There's more to Alistair Overeem's sudden withdrawal from the Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament than meets the eye.
Dana White spoke to MMAJunkie and claimed that the reason was due to an injury to Overeem's pinky toe. Strikeforce already has a date set with Showtime for the next round of the tournament. Because Overeem says he won't be ready in time, the show will just have to go on without him, White claims. In many instances the UFC President speaks openly and honestly about certain issues, sometimes to his own detriment. This is not one of those instances.
The fact of the matter is that Overeem is the highest profile fighter in the tournament. He's the current Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion. He combines a fan-friendly striking-based attack with a sculpted physique that seems like it's pulled from the page of a comic book. He's been heavily featured in all of the advertising for the tournament. With all of this in mind, Strikeforce, Showtime, and White all have a keen interest in having the tournament continue as planned with Overeem involved. If an injury to his pinky toe was legitimate to the point where he wouldn't be ready by September 10th, Strikeforce could very easily hold another event in October with Overeem in the main event. The semi-final fight between Barnett and Kharitinov could go off as planned in September, Overeem could fight Bigfoot in October, and the finals could take place in late December or January, depending on the health of the combatants. If this situation were as simple as an injury to Overeem's toe then that is exactly what would have happened. But it isn't what happened, so it follows that this situation is not as simple as White claims it to be.
From all indications, Overeem only has one fight left on his current deal. Dana is a smart man. He's not going to risk investing more time and money promoting the highly ranked heavyweight if the man could simply fulfill his one fight obligation and go elsewhere. That means coming to terms before Overeem's next fight takes place is the prudent business decision to make. This isn't all that difficult when the fighter and the promoter are in the same ballpark as to what the fighter is worth. But in this case there must have been a massive disparity between what Overeem was asking for and what Zuffa was willing to pay.
From Overeem's perspective, he's the most dynamic heavyweight on the planet, the only fighter to hold a major MMA title at the same time as a major kickboxing title, and the man who beat "the man" (Werdum) who beat "the man" (Fedor). Why would he settle for anything less than a massive contract on par with the other big names of the sport?
Zuffa is very aware of Overeem's accomplishments and his potential, but they're also aware of the fact that -- unlike other highly paid fighters like Georges St. Pierre and Brock Lesnar -- Overeem is largely unknown to casual North American MMA fans. To make matters worse, in his last outing he was involved in a stinker of a fight. For whatever reason, he refused to pull the trigger when it seemed like he could have and then gassed before the end of the second round. Why would Zuffa lock themselves into a substantial contract with a fighter who isn't bringing many additional eyes to their product and who is still unproven against the truly elite? After all, they haven't gotten this far by burning money.
The real problem is that both parties are right in many ways. In such a situation, somebody has to budge and it looks like neither party was willing to do that to the point of pleasing the other. But what Overeem is likely failing to realize is that he lacks leverage in this game. Strikeforce, the UFC, and Dana White will all continue to be successful with or without him. Sure, he can still make loads of cash fighting in Japan or elsewhere, but he'll never truly be able to establish his legacy without fighting under the Zuffa umbrella. It's that simple. And while a hefty bank account is very nice, the legacy is what truly matters in the long run to every fighter.
Strikeforce gave Overeem an opportunity here to truly establish himself amongst the North American fanbase. He would have fought three times in a calendar year on heavily promoted shows against well known yet beatable opponents. With the rapid decline of the Japanese MMA scene, establishing himself in North America is more important than ever for Overeem. And with the purchase of Strikeforce by Zuffa, Overeem had the chance to receive more promotional muscle behind them than he ever could have dreamed prior to the buyout. Make no mistake: this was a massive opportunity for Overeem. If victorious, the massive paydays and the fights against names like Velasquez and Lesnar would come. All he had to do was play the game, and it looks like he failed to do that in this instance. And, for what it's worth, it sounds like White's comment "when [Overeem's] pinky toe heals up, we'll get him another fight" could easily be translated to "the pinky toe excuse is bullshit but I'm just saying this to keep this situation under wraps."
Overeem may very well still come to terms and eventually fight whoever wins the tournament. And he might ultimately beat that person, go on to enter the UFC, and be very successful there. But this opportunity to win the first major heavyweight tournament in North America since the early days of the UFC was truly once in a lifetime. While he no longer has that opportunity, he has learned a very valuable lesson: what Zuffa giveth, Zuffa can taketh away.