Crossroads: Arlovski Needs a Win to Remain Relevant

Andrei Arlovski is at a career crossroads. This weekend, the former UFC heavyweight champion will step into the Strikeforce cage opposite Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, and he’ll be fighting for more than just a win. He’ll be fighting to remain relevant.

We’ve seen it happen before; fighters plummet from the upper echelon into oblivion in the span of two or three fights. Heading into this fight in St. Louis, Arlovski is on the ledge, a win pushes him back into contention and acceptance as a legitimate Top 10 heavyweight, a loss potentially sending him the same direction as his former chief rival, Tim Sylvia.

After his 36-second defeat at the hands of Fedor Emelianenko at Affliction: Banned, Sylvia dropped his next contest to former heavyweight boxer Ray Mercer, a loss that essentially seals Sylvia’s fate as a journeyman from here on out. His next two bouts are against former strongman Marius Pudzianowski and Wes Sims. Enough said.

Like Sylvia, Arlovski lost his follow-up fight after facing Emelianenko as well, lasting just 22 seconds against Brett Rogers in June 2009. Now, after nearly a year away from the cage, Arlovski is ready to return. Despite taking part in a number of title bouts and a career spanning more than ten years, this is the most important fight of Arlovski’s career.

More than any other sport, mixed martial arts is all about Janet Jackson’s first solo hit, “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” It’s also replete with revisionist history buffs, ready to turn former champions into fighters who benefited from a lack of competition and weren’t all that good in the first place. Both currently apply to Arlovski, whether fair or not, which makes his fight with Silva all the more important.

The former EliteXC heavyweight champion, Silva is seen as a legitimate threat and a Top 20 heavyweight himself, and his style pairs well with that of Arlovski. Though Silva has a solid submission game for a man of his size, he prefers to stand-and-trade, a tactic Arlovski will undoubtedly agree to on Saturday night.

While his work with famed boxing coach Freddie Roach has garnered the most attention over his career, Arlovski made a different coaching decision following his loss to Rogers. The Belarusian boxing enthusiast began working with Greg Jackson and his team in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It could be argued that Arlovski had previously fought on natural talent alone, utilizing his quick hands and superior athleticism en route a 15-5 record. But then Emelianenko and Rogers happened, with both proving that landing a solid punch on a suspect chin outweighs all the athleticism in the world.

The cerebral Jackson won’t allow Arlovski to coast, proof of which can be found in the pre-fight training videos Arlovski has posted in recent weeks. MMA’s version of Master Yoda has been putting “The Pitbull” through the paces. Hopefully it pays off in St. Louis on Saturday.

If it does, Arlovski will sit comfortably in the middle of the Strikeforce heavyweight pack; a former champion fresh off a good win, ready to return to his championship ways of old. Rematches with Rogers, UFC 70 opponent Fabricio Werdum and perhaps Emelianenko would all be possibilities.

But if Arlovski comes out on the wrong side of the results Saturday night, the future becomes uncertain. Three straight losses are tough for anyone to come back from. The circling vultures will pick away at his career, finding ways to diminish his victories while over-accentuating his defeats, and leave him on the scrap heap next to his old arch rival Sylvia.

Clearly, a lot is riding on his performance Saturday night at Strikeforce: Heavy Artillery. Here’s hoping Andrei Arlovski knows how important this fight is for his future.