Is Alistair Overeem The Best Striker in the Heavyweight Division? Part 2

11 May

Hello everyone!  Apologies for the delay, but alas my professional and personal life have taken up more than their fair share of my time.  A lot has happened over the past few weeks in the combat sports world:

  • Floyd Mayweather decisively beat Miguel Cotto, despite having clearly lost a step in his abilities and physical condition.  No shame in that, the man is 35!  This also makes the ever-nebulous Pacquiao/Mayweather superfight that much more disappointing.  Both Floyd and Pacquiao have shown signs of deterioration in their past fights, and I wonder if the winner of the superfight could really be considered the better boxer in their prime.
  • I’m officially on the Jon Jones bandwagon after he beat Rashad Evans convincingly.  I’ve always had a dislike of this young phenom ever since he took apart one of my personal favorites, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in Newark, but after he’s cleaned out the “big 4” in the light heavyweight division, I don’t think there can be any debate that he is a legitimate champion and possible ATG.

Now that we’ve gotten current news out of the way, onto the actual blog post!

In my last entry, I reviewed a couple key aspects of Overeem’s striking game that make him so dangerous to anyone in the heavyweight division. For today’s entry, I’ll highlight a few weaknesses that Overeem has in his game, including one so critically bad, it could be the difference in the fight with Junior Dos Santos!

Overeem Weakness #1:  Static Defense

(Winky Wright showing the pitfalls of shelling up vs. Bernard Hopkins)

When it comes to defense in the striking arts, there are three major ways you can protect yourself.

#1) Foot Movement.  Simple enough, if you’re not there to be hit, your opponent won’t land on you.  Typically this is shown by moving to your opponent’s side (“giving him angles”) after landing your strikes, and in general staying active and not in one place at a time.  This has the effect of not only possibly dodging your opponent’s strike completely, but also forcing him to constantly reset so that if he lands on you, he wont’ have his feet under him and the power of his strike won’t be there.  This is by far the BEST way to avoid damage if possible (since if it’s pulled off correctly, your opponent won’t even be able to touch you!).

One of the best exponent of this particular skill is the current Bantamweight champion, Dominick Cruz.  Although his footwork is far from orthodox, his ability to constantly change angles and keep moving has served him well (at least for now…)

(Dominick Cruz showing great unorthodox foot work in sliding off to his left after landing his strikes vs. Scott Jorgensen)

 #2) Head Movement  If you can’t move your body out of the way, the next best thing to do is to minimize damage to your most vital area, the brain.  Typically illustrated as moving your head ever so slightly to the left or right (“slipping a punch”), or moving your head in an inside out V (“rolling under a punch”)

(Textbook example of slipping, stolen from a favorite fanpost of mine on Bloody Elbow, author: Jack Slack).

Commonly accepted as a staple defensive maneuver in boxing, it has been seen more and more often in MMA, most notably Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo demonstrating excellent head movement before winning decisively.

Perhaps the most famous exponent of this technique is Pernell Whitaker, one of the greatest boxers of all time and certainly among the most elusive!

(Simply Amazing)

#3) Blocking This type of defense is especially prevalent in kickboxing, as head movement is generally discouraged with the possibility of head kicks (ducking your head into a kick is a great way to get knocked out), and foot movement is discouraged due to leg kicks (you can’t check kicks while you move, and a few good leg kicks will take the spring from your step).  In addition, the usage of large boxing gloves in kickboxing/boxing mean that the chances of a punch slipping through a tight blocking defense are extremely small.  As a result, blocking has become the go-to defensive maneuver in most kickboxing matches (and most notably, some boxers like Ronald “Winky” Wright).

Despite its prevalent usage, blocking an opponent’s strike should be the absolute LAST resort for striking defense.  The reasoning behind this is simple:  you’re still getting HIT with the blow, you’re only taking it on a less important body part (forearms/shins).  Damage over time will still accumulate and can wear you down bit by bit.  Not to mention, you run the risk (especially in MMA!) of someone slipping a punch or kick around your gloves to land directly on your head.  This of course, can lead to a KO.

