By Thomas Gerbasi
If fate made a different turn, WBO junior welterweight champion Mike Alvarado might have been on this Saturday’s UFC 166 card in Houston, and not headlining the HBO boxing event in Denver against Ruslan Provodnikov that same night.
He was that good a wrestler when he was a teenager, winning two state championships for Skyview High School. But when the time came to decide whether to go to college or take another route, he took that other route, lacing on boxing gloves and beginning on a career that led him to a world championship in 2013.
As for mixed martial arts, Alvarado says “Once I got so deep into the boxing game, I was really just focused on making my name in boxing. Maybe if MMA was big as it is now when I finished high school, I think maybe I would have joined MMA, but I think this is my calling. I’ve always been a boxer.”
And a helluva boxer at that. But does he ever think how dangerous he could have been with his wrestling ability and being able to hit opponents with four ounce gloves?
“Right?” he laughs. “Hell yeah. That would be brutal.”
Brutal could describe the 33-year-old’s career to this point. In a game where safety-first became the key phrase for up and comers, Alvarado specialized in safety-last. That made him a popular attraction among the hardcore fight set, but the call to that next level never seemed to come, despite a gaudy unbeaten record. Some of that was self-inflicted thanks to some jail time over the years, but even after he got on the straight and narrow, he didn’t seem to get the breaks other fighters got.
“I was,” he said when asked if he ever wondered if his time would come. “But I was always taking tough fights, and I know I proved myself over and over, so it had to come. I knew my time was coming to show that I deserved that shot, and I wasn’t going to let anyone down for giving me that opportunity.”
In October of last year, that opportunity arrived in the form of Brandon Rios. On paper, it was a can’t miss fight between two forward-marching brawlers, and in reality, it still surpassed all expectations, with the two 140-pounders going at it tooth and nail until referee Pat Russell halted the fight (some say controversially) in Rios’ favor in the seventh round. It was Alvarado’s first pro loss, but no one who saw that fight would ever call him a loser.
“Everybody was like ‘wow, what a great fight you put on,’” said Alvarado of the reaction to the bout. “We left our heart in there and showed what kind of fighters we really are. None of us went down, and we kept fighting until the ref literally had to stop that fight to keep us from killing each other. It was good and I had a lot of good reactions. Everybody gave me a lot of respect from that fight, and I showed that the best of me is yet to come.”
The Rios fight was a career-maker for Alvarado, guaranteeing that we were going to see him in at least a few more big fights, likely on premium cable. That was the good news. The bad news was that Alvarado had to recover from the kind of grueling battle that can shave years off a fighter’s career.
“It was tough,” he admits. “But I just had to stay strong. I had to take that loss and bounce back from it. It was a great fight, and it was a good recovery afterward. So after a couple of months I was past that, I put it behind me, and said all right, let’s bounce back, get back into training, and get it back. And once I heard that they were giving me another shot at Rios, I was like, yes, this is the time to really come back, switch things up and show that I can adjust.”
He had to. With a March 2013 rematch with Rios looming, Alvarado could have just decided to roll the dice in another brawl with his friendly rival. But two losses in a row weren’t going to be acceptable, and another punishing war could do more harm than good in the long run. So he brought in one of boxing’s most underrated trainers, Rudy Hernandez, and while the Californian didn’t completely overhaul Alvarado, he did some fine tuning as he added some new wrinkles to the brawler’s game.
The result? A 12 round decision win for Alvarado that netted him his first world championship. And while Alvarado-Rios II was still a Fight of the Year candidate, “Mile High” certainly surprised many observers with his ability to box and show restraint when necessary.
“I know I did,” agreed Alvarado. “It was a lot of preparation and switching up the training methods, which wasn’t hard at all because I had it in me the whole time. I just never really trained to switch my style up. I’ve only fought one way and it’s the way I know how to fight. But once Rudy came in and implemented all those different training methods, it was easy. And after switching up like that once, I can do it even easier now. I can fight inside and exchange big shots, and I can also box and keep myself away from those type of situations. So it was a blessing what Rudy brought to our camp.”
“It wasn’t that difficult at all,” said Hernandez when asked if it was hard to get this leopard to change his spot, even if only slightly. “When you have a such a good athlete like him, it makes things a little bit easier. He’s a lot better boxer than people think. But he’s never been taken out of that element. And when it was brought in to him, he picked up on it. One of the keys to all of this is that once it’s explained to him, he understands and then he goes out and executes, and that’s something that’s amazing. If you see the fight, before the tenth round he was still moving awkwardly, but in the tenth, all of a sudden he started looking smooth out there, and it came a little more natural to him.”
But on Saturday night, the fight community isn’t expecting a slick Mike Alvarado to show up against Provodnikov; they’re expecting two tanks to meet in the center of the ring and start swinging until someone falls down. Alvarado knows this better than anyone.
“He’s not too much different from Rios’ style,” he said of the challenger. “He sits right there, he’s a fighter, and he makes you want to fight. He’s tough, so I have to be smart, just like I was with Rios.”
What happens when the leather starts flying though? Can he stick to the game plan and not just bite down on his mouthpiece and start firing back recklessly?
“That’s the main key and the toughest focus to have in the fight,” said Alvarado. “I know he’s gonna be there, but I have to hold back a lot and be like ‘okay, let’s move, let’s switch it up a little bit and use our attack that we’ve been practicing.’ I can fight with him all day long to show him who’s tougher, who can take a big shot, who can give a shot, and show heart and dig deep. But now that I’m implementing more boxing skills into my fight game, it allows me to adjust and win these fights and not take as much punishment. I proved myself, I proved I could sit there and brawl with you and keep coming. But now I’m trying to be a smarter fighter and make the fight a little easier. It will still be a good fight and I’ll put on a good show, and that’s what the fans want to see – they want to see Rocky and the Russian.”
Alvarado laughs, well aware that his reputation makes it impossible for people to see him as anything but the kind of fighter who will take one to give one. But once you get a world championship belt around your waist, things change. In the Colorado native’s case, he’s taken the hits, taken the hard road, and now he can actually see a light at the end of the tunnel that looks like a bright future. And if he’s got to box more and bang less to achieve all his dreams, he’s willing to do it.
“It seems like everything is falling in the right place,” he said. “It’s like God has this plan for me where he’s laying it out – I just gotta take the steps get through what’s in front of me. I’ve been taking these opportunities and doing the best I can with them and trying to improve. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s been a long road to get to where I am now, but it sunk in pretty good and I’m happy where I’m at.”