The road to St. Louis from a rainy Chicago is wet blacktop, Interstate 55 stretching through fields of prairie grass, running past yawning barns weather-beaten and skeletal, like the bare ribcages of giant animals, past gangs of young horses turning their heads from the rain, past The World's Largest Covered Wagon and the birthplace of the American corndog, and past the birthplace of fighting legend Matt Hughes. A once-great champion, Hughes' reputation has suffered over the years due to his behavior, warped or otherwise, on reality-TV, and it's no longer clear if he is, after all, the strong-backed, stoic, religious, lantern-jawed icon of the Midwest, or a jingoistic, egomaniacal bully. Regardless, it seems that those poorly received television appearances may have done more harm to his legacy than any knockout loss. As it happens, Struggling Former Champions ends up being one of the major themes of my weekend.
Though Andrei Arlovski is fighting at "Strikeforce: Heavy Artillery" merely to regain a foothold in the division, there was a time when he was the best heavyweight mixed martial artist in North America, and one of the top three or four in the world. These days he looks plagued by a fragile disposition and a similarly unsteady jaw. History doesn't do him any favors, either: in retrospect, Arlovski's abbreviated championship reign was built on the backs of unworthy contenders. His title defenses came at the expense of, at best, high-level journeymen fighters--Paul Buentello, the late Justin Eilers. We understand this now. Nevertheless, many of us have hoped, with every one of his entrances into the ring, that Arlovski would deliver on all that was promised by his UFC career, characterized as it was by such great speed, power, and agility. We've looked for a return to past form, but the past gets eaten up like so many miles of road, slips from our grasp, and after a few short years Andrei Arlovski is taking his next perilous step along the edge of obsolescence.
Preliminary fights at 6:30 post meridian. The arena is unusually well-attended for this early in a fight card. Strikeforce has drawn impressive crowds in its home state of California due in large part to its support of fighters native to the area, and the organization looks to have replicated that success here in St. Louis, Missouri. The undercard is full of local boys plucked from the cornfields and riverbanks of towns called East St. Louis, Oskaloosa, and Carbondale. Young men, most of them, trying to scramble out from under the shroud of anonymity.
A tousle-haired kid named Ricehouse and a sober-faced amateur named Wilson get things started. Both are lanky, pale, and hesitant to stand in the pocket, but they do some good work, look pretty well-trained for guys with only a handful of fights between them. Ricehouse is the more experienced of the two, and it shows. Even this early in his career he seems to have integrated both boxing and jiu-jitsu into his wrestling regimen. I assume his background is in wrestling. He's from the Midwest, which has a storied wrestling tradition, and he uses the takedown and positional dominance as a sort of trump whenever things get too dicey on the feet. Ricehouse works like this for a couple of rounds, throwing hands before planting Wilson on his back, and by the third Wilson is too worn out to fend off the rear-naked choke, and submits.
Though it's still early in the evening the crowd in attendance spares no enthusiasm, and they shower the cage with cheers. No one seems to have much of an idea who these young fighters are, but in the floor seats, where we're sitting, there's no room for ambivalence. There's an implicit understanding that to get the most out of a fight, to become really engaged with its perils and triumphs, one has to sympathize with one man or the other. To this end, the people around me make small, token wagers. The money doesn't seem to really matter, it's just an occasion to throw their support behind a fighter, which they do with great verve. Though they pick their man arbitrarily, based on the music he walks out to, or if he's wearing a hat, they call for his victory as if they've been a fan for years.
By nine the floor is sticky with spilled soda and beer. There may or may not be nacho cheese somewhere on my shirt. One fight had already broken out in the stands and it seems, for a moment, that another might flare up in the row behind me. Some hatchet-faced guy, dressed head to toe in candy-apple red, stands up, complaining loudly about some perceived insult, and starts working up the courage to throw a punch, but we luck out. Someone pulls a "Chill, Dawg," and nobody has to catch a pack of drunk knuckles to the face.
While the preliminary fights are a rollicking, free-wheeling affair, the event's main card is far more emotionally charged. Because so many of us are familiar with these fighters, have deeply ingrained allegiances and sympathies, the excitement, the cries of support and alarm, are imbued with a greater sense of pride or urgency. Case in point: Andrei Arlovski versus gargantuan Brazilian Antonio Silva.
Silva's head looks about the size of a small pony's, and that's pretty damn big if you stop and think about it for a second. His massive brow gives him a fearsome, dead-eyed look, as unmoved as some Easter Island statue. He's known to be nimble for his size, with strong punching power and a knack for throwing his weight around. Despite Silva's merits, though, Arlovski is the odds-on favorite, being theoretically faster and possessed of better boxing technique. Yet there's a concern, too, that Arlovski, coming off of two straight knockout losses and nearly a year on the sidelines, isn't entirely right in the head.
Such reservations turn out to be well-founded. Beyond that, there isn't much to say. From the starting bell Arlovski has trouble setting a rhythm, fails to negotiate Silva's size advantage, and displays little if any of the boxing prowess he demonstrated in the past. Sweat flies off his beleaguered head as Silva connects flush, over and over, and I guess there's a sort of pyrrhic victory in this fact--that though Arlovski's strategy and technique may have failed him, his chin, forever suspect, for once did not. The crowd pleads with Arlovski to rally but he's spent, down to the dregs. At 15 minutes of the third round, unanimous decision loss.
On the ride home it feels like I've witnessed the last gasps of a giant from my youth. Maybe he'll be back, maybe return to some winning way, but the indomitable Andrei Arlovski of years ago seems lost to us forever. The World Beater that Never Was. A plight such as his lends MMA's deepening history a dimension of heartache. Such melancholy--found by other sports fans in the collapse of Mike Tyson, the never-ending struggle of the Chicago Cubs, the trembling hands of Muhammad Ali--mounts with each passing generation of mixed martial artists, and our sport grows ever more redolent with nostalgia. Don't even tell me you don't know what I'm talking about. I don't want to hear that shit. Even if we hide it behind a set jaw, a surly disposition, or some smug, callous remark, each of us bastards keeps a place in our hearts for the ranks of the past, thickening with fallen heroes.
The past shudders and gives way. Somewhere in the future you talk to an old friend in a far away city, recall some long drive to St. Louis, and you ask if he remembers Andrei Arlovski.