There are few fighters in the UFC who can match Alistair Overeem when it comes to experience. The enigmatic heavyweight has far more cage/ring time than most, but he has also been battle-tested by aspects of the fight-game that are sometimes overlooked. Good or bad, if it can happen around a pro-fighter, Overeem is likely to have a well-earned understanding of the situation.
On May 8th Overeem headlined a UFC card in his homeland, the Netherlands. This was a first. Surrounded by a raucous and patriotic audience, he dispatched of Andrei Arlovski to become the number-one-contender in the heavyweight division. His shot at gold is booked for September 10th, at UFC 203, in Cleveland, Ohio. Hometown hero Stipe Miocic will be waiting for him.
In Cleveland, instead of buoyant Hollanders thirsty for his success, Overeem will face an energized rust-belt crowd who are hoping to see him crumble before their champion. The contrast in situations is hard to ignore, but for The Reem, who has seen so much over a twenty-year career in the hurt business, it’s nothing special.
“Everyone approaches it differently,” shrugged off Overeem when discussing the variable that is the hometown crowd. “For me, it doesn't matter, I've had eighty-six fights, I've fought for crowds that loved me, I've fought for crowds that didn't love me. To me it's another fight. It doesn't really matter.”
Despite not anticipating the crowd making any difference to his Octagon performance, Overeem certainly recognizes - and revels in - the narrative that is playing out ahead of him. “I'm coming into hostile territory, I'm coming for the belt,” said Overeem. “Obviously, Stipe's from Cleveland, he's from Ohio, he's going to do everything possible to stop me from doing that, and when I'm successful, I think [the fans will] dislike me a little bit. And, I think the fans will dislike the situation a little bit, because I'm going to ruin their party. And I'm pretty good at ruining people's parties.”
Stipe Miocic is pretty good at ruining parties too, especially those held in Curitiba, Brazil. It was there on May 14th, at UFC 198, where he knocked out Fabricio Werdum to become the new UFC heavyweight champion. That night, Overeem was watching. “I thought Werdum was going to take it,” said Overeem, who was a little surprised to see Werdum get knocked out cold for the first time in the Brazilian’s career. Having seen so much already, it’s hard for Overeem to get more than just a little bit surprised at anything in the cage, especially during a heavyweight fight.
“In this sport that stuff happens,” sighed Overeem. “We've all had losses, we've all had bad losses. That was Werdum's time, that's the beauty and the peril of the sport. And you know, it's the heavyweight division, one mistake and it's done, and that was Werdum's doing of course, he made a mistake.”
Overeem declined to discuss ‘battle-plans’ for his own tilt with Miocic. Though, he did state he was confident in his coaches and training partners. And why wouldn’t he be? Overeem has enjoyed a career renaissance since joining team Jackson-Winkeljohn in 2014. With them, he has won his last four contests (three by TKO/KO).
“The energy is really good,” said Overeem, about training out of Albuquerque. “And with that energy there comes chemistry, and everybody helps each other, and besides that we're having a good time together and I think that as well, is a key pillar of success for the whole team.” The former DREAM, Strikeforce, and K1 champ was quick to point out that he wasn’t the only fighter benefiting from the atmosphere at Jackson-Wink. “It's not all me - Derek Brunson has also got four wins in a row. Holly's gonna bounce back in the next one, before that she had that beautiful knockout of Ronda Rousey, and Jon Jones, he's making a tremendous comeback with all the adversity he faced.”
“You know, it's the group energy that brings the best out of us individually,” continued Overeem, who revealed just how important it is, for him, to feel like an individual. “In my twenty two years of training, I've dealt with a lot of teams in a lot of places, and this team is very mellow, it's not pushing that team feel all the time, like some other teams are doing these days. At Jackson's it is a team thing, but it's also individuals.”
Something else Overeem appreciates about the culture created by Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, is that there are no issues with bringing in ‘external coaches’. Additionally, Overeem is enjoying the flexibility offered around his own personal training schedule. “The team is very open,” said Overeem. “Very relaxed, and it's - I think - to the point that if I come to training it's fine, and if I don't come to training it's also fine.”
Overeem’s last opponent, Andrei Arlovski, was also undergoing a career resurgence under Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. When the UFC matched up Overeem and Arlovski eyebrows raised and questions were thrown at both men about the teammate-versus-teammate story-line. Overeem’s position on the matter never wavered. He didn’t care that he and Arlovski trained at the same gym. And he still doesn’t.
“My whole thing is, it is a sport and I don't have any ill will towards Andrei Arlovski, and he's still basically my teammate, although we're not really working together,” said Overeem. “I do think he has a little bit of a different view of the situation, which is unfortunate, but it is his view, he can have his opinion and his views.”
Without being prompted, Overeem continued to state that he found it ‘strange’ how the situation played out between him and Arlovski, in comparison to Arlovski’s attitude towards fighting another former teammate: Travis Browne.
“I'm just speaking my mind when I'm talking about [Arlovski being] not a friend of mine. We don't hang out, we don't play poker, we don't have drinks, we never had lunch together, so he has a problem with fighting me, but then he doesn't have a problem with fighting Travis, who he does have lunch with, he does drink coffee with, he lived under one roof with. So that's a little contradiction on Arlovski's side.”
Overeem and Arlovski’s friendship, or lack thereof, became a notable storyline heading into UFC Rotterdam, perhaps due to the polarizing reputation that has followed Overeem throughout long patches in his career. Overeem, who left the Blackzilians’ team under a cloud in 2014, is well aware that not everyone is a fan, but again, he finds it hard to care. “People are going to see what they want to see,” said Overeem. “It has been in the past that some people have talked bad about me, and of course my career has been full of ups and downs, and then there's friends, there's enemies, of course enemies will always talk bad about you behind your back, and if people believe that, that's your problem not my problem.”
Overeem believes some of the negativity that has come his way in the past was a result of his need to be an individual, and to forge his own path - even if it diverts from (or cleaves clean through) that which others have laid out for him. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself has become a mantra for Overeem and he’s proud of that.
“I've literally had several junctions in my life that if I didn't fix the problem, if I didn't do anything, nothing would have happened,” said Overeem. “You have to do it yourself and you've got to figure it out yourself, and throughout the years you become better at it, and you become better at problem solving and that's one of the things that has kept me going.”
“I am kind of a rebel, I am anti-authority, I will go my own way if I'm not happy with a situation, and many times people don't like that, but it's also about staying true to yourself. And that's why I really believe very strongly, with very strong conviction that I'm the guy to come in here September 10th and to snatch that belt away, because I am that rebel, I won't go against the odds, I'll go against everybody to attain my goal.”
Thankfully, it won’t be long (knock on wood) until we see for ourselves if Alistair Overeem’s long and winding road finally leads him to the grandest prize in all of mixed-martial-arts. Whether Overeem rises or falls to the occasion in Cleveland, one thing seems clear, it’s on him, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.