(Chuck eloquently demonstrating my point on Tito’s large head)

What does this have to do with Alistair Overeem?  Simple!  Due to his kickboxing background, his primary (and only) method of defense versus incoming strikes is blocking the strikes and shelling up behind his muscular forearms.  While he has definitely improved on this facet of his game (see my last post about his excellent head movement vs. Ben Edwards), shelling up is still his tried and true method of defense.  Beyond the weaknesses of this technique that I’ve mentioned above, it also leaves Overeem open to one of Junior Dos Santos’ best attributes.

Another weakness of blocking is illustrated in the image above:  When you are busy blocking, it is very difficult to strike.  After all, if your hands are in position defending your face, you can’t exactly throw counter punches convincingly without exposing yourself to further damage.  It’s certainly not impossible mind you (watch the Rampage/Wanderlei 3 KO for a good counter-example), but it’s very difficult.  In the above image, Fabricio Werdum (a BJJ fighter not known for his striking) takes advantage of this weakness by throwing a multi punch combination punctuated by a strong knee, knowing that Overeem, being in complete defensive mode with his blocking, is unlikely to respond.  Against a dangerous power puncher who throws in combination like Junior Dos Santos, blocking like Overeem is a great way to let him know he can throw without retaliation….and as we see in the Chuck and Tito image shown earlier, punches from a good striker in MMA find a way to get through your defense eventually.

Overeem Weakness #2: He Doesn’t Like To Get Hit

You might read the above statement and think I’m being overly harsh of Overeem.  After all, who likes to get hit in the head?  And of course, you are completely correct; no one (not even Chris Leben), likes to get punched in the head.  However, professional fighters accept it as an inevitability in the sport, and for the large part, do not let such trifles get in the way of their own strategies.  Of course, even at the highest level of professional fighting, there are exceptions to the rule….

(Brock Lesnar showing off some dance moves while getting away from a punch)

Now, Alistair Overeem is certainly no Brock Lesnar when it comes to getting hit.   However, by looking at his reactions in his recent fights as well as his record, we can find ample (if circumstancial) evidence to assume that Alistair Overeem reacts poorly to getting hit, and can be considered “gun-shy”.  How did I come to such a conclusion?

#1) Overeem has been KO’ed/TKO’ed 9 times in his career

One of the most oft-repeated truisms in the combat sports world is that being knocked out can dramatically change a fighter.  Especially for young prospects, being knocked out can change the entire trajectory of a career, or even end it!  At best, being knocked out will change a fighter’s strategy and outlook to some degree for the rest of his career.  At worst, the fighter becomes “gun-shy” (reluctant to get hit), and will cause him to fight conservatively (if at all) for the rest of his career.

Perhaps the most striking (get it?) example of this phenomenon is the current welterweight champion of the world, George St. Pierre.

(GSP during his rise to the top, Pre-Matt Serra).

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think GSP is a phenomenal fighter, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with how he goes about fighting.  However, it is blatantly obvious that his TKO loss to Matt Serra has dramatically changed his strategy and outlook toward fighting.

During his initial run in the UFC, GSP was actually primarily known as a striker with good wrestling, having stopped Jay Hieron and Matt Hughes with devastating punches and kicks, and standing toe to toe with BJ Penn for extended periods of time.  What is especially notable during this time period is how fluid and diverse GSP’s striking is, mixing in spinning back kicks, rear leg roundhouses, and punching combinations.

After getting knocked out by Matt Serra, GSP has turned into a wrestler with some good striking;  his first and foremost plan of attack is getting the opponent to the ground, rather than standing and trading as he would have in his past.  Beyond that, we can see in his striking pattern he has become safety conscious and conservative.  GSP now rarely throws right leg roundhouse kicks, let alone punching combinations (beyond a simple jab and right hand).  Most of his offense standing up is reliant on a pinpoint left jab and a tepid inside left leg roundhouse kick.

What’s the significance of GSP’s change of tactics?  In order to answer that, it is important to understand some of the underlying strategies in striking.

In some ways, any striking art can be considered a delicate balance between two opposing concepts, be it offense and defense, speed and power, hands and feet.  If you focus too strongly on one aspect, the opposing aspect will suffer.  The best example for this is striking in combinations.  Any time you throw a strike, you are leaving yourself open to a counterstrike;  it is nigh impossible to completely protect yourself while going on offense.  Throwing multiple strikes in combination multiples this danger;  the more strikes you throw at one time, the more stationary (and less aware) you will be, leaving you more and more open to a counterstrike.  The upside is of course, that you have more of a chance of landing your own punches and kicks; it becomes increasingly hard for the opponent to block multiple strikes, especially when one mixes it up with both head, body, and leg attacks.

