What's the beauty of any tournament, MMA or otherwise? It elevates the winner - and those who ably perform - to new heights. Tournaments are crucibles and those who slug through the process make indelible impressions on fans and their respective sports. Given where Andrei Arlovski has been, a tournament is precisely what he needs to reclaim all of the ground his career has lost.
Andrei Arlovski has wowed us. He's impressed us. He's produced highlight reel knockouts. He's accomplished a considerable amount during his career, earning the UFC heavyweight title. Yet, he very rarely - if ever - rises to the occasion.
He was knocked out by Pedro Rizzo. Hell, he was knocked out by Viacheslav Datsik. He defeated Aaron Brink in his UFC debut, but only after holding the fence - something the referee never saw. He was knocked out back to back by Pedro Rizzo and Ricco Rodriguez. He did defeat Tim Sylvia, but in his rematch, Arlovski knocked the Maine-iac down early only to be stopped with strikes mere minutes later. In his third fight with Sylvia, he turned in one of the most boring performances ever for a UFC main event. While he stopped Ben Rothwell in dramatic fashion during the days of Affliction's run as a promoter in MMA, he jumped out to an early lead against Fedor Emelianenko only to be put to sleep in one of MMA's most thrilling knockouts. He lost to Brett Rogers in 22 seconds and was bested in a three-round beating by Antonion Silva.
It's easy to inventory a fighter's losses and create false narratives. Arlovski's accomplishments far outweigh his failures. But there's enough of a stain on his wins to raise doubts. His victory over Marcio Cruz came as a consequence of holding the fence to keep him balanced. Arlovski isn't a cheater, but he often fails to win cleanly enough to inspire confidence.
Arlovski has redoubled his efforts and aligned himself with trainers who can help to maximize his talents. But this illustration by striking coach Mike Winklejohn underscores what ails Arlovski's career:
"Andre's that guy that's an incredible athlete that for some reason his last couple fights he has stopped using his athleticism," Winkeljohn says. "And he was standing in front of his opponent. He's got some great quickness, so we're definitely working on a lot of footwork drills, working on his speed and getting him to attack the angles. If Andrei gets his head on straight, he can go with just about anybody out there."
As both Wineljohn and Arlovski have mentioned, sometimes the 23-fight veteran lacks the focus necessary for sustained success. When his mind centers on performing in the cage, the returns can be fruitful. Before his current losing stretch, Arlovski knocked out Roy Nelson; it remains the only time "Big Country" has been finished by strikes in his career.
That's true, except Arlovski was put in a position to stop Nelson only after referee Troy Waugh incompetently stood the fight up while Nelson had the Belarussian in side control. That decision by Waugh is almost universally decried as not only deeply unfair to Nelson, but the turning point of a bout that was headed in Nelson's direction.
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.
I've included a video at the top of this post of Sergei Kharitonov's last fight in K-1. After this bout, Kharitonov fought a MMA-rules bout in DREAM on New Year's Eve against Tatsuya Mizuno. It wasn't much of a contest and Mizuno isn't much of a challenge especially considering the Matt Hume-trained Japanese fighter needed superior size and the ring post to submit Melvin Manhoef, his best win to date. The point to understand here is that while Kharitonov has defeated both Fabricio Werdum and Alistair Overeem, he did so in a different MMA era under different conditions and frankly, as a different fighter. His performance in the last few years can charitably be called inconsistent, except he lacks the highs of Arlovski's careers and has equally, if not worse, lows. Arlovski should be favored over him.
Yet, oddsmakers have him as either even with Kharitonov or as the underdog. If history is any indication, the underdog role is not one that naturally suits Arlovski.
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.