Andrei Arlovski finds himself in a unique position on Saturday night when he faces Fedor Emelianenko, generally considered the sport's best heavyweight, in a five-round match for the World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts title.
The former UFC heavyweight champion left the organization last year to take one of the most lucrative MMA contracts in history from upstart Affliction.
Arlovski's contracted pay was $170,000 for his final UFC fight last March, where he stopped Jake O'Brien. Arlovski received $500,000 to win and a $250,000 winning bonus for his first bout with the new organization, his TKO of Ben Rothwell in July.
With escalator clauses in his contract, his fight in the main event of Affliction's Saturday pay-per-view card at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., will pay him in excess of $1 million, a number confirmed by UFC officials, who had right of first refusal on Arlovski's new contract.
The windfall is wonderful if you're Arlovski, but Affliction has largely built its brand on Emelianenko's mystique. After canceling a second show in October and with reported slow ticket sales for Saturday's card, even if this week's promotional blitz does render great results, the long-term viability of the promotion is in question.
Even if Arlovski achieves his goal, which is to be viewed as the best in the world, it could come at the company's expense. But Arlovski is only focused on the fight at the moment, not the financials.
"If you want to be the best fighter, you have to fight the best fighter," said Arlovski. "We'll find out who's better. For this fight I have to be mentally prepared. He's a human. I used to think nobody can beat me, and then Tim Sylvia beat me twice."
Arlovski, on paper, figures to give Emelianenko his toughest test in at least three years. The former UFC heavyweight champion is a nearly 4-to-1 underdog as the challenger.
Emelianenko (28-1 with 1 no-contest), who hasn't tasted defeat in his last 26 fights in a sport that doesn't lend itself to long winning streaks, has become an almost mythological figure in the sport. He's only fought twice in the U.S., and in the past four years has had only two fights against what would be considered legitimate top-ranked opposition at the time.
But just when his detractors started the "overrated" and "what has he done in the past few years" call, he decimated former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia on July 19 in 36 seconds, shutting people up cold.
Emelianenko is often compared to a young Mike Tyson, both because of his punching power and in the sense that his aura is so intimidating, people have mentally lost the fight before it ever starts.
"I do feel more pressure because he's a champion," said Arlovski. "And of course, I'm a little bit nervous. It's the biggest fight of my career and I will do my best, and I will do everything possible to beat him because he's No. 1. I am ranked No. 4 or 5, and I want to be the best fighter.
"I take this as a great opportunity to fight the No. 1 guy and I feel I can beat him. It means a lot to me. Everybody wants to see an exciting fight, and I think we will show a great fight."
Arlovski has enlisted the help of famed boxing trainer Freddie Roach for the fight. Roach has pushed Arlovski, who held the UFC heavyweight title for 14 months in 2005 and 2006, and his sport, boxing, as the method to topple the king.
From a technical standpoint, Emelianenko is not a boxer. But in a stand-up fight, nobody has ever gotten the better of him, including Mirko Cro Cop, who was thought to be the best stand-up heavyweight in the sport when they met.
"I think that his footwork as a boxer is not that great," said Roach. "I know he is a good puncher coming forward, but as far as his forward contact rating, I think we have a huge advantage in the footwork and we can take advantage of that."
Roach said the key is to use angles in his favor. "If you're in front of him, he'll destroy you. You can't stand in front of him."
Arlovski, 29, a native of Belarus, comes into the fight with a 14-5 record with 10 wins coming by knockout. His biggest win, the heel hook on the same Sylvia that brought him the UFC title in just 47 seconds at UFC 51, was set up by a knockdown.
He's remarkably light on his feet for someone who comes in at nearly 240 pounds. He's good at avoiding takedowns, although good heavyweight wrestlers like Jake O'Brien and Roy Nelson have gotten him on his back in recent fights. But neither was able to hurt him from there. He has a solid enough ground game that he's never been submitted.
But the big question mark is Arlovski's chin. All but one of his losses, including the match where he dropped the title back to Sylvia, have been by knockout. And Emelianenko is the hardest puncher he's ever faced.
"I've watched Fedor in his last 20 fights," said Roach. "I'm tired of watching Fedor. We study him every day. And I watch what we can do. He's a good puncher. I'm not saying that he's not. He punches very well. But his boxing skills and footwork are not that great. I think that's where we can take advantage in the fight."
Roach, coming off leading Manny Pacquiao to his upset of De La Hoya last month, has talked up Arlovski as having the potential to quickly become a heavyweight contender if he would move into his sport.
In fact, should he win, Roach said he'd like Arlovksi to challenge Nikolai Valuev, the 7-foot Russian who holds the World Boxing Association heavyweight championship.
"That should be his next fight," said Roach. "The Affliction champ against a boxing champion."
"We have an Olympian from Africa who is one of his main sparring partners," said Roach. "And a Mexican champion who has 90 wins and five losses, and as an amateur was No. 2 in the world. He already boxed him, and he has a good style just like Fedor, very much like him. I mean, we have him sparring some tough guys in there. And you know Juan Carlos Gomez. And Andrei is 50/50 with him and he's fighting for the world title in his next fight. So, in boxing, he's doing fine.
"Again, I'm not a genius at the ground game," Roach continued. "I don't understand the science of it yet because I'm very new. But the thing is, his boxing game is very good now and we have the greatest wrestling coaches and jiu-jitsu coaches here, too."
Arlovski's last two fights saw him stop Rothwell and Nelson, two 260-pound heavyweights known for their ability to take punishment.
Neither could match his hand speed standing, and he was aggressive in both cases in finishing them when he got them hurt. Previously, he had appeared gun shy in wanting to exchange after being knocked out in his title loss to Sylvia at UFC 59, a bout which he dominated until eating an uppercut that put him out.
Arlovski thinks that Emelianenko, coming off his first competition loss in eight years, a Nov. 16 loss to Bulgaria's Blagoy Ivanov via decision in sambo, a Russian form of judo and the sport Arlovski started his career doing before picking up the stand-up game, works to his advantage. Emelianenko has disregarded the loss as any sign of his slowing down or playing a part in this match, noting it was in a different sport with different rules.
"Everyone thought he was unbeatable for a few years," said Arlovski. "A loss is a loss and of course he's disappointed. And I just hope he trains harder for my fight. And so, I am training harder too … I want to be the first person to beat him like the first person to beat Mike Tyson. And I will do everything possible to beat him."