Headed to New York last month for an appearance to promote the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, Andrei Arlovski was getting a lift to the airport in Chicago from his girlfriend. They had a few moments to spare, so they stopped along the way at a Starbucks. And as they stood in line for their coffee, Arlovski noticed another customer staring at him.
"You're Arlovski, right?" the man said.
"Yes," Andrei said with a slight smile. "I am Arlovski."
The man nodded. "You're a good fighter."
The smile faded from Arlovski's face. He quietly acknowledged the man's words, took his coffee, and he and his girlfriend were out of there.
"Maybe that's good for somebody else to hear: 'You're a good fighter.' For me, it's horrible," Arlovski later said as he recounted the fan encounter. "I want people to say, 'You're a great fighter.' I want them to look at me like I am a champion."
Arlovski's pursuit of such coveted recognition begins this weekend in East Rutherford, N.J., when he kicks off the Heavyweight Grand Prix by facing Sergei Kharitonov. A victory during Saturday night's telecast (10 p.m. ET, Showtime), plus two more wins in the eight-man Strikeforce tournament, would make the 32-year-old Belarussian a champion. Again.
Six years ago this month, Arlovski ascended to the top of the MMA world when he knocked down Tim Sylvia, pounced and submitted him in just 47 seconds to win the UFC interim heavyweight title. The man known as "The Pit Bull" held onto the belt for more than a year, successfully defending it twice and even ridding himself of the "interim" tag. Then he gave Sylvia a rematch. Once again Arlovski knocked down the big man early with a right hand, but this time Sylvia recovered, climbed to his feet and floored Andrei for a TKO victory.
Arlovski has been trying to get back on top ever since. He's come close, maybe too close. But when he begins his latest quest for redemption on Saturday night, he will do so as a long shot, thanks in large part to the two men who will step into the cage at the Izod Center right after Arlovski and Kharitonov are finished. In the evening's main event, also a Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix quarterfinal, the much celebrated Fedor Emelianenko will face Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva.
Two years ago, Fedor launched Arlovski on a downward spiral. After losing his title and then dropping a third bout with Sylvia, Arlovski had reeled off five wins in a row, along the way leaving the UFC for the fledgling Affliction promotion. In January 2009 he got a shot at Emelianenko, the ex-Pride champ considered by many to be the best heavyweight in the world. Arlovski, a skilled boxer who plans to compete professionally in that sport as well one day, was getting the better of the exchanges early on. Then, inexplicably, he came charging in with a flying knee. Fedor countered with an overhand right that put Andrei on the canvas, flat on his face.
Arlovski has yet to get up, figuratively speaking. Five months after that brutal KO came another, when Brett Rogers spoiled his Strikeforce debut by punching him out in just 22 seconds. Andrei did not return to the cage until last May, when he faced "Bigfoot" Silva. The good news for Arlovski was that he survived the big Brazilian's fists and kicks for three rounds. The bad news: He lost a unanimous decision.
Coming off three straight defeats, Arlovski perhaps should be grateful the guy at the coffee shop was kind enough to call him a "good" fighter. He recognizes that, just as he recognizes the uphill fight ahead. "Before, people told me, 'Wow, you're the best' and 'You're great.' I want that again, and this is a great opportunity for me," Arlovski said. "Being the underdog, for me, is not a problem. I kind of like it. But when you were on the top, and then you're not even in the top 10, this is horrible."
The long climb back to the top of his game is not so much a physical challenge, Arlovski believes, as it is a mental exercise. "I must stay focused, be disciplined and follow my game plan," he said. "I must listen to my trainers and trust 100 percent to them. Don't do some [expletive] -- you know, when I fought Emelianenko, I had a great game plan but no, I decided to jump in with a flying knee." Why'd he do that? "Because it was really nice when I hit Ben Rothwell like that, you know, and the people went crazy."
Mental lapses have been costly again and again for Arlovski, from the flying knee against Fedor to his generally lackadaisical approach to Rogers. "My mind was on a boxing match I was planning for a few weeks after," said Andrei. "I didn't take Rogers seriously." After that devastatingly sudden loss, he started training with Greg Jackson, a master of the mental game, who devised a game plan for the "Bigfoot" fight. Didn't help. "I did not follow the plan," said Arlovski. "I did nothing. I paid for this."
While loss upon loss upon loss can wear down your confidence, Arlovski's descent from the glory days actually might indirectly produce a positive impact on his mental game. "When I was on top, I was always out at night having fun with people who would kiss my ass, saying 'You're the best,' blah blah blah," he said. "But when my career went down, I pretty much lost all of my entourage. I'm not out drinking anymore. This is good. I have decided that this is too important. This is my career. This is my life."
"The beauty of this tournament is that you're going to get your shot. What you do with it is up to you," said Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker. "Andrei is at a crossroads in his career, and it's time for him to either step up or maybe reevaluate things. I think he knows that. And he also knows that if he wins this tournament, he's going to be the man again."
Of course, winning the tournament is a goal for down the road. So is avenging those three recent losses -- although with "all three guys who kicked my ass" being part of the Grand Prix, Arlovski could very well get a shot at one or two of them in coming months. To allow for any of the above to be part of his future, however, Andrei must focus on nothing but the here and now. "I have to keep all of my focus on Sergei Kharitonov," he said of the former Pride fighter, who also competes in K-1. "He's big, he's a good kickboxer and he has a good right hand. He is really dangerous and a serious opponent for me."
Is Arlovski (15-8) at all concerned that there's little video with which to scout Kharitonov (17-4), who fought just one MMA bout in 2010, one in '09 and one in '08? "No, it is the same for him studying for me," he said. "I fought just three times since 2008." He paused a beat, then added, "And at least Kharitonov doesn't have three losses."
Arlovski has a way of talking about his losses in a self-effacing, even lighthearted way, and do so repeatedly. It's as though he's trying to persuade you that the defeats don't bother him that much -- even though you know they do. For example, he describes his role in the film Universal Soldier: Regeneration as "one good thing that happened to me after my loss to Emelianenko." Indeed, he got to work with childhood hero Jean Claude Van Damme -- "I used to have a poster of him on my wall when I was a kid" -- as well as Dolph Lundgren. (So Andrei, which of those action heroes is tougher? "The toughest guy in the movie was me.") Arlovski loved the acting experience, saying it felt like a family on the set of director John Hyams. "But now I come to New York, where Hyams lives, and I have called him twice already and he did not answer," said Arlovski, pausing for effect. Then he added, dryly, "Nobody wants to talk to losers."