In a follow up to my article looking at Overeem's K-1 run, as part of my holiday relax time I will be exploring how that striking acumen translates to MMA.
Sergei Kharitonov, Badr Hari, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Antonio "Rogerio" Nogueira, Bobby Hoffman, Errol Parris, Glaube Feitosa, and Chuck Liddel. What do they all have in common? Well they are all fighters, some MMA, some kickboxers, of varying ages and talent levels.
And they have all knocked out Alistair Overeem.
Add to that Ricardo Arona's submission (strikes) stoppage and the fact that Shogun has finished the Reem twice and we are dealing with a fighter who had been stopped by strikes ten times. To put that into perspective, that is the same number of times Jonathan Goulet has been stopped by strikes. It is twice as many times as Wanderlei Silva.
Obviously it is more complicated than that. Some of those stoppages have more to do with Overeem's cardio than his ability to take a punch. It isn't like that list has a lot of pillowfists on it either. Additionally, only two of the ten, Hari and Kharitonov, have happened since Overeem's move to heavyweight. Indeed, it is fairly well documented that neck muscles are among the most important factors in the ability to take a punch, because they stop the head from moving backward so suddenly when hit. It is perfectly reasonable to say that Overeem has improved his ability to take a punch by bulking up.
We'll discuss why we should remain concerned and how this will impact Overeem's striking game with gifs and fight videos after the jump.
There is also a considerable amount of literature about how brain trauma has cumulative effects. From the Clinic in Sport's Medicine Journal:
After a single athletic concussion, the chance for a second concussion is found to increase four to six times over the chances for an initial cerebral concussion. The chance for sustaining another concussion in football in the same season is three times the chance of sustaining a first concussion. Furthermore, Collins et al have shown that is a more severe on-the-field presentation of concussion markers after three concussions in high school; namely, loss of consciousness, the presence of amnesia, and the total number of post-concussion symptoms.
In layman's terms, this basically means that concussive effects are cumulative. Once you have been knocked out several times, each successive knockout is substantially easier to achieve and more serious. Although it is not clear how long layoffs impact susceptibility to be knocked out, it still is reasonably established that one's "chin" can take cumulative damage. Think Wanderlei or Chuck and their declining ability to take shots.
What does this mean for Overeem? Well his increased defensive awareness, patience, cardio and amplified neck muscles should all help his ability to avoid getting knocked out. But his history of knockout susceptibility is particularly worrisome for someone at heavyweight who is looking to strike with 4 oz gloves. Suffice to say, simply being a technically superior striker isn't enough for him to avoid the sting of knockout. We see this manifest itself in Overeem's second fight with Sergei Kharitonov at K-1 Hero's in late 2007:
Sergei Kharitonov V Alistair Overeem 2 (via Sylar500)
There are a couple of things that one should take from this fight. First, Alistair is the better technical striker, but without the big K-1 gloves to hide behind, Overeem seems tentative to follow up on single shots. He isn't fast enough to put together big combinations, because otherwise he will get clipped. and he does get clipped, by the brawling Russian. Using distance to supplement his defence, Overeem doesn't sit down on his punches like you see in other bouts, and his power suffers. It helps that Kharitonov has quite the chin on him, but a big part of it is respect for this power, not least because Overeem is very aware what it is like to get knocked out. Kharitonov speculates that he was only about 25% of the striker he is today when he ko'd Overeem, although Alistair himself hadn't truly com into his own as an elite striker either.
Additionally, Overeem struggles at his ideal close strike range. In what is called "phonebooth" distance in boxing for the amount of room you give your opponent, Alistair normally uses this distance to unleash his big knees and work over his opponent with tight power hooks. Unlike in K-1, moving this close makes it fairly easy to tie you up, and Kharitonov's sambo experience not only allows him to avoid getting bullied by Alistair, but he actually hits a nice trip throw on him as well. To be fair to Overeem, he is about twenty pounds lighter in this fight so doesn't have quite the same raw power he does now.
For an exhibition of some more recent standing grappling from Overeem click the gif below:
So its safe to say that Overeem is really really strong. But, frankly, you can shirk guys off like that when they aren't elite UFC heavyweights. It is substantially harder to do that against the credentialed wrestlers that inhabit the upper echelons of the division. At the risk of utilizing a little too much MMAth, if you get tied up grappling with the guy who got tooled on the ground by Barnett and Monson, you might be a little worried about getting too close to just about anyone with solid grappling credentials.
