Andrei Arlovski and his coach Greg Jackson call them "steps," the small markers on their collective mental list that the Belarusian fighter has passed on the road to his comeback.
Tim Sylvia is a step, even though he and Arlovski have already fought thrice and their 2006 rubber match is still considered among the most underwhelming UFC main events produced during the Zuffa era.
Their glory days as flip-flopping UFC heavyweight champions are years behind them, so many fans won't pay too much mind when Arlovski (17-9) and Sylvia (31-7) meet a fourth time for the Asian-based upstart One Fighting Championship on Friday in Manila, Philippines. But that doesn't matter. Arlovski has come to the next item on the list, which brings another opportunity to advance forward and distance himself further away from the four-fight nosedive that nearly ended his career.
On the heels of two electrifying knockout victories, Arlovski crashed spectacularly in 2009 with a wink-of-an-eye, mid-air knockout courtesy of Fedor Emelianenko. Part-time tire technician Brett Rogers earned a brief stint in the top 10 when he knocked Arlovski out next and Russian Airborne trooper Sergei Kharitonov finished what was left of Arlovski's once menacing aura with a crushing right hand.
Jackson was in Arlovski's corner when he went down for the third time in four fights. He'd worked with Arlovski during the final two weeks of the troubled fighter's training camp, but that hadn't been enough time for Jackson to implement what he'd had in mind. The holes Jackson had seen would take much longer to fill, but Jackson was convinced it could be done. While others had already given up on the "weak-chinned" fighter ripe for retirement, Jackson saw pure potential.
"He was just so incredibly talented and so fast that he was able to mask that he didn't have certain skills, and without them he was getting into trouble," said Jackson. "I never thought he had a weak chin. It wasn't the jaw; it was the technique you need to implement dealing with heavyweight fighters with that kind of power."
This is how Arlovski, weighed down by a slew of personal problems he declines to discuss, arrived at Jackson's Albuquerque doorstep 18 months ago to begin splitting his training between the desert and Chicago, where the Minsk immigrant has lived since he moved to the States after his UFC 28 debut in 2000.
"It was a big mistake not to start training with him after my loss to Emelianenko," said the 33-year-old Arlovski, who'd medaled in world Sambo competitions in his late teens. "I feel different now."
In a year and a half, Arlovski has returned many times to Jackson's and Mike Winkeljohn's revered gym, which houses two UFC champions and grooms countless contenders in virtually every active weight division.
With Arlovski, Jackson and Winkeljohn have concentrated on angled footwork, clinching and takedowns, and even some ground and pound technique.
"It was a lot about attacking that basic skill set," said Jackson, "and trying to augment what he already did naturally with what he needed to do in order to complete at the highest level."
Mechanics have only been part of the equation, though. Since Arlovski's initial arrival, Jackson has strived to immerse the 12-year veteran in a comfortable environment in which he'd feel safe enough to embrace new techniques and grow.
During his visits, Arlovski stays in a rented house down the street and brings his prized pitbull, Maximus, to the gym with him everyday. Sometimes Jon Jones brings in his German Shepherd, and Julie Kedzie's two dogs are usually running around to complete the kennel. Call it doggie therapy.
"They're great when they lick you when you're tired," said Jackson. "We want a dojo that's very comfortable. Comfortable allows you to be creative; it lets you relax. It allows you to do all the things you need to be able to be a great fighter."
Arlovski has been a receptive student who picks up tutelage quickly, said Jackson. His confidence has also steadily returned, bolstered by wins in two Pro Elite events last year. Arlovski's performances weren't standouts and his opponents could only be described as rebound fodder, but he earned stoppages in both bouts, the latter a high-kick knockout executed in the last second of the fight. Arlovski cleared another hurdle that night.
"Andrei's a mentally tough guy to deal with the things he's dealt with," said Jackson. "This has been big testament to the power of the mind to heal and come back stronger than it was before. I think that's a direct result of his great teammates and coaches around him who say,
There is a palpable connection between the intensely loyal Arlovski and the patriarchal Jackson, who arrives each morning and often pauses to rub Maximus's belly before he starts class.
"He's always in a good mood and he's really smart," said Arlovski. "He knows what to say in the right moment to motivate you. He energizes you with his words."
Over time, Jackson has seen a change in Arlovski, not just in his technical skills, but also with his outlook. When he arrived, the weight of the world was on his shoulders, but whatever problems followed Arlovski to Albuquerque no longer hold him down.
"I was so miserable, but I'm happy now," said Arlovski, who might relocate with his fiancée to New Mexico next year. "I have hope and I know it's going to get better for me."
Jackson said Arlovski brings his own brand of humor to the team. "Andrei's a very serious competitor, but he's also one of the funniest guys you'll meet. He laughs all the time and is a big prankster," said Jackson.
"We're in a deadly serious business where you can win or lose millions of dollars and you can get hurt. Having some levity around is very important."
Getting the call to fight Sylvia felt like Christmas morning, said Arlovski, who completed an eight-week camp in preparation for the 6-foot-8 striker. Their rivalry was cemented years ago when Sylvia sat next to Arlovski's ex-girlfriend at a local event, then tried to embarrass him about it.
"It wasn't about her, but what he said, what he's still saying about me having a weak chin and being lucky [beating him]," said Arlovski. "He's spoken about me with such disrespect. He talks about me as if I'm a nobody."
Arlovski's disdain for Sylvia hasn't been lost on Jackson. "I guess it's a very personal thing," said Jackson. "It's added an extra layer of motivation. There's no doubt about it. He seems reinvigorated and excited again."
On Friday, Jackson will be in Arlovski's corner, faithful he'll be able to scratch another step off the list by bout's end and move on with him to the next one.
"It comes down to belief. You have to believe in your guy, your fighter," said Jackson. "I have that belief with Andrei. He has all the talent he needs to get back on top. He was only missing some of the tools to do it."