Overeem vs. Werdum is one of the biggest heavyweight fights we'll see this year. It's surprising that the fight hasn't received more attention already, but of course last week's huge JDS-Carwin matchup has overshadowed it. I'm a huge fan of both Overeem and Werdum, and the predictions currently running around the web ("Overeem will smash him!" "Werdum's just going to submit him!") have left me unsatisfied, so I figured that for my second attempt at a FanPost I'd go back through each guy's last fights and break the fight down in more detail.
Both of these fighters are really, really good, and each clearly holds the advantage in one phase (striking for Overeem, grappling for Werdum); on the other hand, however, Werdum is far from helpless standing, and Overeem isn't exactly Melvin Manhoef on the ground. In order to win, Overeem likely needs to keep the fight on the feet, and Werdum needs to bring it to the ground, but how precisely they can do this is the fascinating part about this matchup. Contrary to the simplistic predictions we've seen so far, each has a legitimate chance of winning, and in more ways than a knockout for Overeem or a submission for Werdum.
This is an extremely difficult matchup for Werdum: Overeem is much larger, stronger, is a more explosive athlete, and his skill sets largely counter Werdum's, but there are ways for the latter to have success. I'm going to focus more on how Werdum can win, rather than Overeem, since Overeem's path to a victory is much clearer: hit Werdum with power shots on the feet and knees in the clinch while avoiding the takedown. Let's run through phase-by-phase, with special emphasis on striking.
Overeem is the K-1 champ, and he obviously holds the clear edge here, but that doesn't mean Werdum will be helpless. Moreover, despite Overeem's undeniable power, patience, and solid footwork, there are four definite holes in his game that Werdum can potentially exploit. First, Overeem is vulnerable to fighters who stick and move: Tyrone Spong and Gokhan Saki were both clearly winning until they tired and decided to stand in front of Overeem and trade shots, a terrible plan with the massive, power-punching Dutchman. Second, Overeem really isn't a combination striker (especially since he's packed on more muscle), and he rarely uses his jab: he tends to throw single power shots, favoring lead-hand hooks (since he constantly switches stances), a punishing overhand right, and brutal kicks to the body. This leaves him open to counters if opponents can avoid the power shots. Third, Overeem's standing defense is predicated more on covering up and blocking incoming shots than avoiding them with head movement, which was especially apparent in his fights against Spong and Saki. This doesn't work nearly as well with MMA gloves: if he tries the same thing against Werdum, all the punches that glanced off his gloves in K-1 will land flush to the sides of his head, and given Overeem's occasionally suspect chin, this could be a serious problem. Finally (and surprisingly for a K-1 fighter), Overeem doesn't react well to low kicks. He rarely checks them, and both Spong and Saki were able to disrupt his aggressive forward movement by constantly peppering him with shots to both the inside and outside of his lead leg.
When we put all of this together, we can see the makings of a game plan for Werdum. He needs to move to Overeem's left to avoid the overhand right and his powerful round kick to the body while peppering him with leg kicks (a strike Werdum has shown the ability to effectively use in the past) to stymie the Dutchman's aggressiveness, and then pummel him when he covers up. He also needs to be mindful of Overeem's vicious knees: Werdum has a distinct tendency to drop his head after delivering a power punch, and this could lead him to an unfortunate meeting with the uber knee. While it wouldn't be easy, there is clearly a way for Werdum to be successful on his feet, but he'll need to move, and his rock-solid chin will certainly be tested at some point.
For all the discussion of Overeem's vicious stand-up, he might be even better in the clinch, where his massive strength is more applicable. He delivers brutal knee strikes from both the Thai clinch and body locks, makes good use of the Muay Thai dump, and has sneaky trips. This is bad news for Werdum, whose own clinch work is top notch: he's made successful use of the Muay Thai clinch (see his fight with Bigfoot Silva), and the vast majority of his takedowns result from trips and throws in the clinch. Still, he's simply not as overpowering as Overeem, who might legitimately be the best in the world in this phase.
I think that this fight will be won (by either fighter) in the clinch and the scrambles and transitions that result from both fighters attempting takedowns. Werdum's best shot at grabbing a submission or dominant positions on the ground will come here: even if Overeem were to take him down and end up in half guard, that's still advantageous for Werdum, who has excellent sweeps. I don't think that Werdum will be able to avoid Overeem's clinch for the entire fight, but if he can find a takedown while avoiding Overeem's knees and dirty boxing then he might be alright.
This is Werdum's game, and he needs to find a way to make Overeem play. That is the major tactical concern in this fight. As we've already discussed, though, working for takedowns from the clinch is going to be problematic for Werdum. His best chance at taking Overeem to the ground might actually be catching a kick. Once both fighters are on the ground, Werdum's otherworldly submission skills will come into play. Otherwise, if he can find top position, he can smother the Dutchman and work his highly effective ground and pound. Overeem is hardly a novice on the ground, though, and I don't think that Werdum will simply run through the savvy veteran if the fight reaches the mat.
Now that we've run through each phase of the fight, it's time to make a prediction. My head says Overeem: he's huge, explosive, and his beastly work in the clinch creates serious problems for Werdum. My instincts, though, say Werdum. In his past six fights, he's gone 5-1 with wins over Fedor, Antonio Silva, Mike Kyle, Brandon Vera, and Gabriel Gonzaga, with the lone loss to the UFC's current top contender. Overeem, on the other hand, has fought powerhouses like Todd Duffee, Kaz Fujita, James Thompson, Tony Sylvester, and Gary Goodridge, with the lone impressive win coming against Brett Rogers. Werdum has fought infinitely better competition, has a better camp (I'd happily debate Rafael Cordeiro vs. Martijn de Jong and Cor Hemmers as MMA trainers -- not kickboxing -- but this isn't the place), and is as crafty and savvy as they come.
With all that in mind, I'll take Werdum by decision. Alistair Overeem may be the heavyweight that MMA needs right now -- he's the total package from an aesthetic and marketability standpoint, especially given Brock Lesnar's health issues -- but I think that Werdum will take this one.
Comments and criticism are of course welcome; I'll happily go into more depth on my reasoning there, but this was getting too long already!