, which are also at times distracting.
The third round is now under way and Alavarez is starting to really find his groove. I hear a new, yet familiar voice to my immediate right. "This looks like a good fight," says my girlfriend's cousin Ryan. "I saw from outside, what fights are you watching?" he asks. "Bellator," I tell him. "Which guy is Bellator?" he asks. With some dejection, after realizing how far the rest of the MMA landscape has to come, I explain to him what Bellator is. "The dude in the red shorts looks like he can box," he then says. "Yes, he does," I tell him. "He lost the title to the guy wearing the white shorts, two years ago."
That's enough for Ryan ... he's now in for the duration of the main event.
At this point I'm thinking that the fight is probably scored two rounds to one in favor of Chandler, despite his eye being almost swollen shut. Although, Alvarez may have seized the momentum after the third frame as Chandler started to look tired. As the fight was heading into the championship rounds, I explain to Ryan how rounds are assessed by the judges, and who may be winning and why, more familiar voices join the select crowd at the Omni.
"Is it as good as the first fight?" my girlfriend Lauren asks, before she checks on Ryan to see if he is digging the rematch. "Did you tell him about the contract, and the lawsuit and everything?" she asks. I marvel at how well she pays attention to what I tell her about MMA, and what her memory retains, while watching the cage side doctor examine Chandler's eye between rounds. She is happy I came for her Uncle's memorial, and at the same time remorseful for pulling me away from the sport I cover.
Whatever energy Chandler lost in the third round, he found in the fourth. After taking down Alvarez, he opened a cut over the former champion's left eye by administering some wicked ground-and-pound for the majority of the frame. Alvarez, to his credit did not wilt, weathering the storm of Chandler's punches.
Chandler had finished Alvarez in the fourth in their first meeting, but this time he would not succumb and we would see a fifth and final round. "Looks like the dude in the red shorts is winning," the Georgia fan says, speaking for the first time since the first round. "The guy in the white short's eye is all messed up."
"Wounds don't always tell who is actually winning," I tell him, excited he is still watching this epic battle unfold. "This next round could potentially be huge for either guy if it goes to a decision," I explain.
The fifth round begins, and Alvarez-who took a solid beating in the fourth-is fighting like everything is on the line-because, well, it kind of was. The Blackzilian was getting after it, landing big punches and fighting with passion, heart and most importantly a sense of urgency. Now it was he, who would take Chandler to the ground.
Blood was now all over both warriors, as Alvarez was trying in vain to put Chandler away with a rear naked choke of his own. "Oh my God, look at all that blood," my girlfriend's cousin Jordan would say. "How do you watch this stuff?" she says in disgust. "That's his job," my girlfriend Lauren chimes in proudly. I nod and smile, like foreigners who don't speak English often do. Chandler was now escaping what seemed like an inescapable choke attempt as I stared at the screen incredulously.
"It was unbelievable," Chandler's corner man and grappling coach Neil Melanson told MMAmania over the weekend. "I don't know anyone who could survive that when they are that tired. When Eddie got Mike flat with the first choke under the chin, I figured Mike was done. Eddie was driving his hips in so hard. It's hard to move there. It was under the chin. It's a lot of pressure. Mike somehow managed to scramble out.
"If you try to picture it yourself. Just imagine being that exhausted and having an elite level athlete going the distance with you," Melanson continued. "Someone that is your respected rival.... You are winning the fight -- in my opinion I thought Mike was winning the fight -- the guy is behind you and you're exhausted, your eye is busted and your nose is bleeding and he sinks a choke in.
"Where most people, the best in the world, anyone else on the planet would've probably been too exhausted to escape. I know Mike was tired, and how he got out of it, I couldn't give you a technical explanation other than Michael has something inside of him that most people don't have. I saw Eddie the next day and he was dumbfounded. He was like, ‘Dude, I had him dead to rights. I don't know. I don't know how he got out.'"
The last round was all Alvarez, but just as he didn't break in the fourth, Chandler would not crack either. He would even manage to reverse position as the bloody five-round war came to its conclusion. "Red shorts has it I think," says the Georgia fan. I had it 48-47 in favor of Chandler, but we all know about judges and decisions in MMA. Outside of the cliche judges talk, I felt it would be a split as I'm sure did most who watched, but again Twitter did not exist for me at this moment.
I had no knowledge of any other professional opinion other than my own and that of the bystanders I coerced into watching.
Suddenly, another voice booms from behind me in the back corner of the bar. A table of random guys had been watching the whole time unbeknownst to me. "Red shorts has it," says one of the guys, my eyes never straying from the screen to see what he looks like. "I'm telling you," he says with conviction. "That was awesome," Ryan says. I agree with him, as I'm anxiously waiting for the last commercial to end so I can see Michael Williams announce the winner.
As I look up at the screen at Big John McCarthy holding both fighters' arms, waiting to raise only one, I'm awestruck at seeing how both fighters were battered, bruised and cut. They had left it all in the cage. Chandler's eye is nearly swollen shut. Alvarez's eye was continuing to swell by the second. Both looked sapped of every ounce of energy.
"They looked like -- if you ever seen any of the Navy Seal training footage of 'Hell Week' -- once everyone makes it past Wednesday, no one really quits on Thursday," Melanson said. "They are just in a different world, where they're just not going to quit. They are going to go until they are dead. That's kind of what it was like."
I read the subtitles as Williams announces the first two scorecards, one for each fighter. My assumption is correct -- it will indeed be a split decision. After seeing Williams point to Alvarez and McCarthy raise his hand in victory, I smile because I know the fight world is assured a rubber match between the two combatants. "You were right," I tell the Georgia fan. "Told you," the guy at the back table yells to his buddies. I continue to stare at the screen in astonishment that this rematch was just as good as the first fight and in some ways better.
"Rarely in mixed martial arts, do you see a rematch live up to the level of a great first fight," Bellator commentator Sean Wheelock told MMAmania. "This one did. It showcased the skill of both fighters and it showcased the character of both fighters."
"It takes two to put on a fight like that,"Alvarez would say to Jimmy Smith after Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney placed the 155-pound championship belt around his waist for the first time since defeating Pat Curran by decision at Bellator 39 in April 2011. "We did it together, another fight of the year, and I have the gold belt."
A very classy response from a man not far removed from a messy legal battle with the promotion and Rebney.
Bellator was panned heavily on its decision to make Tito Ortiz vs. Quinton Jackson a pay-per-view (PPV) headliner over Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez ... and rightfully so. But, the Ortiz injury and subsequent panic to move the card to Spike TV was a blessing in disguise after all. The two best fighters on their roster put on another instant classic and waved the Bellator flag for all to see for free. They represented everything that is great about the sport:
Heart, skill, toughness, determination and the ability to push ones self past the point of exhaustion.
As my girlfriend and I head back to our hotel, I smile and absorb it all. How great the fight was, how I was able to find a television, how cool the bartender was for putting Spike TV on for me and how I was able to introduce a room half-full of strangers to an amazing fight.
I also pondered how if it had been a PPV card I would not have witnessed it unfold live. I'm a lucky man. I'll always remember this night as "Red Shorts vs. White Shorts" and how I pet an alligator on Amelia Island.