I can remember Andrei Arlovski from his prime. Spittle flying, some stuck in his bristly beard - how could you forget the snarling Belarusian who was, for a moment in time, the scariest heavyweight in the game? After losing two of his first three UFC bouts, Arlovski tore through his next four opponents, scoring three consecutive knockouts and taking home the interim UFC title with a submission win over Tim Sylvia at UFC 51.
Two more knockouts followed, wins that were more than just routine. Justin Eilers couldn't make it out of the first round. Paul Buentello didn't even last a full 30 seconds. Arlovski seemed poised to dominate the UFC for years to come. There hadn't been a dominant heavyweight in all of UFC history. Just when one seemed ready to rise into the ranks of the immortals, reality set in. The favorable referee standups, officials ignoring rules violations, the mega push from the UFC; all of those things were transitory. They couldn't be counted on every time out. And sometimes, without the benefit of the break, Arlovski stumbled. SBNation's Luke Thomas says Arlovski was as lucky as he was good:
And that's sort of the point, isn't it? It isn't that Arlovski is a fraud. The heavyweight is certfiablty talented and often his deficiencies are exaggerated. Arlovski's central problem is that fortune has awkwardly smiled upon him, advancing his career while covering for his foibles, not always correcting them. Arlovski pushed himself into positions that certainly benefited his career early, but he often attained them without the requisite skills to stay. And given that falling in combat sports is always easier than climbing, we find Arlovski here today: a former champ recognized for branding as much as legitimate accomplishments riding a three-fight losing streak into a much ballyhooed tournament, but without a scintilla of fan fare.
Who would have imagined five years ago that Andrei Arlovski would ever enter into a bout the underdog against a man like Sergei Kharitonov? Arlovski appeared to be different than his UFC heavyweight brethren. He didn't have the kind of obvious weakness that plagued the previous generation of champions like Mark Coleman, Maurice Smith, and Kevin Randleman. Arlovski was a dangerous striker who was also deadly on the mat. Yet, despite the full backing of the Zuffa machine, something happened on the way to the Hall of Fame- Andrei Arlovski lost his fighting spirit.
More on Arlovski after the break
It started with a fight he had well in hand, a rematch with Sylvia that saw the heavy handed Belarusian stagger the former champion with punches. A thunderous overhand right dropped Sylvia at 2:35 of the first round. Yet, somehow against all odds, the big man struggled to his feet. And then it happened. As Arlovski moved in for the kill, Sylvia threw an innocous right hand. It didn't look like much, just a little short uppercut that grazed the champion. But fighting is about precision as much as power - this punch landed right on the chin and that made all the difference.
Tim Sylvia didn't just knock out Andrei Arlovski that night in 2006. He knocked out what looked like a potentially legendary career. In the next four years, Arlovski would go just 5-4. Worse, he didn't seem to be the same fighter, preferring a more cautious approach and abandoning the pure aggression that had taken him all the to UFC gold.
How will Arlovski fare in the Strikeforce tournament, almost five years removed from his career's biggest failure against Sylvia? Oddsmakers have him as the underdog to a Kharitonov who hasn't had a significant win since 2007 and has only had three MMA fights in the last three years. That's what happens when you lose three fights in a row, two by embarrassing first round knockout.
And yet, many hardcore and long time fans hold out a sliver of hope. We remember the bearded Arlovski, the one who looked like he would be the man to breathe life into a moribund UFC heavyweight scene. We remember and we hope for the best. Even the perpetually grumpy Thomas seems willing to believe, if only for a moment:
Is Arlovksi capable of winning on Saturday, especially with a Greg Jackson-camp behind him? There should be no doubt. But ultimately, his participation in the tournament is understandably drawing little attention. He can be fun to watch and has skills to put away most serious heavyweight contenders, but can't ever seem to elevate himself when the need is most pressing. He doesn't rise to the occasion and the occasion of the moment won't let serendipity be sufficient for any fighter to win it all.