Alistair Overeem is a fighter at peace, looking for a win. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Alistair Overeem has been involved in combat sports since he was a teenager. Over what amounts to a lifetime of mixed martial arts and kickboxing bouts, the 34-year-old Dutchman said he has changed his fighting style on “numerous occasions.”
Heading into his matchup with Ben Rothwell at UFC Fight Night in Connecticut this past September, Overeem believed that all the pieces were coming together for another run toward the top of the heavyweight division. Against Frank Mir some seven months earlier, he adopted a more patient style that would enable him to be effective deeper into fights rather than fatiguing when the quick finish did not arrive.
The result was a lopsided three-round verdict over Mir at UFC 169 that was, if not enthralling, brutally efficient. In Overeem’s mind, a more dangerous version of himself had emerged -- one that was equally comfortable knocking opponents out or winning decisions.
Then, after Overeem underwent surgery in April to fix an ulnar nerve entrapment and remove bone spurs in both elbows, he moved his camp from the Blackzilians to Jackson-Wink MMA, a change which drew rave reviews from both parties.
With all of the above in mind, the stage was set for Overeem to shine -- but Rothwell had other ideas. While the bout started well enough for the heavily favored ex-Strikeforce titlist, things quickly took a turn for the worse when Rothwell dropped his opponent with an overhand right and pounded away with follow-up strikes to earn a surprising stoppage 2:19 into the opening round.
Even on the heels of what could have been a catastrophic defeat, Overeem has maintained a decidedly sunny outlook.
“Everything was going well in preparation. I just came from surgery but I recovered very well. I changed my nutrition -- very clean eating, very lean. I dropped some weight. It was a great reception here at Greg Jackson’s. For me, all the steps that I had to take, I did,” Overeem told Sherdog.com. “...I surrounded myself with good people. Unfortunately it did not show in the fight, but I know myself, and I know when I have all the pieces of the puzzle there.
“I know that beautiful things will come. It’s just a matter of patience and hard work.”
Overeem has drawn criticism for perceived arrogance in the past, and he did little to dispel that notion by declaring that he would beat Rothwell beat Rothwell nine out of 10 times during an appearance on Submission Radio after their fight.
Even now, he doesn’t back down from that statement.
“To clarify, that’s not to be cocky,” Overeem said. “And also not to talk smack, but I honestly do believe that I’m better than Ben Rothwell. I honestly do believe that if we fight 10 times, nine of those 10 times I will beat him. He won that night. He surprised me with that hard right punch. I hit the gym, I got better and I promise you it will not happen again.”
To be fair, Overeem’s new corner might have been more surprised by the result than he was.
“I was caught off off guard because I was overconfident because everything did fall together,” striking coach Mike Winkeljohn said. “He was willing to accept our advice and our game plan and make slight adjustments. That’s hard to do for a guy with his experience and his talent and his success, to actually let others tell you what they think. He’s very mature that way; he’s great to work with. I was overconfident going into that last fight. That kind of shut us down a little bit. Now it’s time to rebuild for this one.”
There was briefly a question of whether Overeem would get another chance to redeem himself in the Octagon, but UFC President Dana White put any speculation regarding the fighter’s future to rest a few days later.
“He’s still ranked in the top 10,” White told UFC Tonight. “We’ll give him another fight.”
Overeem will get an opportunity to put everything together when he squares off with Stefan Struve at UFC on Fox 13 in Phoenix on Saturday night. Coming off three knockout losses in his last four outings, it would appear that the Jackson-Wink MMA member is in a must-win situation if he wants to remain on the Las Vegas-based promotion’s payroll.
Such ominous thoughts have not bothered Overeem as he prepares for his fellow Dutchman.
“I don’t have the back-to-the-wall feeling. As an athlete you can lose; you shouldn’t only lose, but I’m not only gonna lose,” he said. “Why I can I say that is because I know what I’m doing with my sparring partners: I’m seriously pressuring all of them, hurting all of them. I know that the body is there, the mindset is there -- I’m putting the effort in. I don’t really feel like my back is to the wall. But what I do really feel is that you do have to perform. You do have to get out there and do it.”
There could, however, be more minor tweaks and adjustments made to Overeem’s approach to better ensure success. “The Demolition Man” is 2-3 in UFC, although he could just as easily be 4-1. He was well ahead on scorecards after two rounds against Antonio Silva at UFC 156 and was on the verge of stopping Travis Browne at UFC Fight Night “Shogun vs. Sonnen.” Both times he failed to capitalize on his advantage and ultimately wound up on another man’s highlight reel.
“It’s not so much the style; it’s more of an attitude. And he’s done it. It’s about staying focused on a game plan or staying focused on what’s happening in a fight,” Winkeljohn said. “It’s incredible what he’s already capable of doing. I have worked on him not being in the line of fire. But we’ve had some mental mistakes. We put him in the wrong spot. Hopefully this fight he will show a big difference in his ability.”
Struve, meanwhile, has his own questions to answer. The 7-footer was diagnosed with a leaking aortic valve and enlarged heart not long after his loss to Mark Hunt in March 2013. He was eventually cleared by doctors to compete again and was given a bout against Matt Mitrione at UFC 175 in July.
However, the man known as “Skyscraper” had a near-fainting spell just prior to the fight and the contest was canceled. Overeem knows Struve as an acquaintance and calls him a “nice kid,” but his opponent’s previous health issues do not have much of an effect on how he will approach the fight.
“There is a little thought about it, but in America it’s [MMA] very regulated. If he gets cleared to fight, he gets cleared to fight,” Overeem said. “I have to do everything in my power to take him out. And I plan to do that.”
While Overeem has trained at a number of camps over the years, Struve still resides at Team Schrijber in his homeland. As he has in most of his bouts, Struve will possess a reach advantage(four inches) come fight night. He hasn’t always used his physical tools in the best manner possible, however. Overeem believes that Struve’s roots are preventing him from properly utilizing his length.
“I know he’s training on it. I know that he tries to, but the Dutch kickboxing in my opinion, respectfully, is outdated. It’s not used for MMA,” Overeem said. “I know because I am the K-1 2010 Grand Prix champion. MMA is just different.”
Overeem, too, has been different since he entered the UFC on an 11-fight unbeaten streak and demolished Brock Lesnar in his promotional debut. Since then, losses have mounted and doubters have questioned whether he belongs among the heavyweight elite.
The man himself isn’t looking back at how he got to this point -- potentially fighting for his livelihood instead of rampaging through the division as he once seemed destined to do. Alistair Overeem is a fighter at peace, simply looking to close out the calendar year with a win.
“I’m not a person to look back. Looking back doesn’t really help. I just focus on the future and what I need to do,” he said.
“I can tell you I’m very happy with the place I’m at right now. It took a lot of effort and work to get here, now it’s just cruising. I still have a couple more good years at the top in me.”