Former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar returns this Friday night to face former Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem in the main event of UFC 141. Michael DiSanto breaks it down...
Lesnar is the single most dominant wrestler in the UFC heavyweight division. The former collegiate standout was a two-time Division I All-American and a national champion in his senior year. His overall collegiate record was 106-5. Daniel Cormier, a Strikeforce heavyweight standout, is the only heavyweight in the world who boasts better wrestling chops.
Overeem is a top-of-the-food-chain striker, arguably the best in the division. “The Reem” is the first man to ever simultaneously hold a major mixed martial arts belt and a major kickboxing title at the same time. The year was 2010. Overeem was the reigning Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion three years running when he won the K-1 World Grand Prix, a “best of the best” kickboxing title.
Suffice to say, Lesnar absolutely needs to get this fight to the ground if he wants to win, whereas Overeem desperately wants to keep it standing. How is that for simple? Love it or hate it, that is the game plan for Friday night’s main event.
But that isn’t the end of the breakdown. Far from it, actually. Neither man wants the fight to unfold in the other’s breadbasket. That is for sure. Yet, one has a better chance at winning, even if the fight doesn’t stay where he is most comfortable.
Let’s face reality for a moment. Overeem is a massive, muscled heavyweight. This is a guy who, just a half decade ago, was referred to as a “skinny” competitor at 205 lbs. That version of Alistair Overeem actually had a pretty good offensive and defensive guard. He also had a sick guillotine choke, particularly of the standing variety. His height and long arms made that move extremely effective in the 205-lb division, where Overeem enjoyed height and length advantages over just about everyone.
Today’s version has fallen in love with his standup skills. More accurately, Overeem has fallen in love with his fists. The 205-lb version of Overeem was a ball of fire in the PRIDE Fighting Championships. He was always up for a good scrap with anyone who dared stand and strike with him. But he varied his strikes with all eight of his Muay Thai weapons, with his knees being his trademark finishing move, not his fists. These days, he rarely throws knees, kicks or elbows with any great frequency in his fights. It is, instead, all fists, all the time.
If Overeem faces Lesnar with nothing more than his fists as weapons, then he should still win, assuming the fight remains on the feet. But that is not a guarantee. Remember folks that Lesnar is an enormous human being, still slightly larger than Overeem. If he sits down on a sell-out punch, and that strike hits Overeem anywhere close to his jaw, it is goodnight baby. That is the reality of fighting a 265-lb athletic freak like Lesnar. He may not be a polished striker, but he is so insanely powerful and fast that he can turn out the lights on anyone at any given moment.
But let’s be clear about the situation. Lesnar doesn’t want to stand and strike with Overeem. Not at all. Lesnar remains a work in progress on the feet. He was completely overwhelmed with quick combination punching in his title loss to Cain Velasquez. Fortunately for Lesnar, though, Overeem is a very different standup fighter from Velasquez. The latter uses technically sound and very active footwork to constantly change angles with his constant volume punching. The former is a come forward, plodding bomber, preferring to let one or two huge shots go at a time, rather than peppering his foe with deeper combinations. Make no mistake about it. Overeem has extremely quick hands. When he sees an opening, he can explode as quickly as anyone in the division. But he remains so focused on takedown defense, especially when facing someone with a ground-first attack, that he fires mostly in isolation.
Heath Herring also fights with that same basic standup approach. Lesnar experienced a lot of success on the feet in his bout with Herring. He even scored a knockdown early in the fight. Yet, he seemed lost on the feet against both Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez. Why? The simple answer is that Herring’s approach to the standup portion of a fight gave Lesnar a lot of confidence because it gave him time to set his feet and throw punches. Neither Carwin nor Velasquez allowed him to do that. Overeem likely will.
With that said, Overeem wins a standup-focused fight with Lesnar more than 90 percent of the time. Again, this guy is a polished, powerful striker with C4 in his fists. Lesnar doesn’t want any part of those fists. But he knows that he will occasionally land a big strike, and that could be enough to sneak a TKO win.
