Is Alistair Overeem the best striker in the heavyweight division? (Part 1)

26 Apr

As you all may or may not know, Alistair Overeem has tested positive for a significantly high ratio of Testosterone/Epitestosterone (14:1, vs. the normal human’s 1:1 or at most 3:1), an almost surefire indicator of steroid usage.  Ignore his ridiculous excuse of anti-inflammatory usage or his oft-repeated denials of cheating, this is as clear as it gets that Overeem’s ridiculous size growth (seriously, look at the picture) is more a result of pharmaceutical grade “help” than horse meat.

(don’t act like you weren’t surprised….)

That being said, let’s not forget that Alistair Overeem, cheater or not, has legitimate skills unique among the heavyweight division, and has made a strong case for being the best striker in the heavyweight division.  But not for the reason you might think!

Below I’ve listed some key strengths that I’ve seen in Overeem’s striking game.

Strengths:

Power:

With Overeem’s impressive gain in size, the one area where he’s demonstrated notable improvement is his strength and his overall ability to manhandle his opponents.  Take a look at the GIF below for an example from his recent tussle with the limited heavyweight brawler, Brett Rogers.

(Overeem introducing Brett Rogers to Muay Thai, StrikeForce Heavy Artillery, 2010)

As Brett comes charging in with a looping left hook, Overeem slips to the left and attempts to counter with an overhand right, landing on Rogers’ shoulder.  Going with the momentum of the move, Overeem transitions to a common Muay Thai  clinch technique, pushing your opponent’s upper body in one direction while using the knee to “trap” the lower body from following suit.  This has the effect of throwing your opponent off balance, or (at best) throwing him off his feet completely.  This particular technique is heavily reliant on upper body strength in addition to technique, and is what I would consider a “big man” move.  What is especially impressive about the above sequence is that not only does Overeem perform the technique with impressive crispness, but he throws Rogers so hard that he completely loses his balance and does a Lesnar-esque pirouette.   Remember, this is a 263 pound man that Overeem is throwing around casually like a sack of potatoes.  Such impressive strength serves him well in conjunction with his other key strength…..

Clinch:


Much has been made of Overeem’s K-1 (or Kickboxing) credentials, as well as his win in the K-1 GP of 2010 (historically the crowning achievement of heavyweight kickboxers, although this will likely change in the future).  This has led many to think of Overeem as a superlative striker…which is to say, having the best punches and kicks in the business.  While he is certainly capable in this particular realm (more on that in a second), what really lead to his victories in kickboxing (and MMA as well)  is actually his immense skill in the clinch.

For those unfamiliar with this term, the clinch (in a striking context) refers to when two combatants are locked in tight (as in less than 6 inches apart) and are engaged in a battle with (mostly) their upper body to attain dominant position….”stand-up wrestling” as it were.    Of course, the combat sport ruleset heavily dictates what is considered a “dominant position” in clinch fighting.  In boxing, the main objective is to tie up the opponent’s arms, whereas in Muay Thai, the dominant position is considered the “plum” (see the picture below), where elbows and knees can be landed with impunity and strong control of your opponent can be maintained.

(The best in the business demonstrating the “thai plum” in MMA)

Of course the MMA ruleset further confuses the rules of maintaining dominant position in the clinch by adding in wrestling and Judo, where dominant positions are heavily varied and reliant on the ability to take an opponent down.

Overeem’s clinch game draws heavily from both his MMA base as well as his more recent Muay Thai training, such that he doesn’t necessarily look for the Thai Plum before unleashing his brutal knees.  Below, a number of example gifs/fights with appropriate commentary.

(Classic Fight: Alistair Overeem vs. Vitor Belfort 1, PRIDE Middleweight Tournament: Elimination Round 2005)

Even before Overeem morphed into the steroid-fueled specimen we know today as “Ubereem”, he was heavily dependent on his clinch-based attack on his feet.  Case in point, watch the above fight with the vaunted striker Vitor Belfort.  Almost immediately, as Belfort looks to engage with his flashy (and fast!) hands, Overeem marches right in to secure the clinch and begins delivering brutal knees to Vitor’s midsection (0:53 mark), wearing him down for the kill.  It is a similar maneuver that leads to the fight ending submission (10:26 mark).  After some grinding ground and pound from Overeem, a standup (and yellow card! (10% deduction from the fighter’s purse)) leads to Vitor coming in a little reckless.  With Vitor charging in, Overeem easily secures a single collar tie (basically thai plum with only one hand) and delivers a pinpoint knee to Belfort’s chin, staggering him and causing him to shoot for a poor double leg takedown while leaving his head exposed.  Overeem takes the opportunity to latch on a vicious guillotine (his specialty submission), handing Belfort his first (and only!) technical submission loss ever in MMA.

Even when making his successful transition from MMA to K-1, Overeem has made his clinch game as the centerpiece of his striking.  Watch his early contests with Peter Aerts or Remy Bonjasky;  rather than relying on kickboxing combinations, Overeem seeks to bully his opponents around by throwing them from the clinch with his brute strength or delivering brutal knees from any clinch position, more or less wearing his opponent down with his size and power.  He would carry this aspect of his game into the K-1 World Grand Prix 2009 with shocking results (see the gif).

(Overeem sending Ewerton Texeira into another dimension with a brutal knee from the clinch, K-1 World GP 2009)

Upon his arrival to the UFC vs. Brock Lesnar, we see that Overeem is very aware of his advantage in this phase of combat, and has continued to make it the centerpiece of his game.

