Andrei Arlovski made his UFC debut 14 years ago. Let's put that into perspective. Jon Jones was in middle school, and the social service that would allow him to hurl homophobic insults to a kid from Sweden had yet to be invented. In other words, Arlovski has had plenty of time to establish himself as a HW contender.
To reiterate how long ago Andrei began, he started his UFC career before Zuffa bought the UFC. UFC 28, where he would introduce himself on the big stage with an armbar win over Aaron Brink, was the last show run by the UFC's then parent company SEG. After his victory he would suffer two defeats in a manner that has underlined a common criticism, losing to Ricco Rodriguez and Pedro Rizzo by TKO/KO.
Arlovski bounced back in a big way. When he began his resurgence with a TKO win over Ian Freeman at UFC 40 (an event that on its own symbolized a resurgence of MMA in the US), it would be in the same week that Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was defending his Pride HW title. I mention an icon like Nog because Arlovski single handedly brought credibility and interest back to the UFC HW division.
During the Pride vs. UFC wars (wars that existed primarily on the internet), nobody cared about a HW crossover. The UFC HW division was a revolving door of contract disputes (why Randy Couture left the UFC briefly), and performance enhanced pugilism. Josh Barnett and Tim Sylvia would both be stripped of the title within a year of one another (2002, and 2003 respectively) after testing positive for banned substances. And the fighter who would clean up after their mess, Frank Mir, would also be stripped due to an unfortunate motorcycle accident.
Fortuity was on Arlovski's side in many ways, but he took full advantage of it. While people's timeline may differ, it wasn't until UFC 47 that he began to really turn heads. Beating Wesley 'Cabbage' Correira wasn't a big deal in and of itself. But Arlovski looked like he had finally come into his own as a striking specialist. Yes, he had already finished his two previous opponents with strikes, but against Cabbage, he was searing the poor Hawaiin with some of the fasted hands we had seen a HW possess up until that point. He seemed destined to be the HW Chuck Liddell, and a potential star.
For a moment, he delivered on the promise he showed. He beat a returning Tim Sylvia by knocking him down with a hard straight right followed up by an achilles lock (!): unheard of violence for a HW. Then he predictably smashed Paul Buentello and Justin Eilers. It was all going so well until a perfunctory rematch with Sylvia turned into a nightmare, not to mention an inexplicable quadrilogy.
The second fight with Sylvia is an interesting one because it firmly cemented the narrative about Arlovski having a "glass jaw" with a punch that seemed like it was thrown from the grassy knoll.
They'd conclude their then trilogy with an awful fight at UFC 61 that saw Arlovski be far too tentative while Sylvia lumbered with his jab, and not much else. After fighting for a title, he'd go 3-0, which included a fairly big win over Fabricio Werdum. The UFC didn't renew his contract, perhaps feeling his lackluster performances weren't worth the big money he was likely asking for. Still, his old form returned when he left the UFC, scoring consecutive knockouts over Roy Nelson and Ben Rothwell.
The buildup to his bout with Fedor Emelianenko was huge. At least for hardcore fans. Pride had already been bought out by Zuffa, but this was one of those napkin matchups you could always find in Sherdog's wasteland forums. Arlovski wasn't a UFC reject. He was in his prime, facing off against the greatest HW there has ever been in MMA. The outcome wasn't exactly predictable, but it certainly was spectacular.
And thus began Arlovski's dramatic decline from 2009 to 2011. He was 0-4 at one point, losing to Brett Rogers, Antonio Silva, and Sergei Kharitonov. The Kharitonov bout was the knockout that I think actually traumatized fans. Reading the comments of BE readers, the attitude was unanimous: 'find a new line of work Andrei'.
He had actually been in the middle of heeding that advice. Arlovski was the semi star of Universal Solider: Regeneration the same year he lost to Fedor and Brett. He'd also go on to star in the sequel (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning), which really isn't that bad, despite resembling a Cannon movie filtered through the lens of Cormac McCarthy. I know that makes it sound awesome, which isn't what I'm trying to do. But it does possess one of the best fight scenes I've seen in awhile, and that includes stuff done by Gareth Evans, with an ending resembling something like what Kharitonov did to him.
Arlovski is currently 8-1-1 in his last ten. His No Contest was anything but, as he outclassed Sylvia, and his lone defeat was a decent effort against one of the hottest LHW fighters around right now to Anthony Johnson. He's quietly been making a statement for years, but it's only now that he seems prepared to truly execute.
The real question is whether the talk of him contending is premeditated. After all, beating Schaub and Silva are solid wins, but isn't it just a matter of time before he gets obliterated by Junior dos Santos, or Cain Velasquez? Perhaps. I think his speed should never be underestimated. He still punches with conviction, and he's one of the more dangerous heavyweights when pursuing his opponent. While I would never argue that his chin is actually strong, I would argue that a heavy puncher amplifies what he does wrong when being pressured. Semantics or not, it's possible Jackson's MMA has resolved some of his prior issues.
I'm not prepared to say that Arlovski is a certified contender. But maybe we just forgot that he's been here for years. Contender or no, I am prepared to say that Arlovski's "comeback" is a nice story about a fighter whose self belief has allowed me to forget about the flood of unfortunate vulgarity that has plagued professional sports in recent weeks, if just for a few minutes.