PHILADELPHIA — Eddie Alvarez was punished like a crash test dummy against Conor McGregor. Alvarez’s moment of a lifetime in the main event on one of UFC’s biggest cards was such a lopsided defeat, the lightweight fighter could not bury his sorrow.

With his wife and close friends packed in a van headed from New York to his Philly home, the weight of the wasted night crushed Alvarez.

“Almost the whole ride, I cried the way home,” he said. “In front of my wife, in front of the people that where there. I felt heartbroken. I felt a lot of things. I was angry. I was disappointed.”

Alvarez was just another victim for McGregor.

But to Alvarez, the championship bout at Madison Square Garden against UFC’s A-list star was the pinnacle of a career that started as a Philly street fighter and ran through Bellator before he landed in MMA’s top promotion and won the lightweight championship. In a fight that would have shot Alvarez to stardom with a victory, McGregor instead dropped him three times in the first round before stopping him in the second.

“It’s like getting a big tattoo on your chest,” Alvarez said. “That’ll always be there. So deal with it.”

Humbled and humiliated, the 33-year-old Alvarez didn’t know how to deal with defeat. Sure, he’d lost before, but Alvarez would simply move on to the next fight. But this loss was different — he watched the replay and seemed to live with the feeling day after day of getting knocked down on his back with no fight left in him.

“Typically, I can move forward with the line of saying, I’m not defined by one loss, I’m not defined by one win. But I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t harp on the loss at Madison Square Garden,” Alvarez said. “It was too long; longer than I should have. Too long.”

The pity party eventually ended. Alvarez wanted to fight again. So threw himself into training, tried to forget about McGregor, and steeled himself for the start of the journey back to reclaim his belt.

Step 1 starts Saturday night in Dallas. Instead of the main event, Alvarez (28-5) is the featured preliminary bout against Dustin Poirer (21-5) at UFC 211 .

“I’m a little bit violent, I’m a little bit peaceful and I’m right where I need to be at,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said the key to his comeback was to make himself vulnerable again.

Whatever he did, it worked — his camp was sharp and his promotional skills are stout. Alvarez wondered what a Philly fighter had to do to earn a spot on the billboards that dot I-95 with headliners Stipe Miocic, Junior dos Santos, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Jéssica Andrade plastered throughout the city.

“I didn’t know if it was me being vain, that maybe I should have been on there,” Alvarez said. “I just thought marketing-wise you should put a recognizable face, if you’re in Philadelphia, on the billboard.”

Alvarez couldn’t escape Miocic, the UFC heavyweight champion, over a lunch of beet salad with salmon at a laid-back Philly saloon. He paused to watch Miocic on ESPN, promoting the main event slot that Alvarez only got a taste of last year. Alvarez, who defeated Rafael Dos Anjos to win the lightweight championship in July 2016, was the toast of Philly. He threw out a first pitch at a Phililes game, rang the ceremonial Liberty Bell at a 76ers game, and propped the belt over his shoulder for appearances at beer festivals and bars. With the hype on full blast, McGregor raised a steel chair high over his head and took aim on Alvarez’s skull at a UFC 205 press conference at MSG.

“I should have been more appreciative and more excited for it,” Alvarez said.

While Alvarez was a decided underdog, he expected to put up more of a fight in his first title defense. His gameplan quickly went awry.

“My first thought was, we were focused, and then we got hit,” he said. “When I got hit with a shot, I began to go in sort of instinctive mode and not thinking cognitively anymore. I lost focus. It was that simple. I started going right when our whole plan in the beginning, and everything we ever trained for was about going left.”

McGregor put his hands behind his back in the second round, taunting and toying Alvarez to hit him. McGregor unloaded a left and ended the fight at 1:52 of the second.

“My biggest fear as a fighter is to be knocked out in front of millions of people,” Alvarez said. “After it happened, there’s this calmness that comes about you that says, everything’s OK.”

Alvarez said he had a great training camp — and might walk to the cage in Dallas ready to rile up the crowd about as much as he wants to bust up Poirier.

“I might wear an Eagles jersey,” he said with a smile.

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DAN GELSTON
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