As the Strikeforce Heavyweight World GP approaches, storylines abound. How will Fedor respond to the first legitimate loss of his career? Can Arlovski reclaim his fighting life from the shredder? Will Scott Coker have to squeeze Josh Barnett's fight into a card featuring monkey knife fights on a barge in international waters? We will have answers to these questions soon enough. In this post, I'd like to take a look at the Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, particularly the argument that he is not a top ten fighter due to the competition that he's faced since moving up to HW in September of 2007.
The argument against Overeem being a top ten MMA fighter is the fact that since moving up, he has only fought one top ten fighter (Cro Cop) and his other opponents have either been too green (Tae Hyun Lee, Todd Duffee), too old (Fujita, Goodridge), or just not very good (James Thompson, Brett Rogers, Mark Hunt). This point cannot be denied- it's absolutely true. The opponents who comprise his 9-1-1 Heavyweight record are barely relevant (save for Cro Cop and his first HW opponent Kharitonov) let alone competitive. Also contributing to the bear-ish take on "The Reem" is the fact that he had not defended his Strikeforce belt in 3 years prior to his 1st round dismantling of Brett Rogers in May. Proponents of this point are also correct, though whether this lack of stateside activity was due to Overeem's unwillingness to do so or Strikeforce's inability to make relevant fights is certainly open to debate. In this case, the reasons don't matter- Overeem hasn't faced legitimate, upper-tier competition since Cro Cop in September of 2008 (a match that he was dominating prior to the series of illegal groin strikes which lead to the NC), and this fact is enough for many to judge his future chances for heavyweight success.
I'd like to introduce a new perspective to this argument and that is of Overeem: Heavyweight Prospect. I believe that Overeem's Heavyweight competition; while not being sufficient to provide us with grounds to make a reliable assessment regarding his future, will have proven to provide Overeem with a long period in which to adjust to his increasing mass. As we've seen in combat sports, changing your body has direct ramifications on one's performance, including speed, power and reaction time. GSP, should he defeat Shields, will be given approximately 6 - 9months to safely put on the weight, and then he's going to get tossed right to the kraken of the division. By the time Overeem steps into the cage for his first legitimate test at Heavyweight, he will have logged 3 and a half years of fighting with the extra bulk. Let's compare Overeem's first 10 fights as a heavyweight to other Top 10 Heavyweight prospects who were coming up at the same time [note: this comparison is the competition that the fighter has faced before being given a top 5 opponent, #1 contender's bout, or title shot; for UFC fighters, I've only included their UFC fights to track the organization's chosen developmental path]:
Overeem: Kharitonov, Lee, Hunt, Cro Cop, Goodridge, Sylvester, Thompson, Fujita, Rogers, Duffee
Cain Velasquez- Brad Morris, Jake O'Brien, Denis Stojnic, Cheick Kongo, Ben Rothwell
Junior Dos Santos- Werdum, Struve, Cro Cop, Yvel, Gonzaga
Shane Carwin- Wellisch, Wain, Gonzaga
Brendan Schaub- Nelson, Chase Gormley, Tuchsherer, Gonzaga
Brett Rogers- Ralph Kelly, James Thompson, Jon Murphy, Ron Humphrey
Bigfoot SIlva- Cabbage, Jonatahn Wiczarek, Ricco Rodriguez, Justin Eilers, Yoshihiro Nakao, Jim York
I can go on, but you get the picture. Overeem's heavyweight development is on par with how prospects are typically brought along in the big leagues. Of course, not many propsects happen to win the highest level standup fighting tournament on the planet in their free time. If we'd never heard of Overeem prior to the Kharitonov fight, he would be billed as a potential breakout star for 2011. Remember the Pat Barry buzz? He never won a K-1 tourney! However, prior to his Heavyweight debut, Overeem had been fighting for 8 years and had become a very good, though not elite Light Heavyweight. While it's true that he did seem to have a ceiling to his upside, as he was continuously beaten by the elite of his division, it's also possible that Overeem is a late bloomer and needed that period of failure to evaluate his weaknesses and reinvent himself as a Heavyweight. Almost catching Shogun in a guillotine in the 1st round of their fight in the finals of Pride's 2005 Final Conflict Middleweight tournament would be the closest that a 25 year old Reem would come to jumping into the Top 5 in the world in his division, but is that reason enough to state that he will never be an elite Heavyweight? Now, in his athletic prime and at a weight where he doesn't have to cut, Overeem is primed to begin the apex of his career. Starting with fighting the Man who beat the Man (and also the Reem himself in 2006, a fight in which Overeem was outweighed by 20 pounds), then a potential 2-years-in-the-making bout with the Man, followed by potentially winning the SF HW GP and perhaps culminating with him one day fighting for UFC gold, maybe we will all look at his 3 year period of Heavyweight can-crushing as a necessary means for a necessary means to a higher goal.
Any thoughts/comments would be much appreciated.