(With Dan Hardy committing to a 1-2-3 combination, Condit catches him with a tighter counter-hook, putting his lights out.)

A rear leg roundhouse is a similarly offensively focused technique;  by using your rear leg, you are able to more effectively rotate your upper body and hips into the strike, increasing the damage of the strike.  However, such a move squares your upper body with the opponent for a split second, allowing a savvy opponent an opportunity for a quick counter.

(Thiago Alves commits to a right leg roundhouse, which GSP expertly counters with a right straight that drops Alves).

By being reluctant to use such offensively focused techniques in his arsenal, GSP is showing that he has morphed into a defense-first fighter, most likely a result of his TKO loss to Matt Serra showing what a well placed counter-overhand can do.

What does that mean for Alistair Overeem?  The man has been knocked out 9 times during his long career, sometimes quite brutally (as seen in the above image).  The history of combat sports and the plethora of real-life examples tells us that such concussive damage indelibly has left an impression on Overeem’s psyche and strategy, as it must do to all fighters.  But has it shown up on fight night?

(You think Overeem won’t remember this?)

#2) Overeem has become “gun-shy” as a result.

 Obviously, it has.  Even with his tremendous weight gain, Overeem has retained this aspect of his character, and is far from the invincible terminator his intimidating physique might lead you to believe.

Now, it is important to note that much of the evidence I’ll bring to light is largely circumstantial;  for many years Overeem has fought less-than-deserving opponents (MMA), or under a ruleset (K-1) where his shell-like defense is more than adequate against big boxing gloves.  As a result, Overeem has largely ran right through his opponents, comfortable in his knowledge that the opponent won’t provide a threat, or at least confident that he can hide behind his giant forearms to weather any sort of storm.

However, to a (somewhat) trained eye, Overeem’s recent dominating win over a top-15 heavyweight (Fabricio Werdum) is illuminating as to his changed mindset toward striking.

As soon as Werdum commits to punching, notice how quickly Overeem begins to move backwards, and shell up behind his arms.  Rather than clinching up with his opponent, or perhaps moving to the side (and away from his opponent, as he finally does in the end of this sequence), he elects to duck his head and protect himself.  While certainly not shameful, such a move illustrates Overeem’s overly defensive mindset, to the point that he almost “panics” to defend his chin, rather than employ a perhaps more effective technique such as clinching up or going for a takedown.  Keep in mind, he is doing this against an opponent that he himself admits presented next to no threat to him standing; imagine his reaction when the attacker is an offensive dynamo like Junior Dos Santos?

In the above sequence (late in the fight), Overeem commits the same foul when Werdum again decides to go on the offensive.  Overeem hides behind his large forearms until Werdum starts to gas out, before moving out to his right.  It is important to also be aware that Werdum is landing  his strikes in this sequence;  Overeem’s big forearms don’t prevent Werdum’s hockey punches from landing on his temple.  In addition, notice Overeem’s counterstrike toward the end of the sequence.  After circling out to his right, Overeem commits to landing only a single punch before clinching up with Werdum.  This illustrates another weakness in Overeem’s mentality;  he is afraid to commit to his offense, for fear of getting caught and KO’ed.  As discussed with respect to GSP, striking in combination tends to require a certain commitment to offense and by its very nature opens you up for a counterpunch.

Although admittedly minor, Overeem’s reluctance toward getting hit and safety-first mentality can give anybody in the heavyweight division a fair chance at dethroning him in a striking-only battle.  As shown in his fight against the passable striker Fabricio Werdum, even someone with average technique and poor power can put Overeem on his heels and reluctant to throw.  Moreso than any defensive deficiencies, it is this weakness that could lead to his downfall in a future JDS bout.  It is very likely that Overeem, after being on the receiving end of a JDS combination, could  retreat into his ubiquitious defensive shell and resort to overcommitting on single punches…and thereby leaving himself open to a final devastating punch.

(Badr Hari returns the favor)

Hope you enjoyed this two-part series on Alistair Overeem!  Although he probably won’t ever face Junior Dos Santos for the championship, it has been an interesting thought exercise as to predict how the fight might have ended.

Next up:  A look at a forgotten all time great fighter oft omitted from today’s discussions, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai!


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