Arlovski’s Dream Hangs in the Balance Saturday

By Josh Gross Jun 3, 2005
ATLANTIC CITY, June 3 — It’s not quite Ellis Island, but this city on the New Jersey shore has earned a special place in Andrei Arlovski’s heart. Five years ago, like generations of immigrants before him, Arlovski traveled for the first time from his native Belarus to the United State in pursuit of a dream.

The military wasn’t for him. Neither was life as a police officer, for which he began preparing at 16 and didn’t stop until deciding to leave for the States.

“I wanted something changed in my life,” Arlovski told on Thursday. “I have a lot of dreams and I do anything for my dreams and I do this in the United States.”

A child of the Cold War, Arlovski was hesitant to speak about his experience behind the Iron Curtain. His father was a military man and his mother an engineer in a machinery plant. Life in Belarus was “hard and difficult” and opportunities were limited.

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Arlovski, then a 10-year-old boy living with his family in Soviet-occupied Hungary, hardly noticed what was happening in East Germany.

After working his way through the police academy, Arlovski, who excelled at sports, particularly soccer, was introduced to Sambo. Three years later, he was a two-time world champion and on his way to America and the UFC.

“Of course it’s different style of life in American than Russia,” he said. “I like America. I like Russia, too. But in American there is more opportunity. If you want to do something, you can.”

His dream was to fight like the slender gi-wearing submission-throwing icon of the early Ultimate Fighting Championships, Royce Gracie, whom Arlovski watched on tape.

Arlovski’s debut came on November 2000 in this wind-worn city. Fifty-four seconds after the opening bell he armbarred Aaron Brink and introduced himself to America and its MMA fans.

Consecutive losses to Ricco Rodriguez and Pedro Rizzo, however, had most people dismissing the Belarusian as overmatched and unprepared to contend with the UFC’s best fighters.

Three years after his highlight-reel knockout loss to Rizzo, Arlovski enters Saturday’s fight as a vindicated fighter who comes into the Octagon on a tear, winning three of four bouts by stoppage in under two and a half minutes.

Few people expect this bout to go the distance and in many ways the dream he brought with him from Belarus hinges on a fight he’s expected to walk through. After winning the interim UFC heavyweight belt in February, Arlovski will go a long way in answering questions about his legitimacy as champion if he dominates.

(Often, it’s the destruction of opponents you’re supposed to beat, not victories against equally skilled challengers, that helps define a fighter’s dominance.)

Eilers .500 record (1-1-0) in the UFC is hardly deserving of a title shot. The football player turned fighter was knocked out in his last UFC appearance but here he is, a day away from possibly winning one of the largest prizes in mixed martial arts.

“I can tell that Justin is not the best in the world but he’s very dangerous,” Arlovski said. “He knocked out Mike Kyle. Right now I know he’s training in Utah with Jeremy Horn. Horn’s a good guy in jiu-jitsu. But I want to win this fight. I’m doing everything for my victory.”

“You know, everybody can be champion,” he said. “I think [Eilers] trained hard. I trained hard. Who will be stronger, more conditioned for this fight?”

The main event of UFC 53 is a classic no-win situation for the 26-year-old Arlovski (5-2-0), the face of this pay-per-view and the man Zuffa’s tabbed to market the card. There’s no doubt that losing the belt to Eilers would damage both Arlovski’s selling power and the UFC’s argument that he belongs in a discussion of the world’s best heavyweights.

A victory would confirm his status as titleholder and move his winning streak to five. It would also keep him on track to fight UFC champion Frank Mir, laid up after breaking his leg in a motorcycle accident, later this year.

“Of course it’s important for me because right now I’m interim heavyweight champion and on Saturday night I must defend my title,” Arlovski said. “But it’s interim — it’s not the real heavyweight championship. I hope that I win my next fight and meet in October with Frank Mir.”

For Arlovski, future success also means he might be able to bring his family over from Belarus.

“If everything is good for me in the United States,” he said, “of course I want my family to come here.”

Their transition will likely mirror his. Learning to speak English was his toughest assignment. He’s improved greatly — watching television and reading newspapers has been the key — over the last year, enough so that he conducted this interview without aid of a translator. After Saturday’s fight, Arlovski said he will enroll in an English course in a local college.

His a story not so different from generations of future Americans who came to this country with the goal of working towards their dream.
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