When Overeem isn't worried, however, he practically coasts to violent finishes:
Alistair Overeem vs Tae Hyun Lee (via kimquiufc)
Remember when I mentioned Alistair getting close and doing some damage? Yeah, turns out a comfortable Overeem can wade in and impose his will. His will involves a type of power that it is possibly unmatched in the world. If he hits a prospective wrestler with a knee, or has anyone hurt or tentative, his primal killer instinct lets him move in and unleash fury. No matter what you think of Overeem's chances against top heavyweights, its impossible to deny that he could stop anybody he manages to put his hands on.
But that isn't how it seems to play out against the two legitimate threats at heavyweight that Overeem has faced. Why didn't we see that destructive Overeem blitz run through Werdum? Why didn't he throw those big bombs against Kharitonov?
Overeem is too worried about getting his lights switched off again to let loose one hundred percent with the 4 oz. gloves. He is worried about getting tied up by top grapplers like Werdum. His static stance, ideal for throwing power shots and hard knees up the middle, is less than ideal for avoiding getting tied down by a grappler. His more patient plodding style in K-1 is possible with his high, tight guard, but he can't hide behind his gloves in MMA and thus can't impose that same striking style. These worries constrain Overeem. If he was less worried about getting taken down he might commit to his strikes more and move up close for the finish. If his chin held up more then he would be able to afford to take a heavyweight shot and use his superior striking to counter pretty much everyone in the division.
Lets look at what this means for Overeem's striking when he is facing a legitimate threat. Click to watch:
Overeem has the talent to counter that rush. He has the power to counter it with a shot that would put Werdum down. He has never been a volume puncher, so he needs to pick his shots when given the opportunity. In a pure striking exchange, Werdum pulling that kind of move would get him put on the canvass by the Grand Prix champion. But this isn't a pure striking exchange. Pivoting a throwing and hard right counter might have finished Werdum, but it is more likely to involve the distance being closed and Werdum entering into a grappling situation. Adept MMA strikers like Junior Dos Santos would drop their hands and try to hit Werdum while maintaining distance, but Overeem's instinct is to cover up because of his K-1 training and he is worried that he can't rely on his chin.
Perhaps more worrying is below:
Again, Overeem is capable of mauling Werdum from this position in a striking context. If you think back to the Duffee fight he can destroy guys from this distance. But made tentative by, presumably, Werdum's grappling prowess, he chooses to move back to distance and safety. In the second gif, Overeem throws a knee with considerably less height and power than we are used to in K-1 or against lesser MMA opponents. Below we shall see an Overeem look competitive with Werdum, but certainly not able to establish premier striking position or land with enough volume to put the savvy Brazilian on the defensive.
Lets be serious here, Overeem wasn't outstruck by Werdum, and he certainly didn't lose to him. But exchanges like these should involve a K-1 champion bullying the smaller grappler around the cage. That big knee in the first gif or that right in the second would be followed up or coordinated with additional strikes in the K-1 context. That is how Overeem finished Duffee and Tae Hyun Lee from above, he hit them with shots and then started bullying them. Watch his K-1 fights with Aerts and Edwards and even that final round with Spong. Overeem finds his greatest success getting in tight, bullying his opponents, and picking his power shots. He just seems incapable of doing it against Werdum here.
Overeem had some injuries in the Werdum fight that affected his cardio and possibly even his upper body movement. Thankfully for Alistair, the Werdum fight may not be representative. But I think the overall point of striking style not lending itself to battling grapplers remains, and its not like he has fought enough top grapplers at heavyweight to prove otherwise. Frank Mir agrees, and characterizes Overeem's striking:
Overeem isn't the kind of fighter who is going to incorporate speed and movement into his striking. Overeem's striking game, Mir said, is about brute force and power.
While I think this is an oversimplification, and probably doesn't credit Overeem's sometimes frightening speed in bringing down that overhand right, it does speak to his inability to implement a stick and move game that MMA strikers often utilize to keep their opponents at range.
I'm a huge Overeem fan, and this fight with Lesnar has me scared. I have no doubt that if Overeem has a chance to open up and follow up counters with big strikes he can knock Lesnar back into "special attraction" status. But I think the evidence is pointing to a more tentative Overeem, unwilling to brawl or risk a grappling exchange. I'm excited about Overeem top K-1 pedigree, but MMA is a whole different animal, and I don't think he has proven to be elite just yet.