(Overeem performing some “surgery” to Lesnar, UFC 141 2011)

When this fight was first announced, many believed that Overeem would seek to maintain his distance and play the traditional kickboxing game with the gunshy Lesnar.  From the start of the fight however, we see that Overeem marches right into Lesnar and grabs a dominant position to deliver a brutal knee to Lesnar’s midsection, and folding the big man in half with a second knee.  Many wondered why Lesnar didn’t immediately bullrush Overeem to the cage and try for a takedown.  In my opinion, those knees in the first round were the reason why Lesnar hesitated to shoot or clinch with Overeem.  Lesnar was very wary of getting hit again in that position, thus nullifying his best chance to put Overeem on his back and winning the fight.  Of course, we all know how this fight ended;  Overeem drops Brock with a killer liver kick and pounds him for the TKO.

Although likely irrelevant at this point, I believe Alistair would have utilized that very same strategy vs. Junior Dos Santos.  Rather than playing the traditional distance game where Overeem would have to rely on his powerful kicks to keep JDS’s combinations at bay, Alistair would have pressed JDS up against the cage to deliver knees and elbows to wear him down en route to a later round TKO or submission.  This is a time honored strategy in combat sports, and is perhaps the most effective way to defeat a power-punching combination machine like JDS.  Look toward Evander Holyfield/Mike Tyson, or Randy Couture/Vitor Belfort 1 for good historical examples of this strategy’s devastating effectiveness.

Crisp Boxing Technique:

First, a little history lesson:

Historically, K-1 has differentiated itself from Muay Thai through it’s focus on punches and kicks.  Whereas Muay Thai has a strong component of clinch-fighting and knees, K-1 more or less discouraged this phase of stand-up with fast referee breaks in the clinch and no elbows.  Enter Buakaw Por Pramuk, perhaps the #2/#3 striker in the world at his weight class of 70Kg, and certainly one of the most famous Muay Thai powerhouses in the world.  With his arrival in K-1 Max (welterweight) Grand Prix 2004,  Buakaw demonstrated the effectiveness of a strong clinch game, manhandling such top K-1 talent as Albert Kraus and Japanese heartthrob Masato.  In an effort to protect their favored fighters from this Thai menace, K-1 instituted a series of rule changes effectively banning clinch fighting, culminating a ban on the Thai Plum in 2010, right before Overeem’s run to victory in the Grand Prix.

Of course, such a rule would heavily limit Overeem’s skill set in the K-1 circuit, which has convinced him to develop his game to include very crisp boxing.

Overeem has always had good technique with his punches, as seen in this famous sequence from Dynamite 2008 against  K-1 bad boy Badr Hari, who is ranked in the top 3 among heavyweight kickboxers (regardless of style).

(Goodnight Sweet Prince, Dynamite 2008)

Note the perfect setup and technique of Overeem’s fight ending left hook: his right hand is in perfect position against his cheek, and he beautifully turns his left shoulder and waist over when throwing the punch.  The result is a technically precise and short counter hook that not only protects Overeem from Badr’s wild punch, but also allows him to land perfectly on Badr’s chin, leading to a one shot knockout.

Following the egregious K-1 rule change banning clinches, Overeem further worked on his boxing to incorporate head movement and precise counter striking…something he used to seal his entry into the K-1 World Grand Prix of 2010 in his fight against Ben Edwards.

(Overeem KOs Ben Edwards, K-1 World GP 2010 Qualifying 16)

OK, so this is not the “perfect” gif to illustrate my point, but I think you can see the gist of what I’m getting at.

Note the first knockdown in the sequence:  Ben Edwards throws an ill-advised right uppercut from way too far out with no setup, and Overeem responds by slipping to his left perfectly and uncorking a picture perfect overhand right to Edward’s chin.  What’s not shown is the first knockdown in the fight, when Overeem drops Edward with a right hand counterpunch by slipping one of Edward’s wild punches.  This is a great demonstration of one of the most underutilized (and most important!) skills in boxing: head movement.  The key to victory in striking is the commonly repeated idiom: “Hit and Don’t Get Hit”, and proper head movement is one method that can carry you to success.  Rather than moving your entire body (which, although appropriate, can sometimes be difficult to carry out and tiring to perform), a subtle movement to the left or right with your head and upper body can allow your opponent to miss his strike, and still leave you in position to land a counterpunch of your own.  Counterpunches can often have an increased effect on the opponent, as he/she likely is not expecting the blow…something that Overeem demonstrates to great effect.

The second knockdown also demonstrates Overeem’s developing insight into the boxing game.  When confronted with Ben Edwards blocking almost all his blows with his forearms, Alistair applies a simple but often overlooked technique: he simply pushes Edward’s gloves out of the way.  The subsequent right hook drops Edwards like a sack of bricks and ends the fight.

In relation to MMA, it is possible for Overeem to use his improved boxing technique and acumen to his advantage against Junior Dos Santos.  One criticism I have for JDS is his lack of defense;  when he starts throwing punches, he can forget to cover himself against counters, relying on the ferocity of his attack and handspeed to protect him.  Against someone like Overeem who has demonstrated decent head movement as well as strong counterpunching, that can be a recipe for disaster.

As you can see, Overeem clearly has demonstrated a bevy of advantages in the striking game, something that puts him above and beyond many other heavyweights.  In the next post, we’ll take a look at how his weaknesses bring him down to earth, and make it so that someone with less “pedigree” on paper could meet (and beat!) him in a striking match.

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