Lesnar’s game plan, though, won’t be to search for a lottery-winning strike on the feet. It will be to score a takedown at all costs and dominate the ground game.
In fact, I would not be surprised at all to see Lesnar charge out of his corner at the opening bell just like he did against Min-Soo Kim. He knows that, as big of an advantage that Overeem enjoys on the feet, he is enjoys an even bigger advantage over Overeem in the wrestling realm. Lesnar should be able to get the fight to the ground just about any time that he wants. He is that good with his takedowns.
I’ve read a lot about Overeem’s takedown defense in the last few weeks. If we are being brutally honest, his heavyweight takedown defense remains a giant question mark. Keep in mind that Overeem’s heavyweight career has not seen him fight anyone that was much of a wrestler. Kazuyuki Fujita is probably the best heavyweight wrestler that Overeem has faced to date. Comparing Fujita to Lesnar, both in terms of his wrestling ability and athleticism, is like comparing the local junior high school basketball star to LeBron James.
On the ground, Overeem is in a heap of trouble. Lesnar is a master of short, grinding ground strikes while keeping himself out of submissions. Frank Mir, who arguably has the best offensive guard in the division, couldn’t do anything from his back against Lesnar in their 2009 rematch. Lesnar’s wide wrestling base and chest-down approach smothered Mir’s jiu-jitsu. Overeem is nowhere close to Mir’s league on the ground. Thus, it would be shocking to see him succeed at all from his back against Lesnar. Overeem will more likely get beaten to a bloody pulp if he gets taken down.
Another major factor in this fight could be conditioning. Overeem has always had questionable cardiovascular conditioning, and those concerns have compounded since he added 30-plus pounds of muscle over the last few years. He will be at his most explosive in the opening five minutes. After that, his punches will slow a bit as his arms begin to feel heavy. His takedown defense will also be at its best in the opening round when he is strong and light on his feet.
Lesnar knows all of that. My guess is that his team has formulated a game plan designed to survive the first round, principally through takedowns and smothering clinch work along the cage. The takedowns may be a bit tough early, but they will be there as the fight progresses past the five-minute mark. That is when Lesnar will likely begin to dominate the action.
While Lesnar wants a longer, grueling bout, Overeem’s game plan is likely to look for an early knockout. He knows that he doesn’t want to let Lesnar stick around for long because a single takedown from the big fella can change the outcome of the fight just as quickly as an Overeem right hand. “The Reem” should throw quick, hard combinations, just like Velasquez, if he wants to score an early knockout. Firing one at a time is not the best way to approach a guy like Lesnar because it won’t keep him on the defensive. Combinations, on the other hand, will almost certainly overwhelm the former UFC heavyweight champion.
So, who is going to win this one? The odds makers have labeled Overeem a small betting favorite. I just don’t see it, to be honest. Overeem is an unbelievably experienced mixed martial artist, but most of his world-class opposition was at light heavy. Lesnar has the much more impressive resume of opponents at heavyweight, so, in my opinion, Overeem has a lot of questions left to answer before we anoint him a legitimate top tier heavyweight. He will get the opportunity to answer those questions on Friday night.
In my opinion, the odds reflect the fact that Lesnar has spent much of the last two years locked in a scary battle with diverticulitis. Time spent on the sideline fighting that dreaded condition has, at best, stunted his development as a fighter. At worst, it eroded his skills. Only Lesnar knows for sure if he is 100 percent healthy with no lingering after effects. Only he knows if the dramatic weight loss he suffered with each bout of diverticulitis has affected his explosive wrestling.
I guess we will all know after Friday night.
• 34 years old
• 81-inch reach
• 5-2 overall
• 6 of 7 professional fights ended inside the distance (4-2 in those fights)
• 40% of wins by KO/TKO
• 40% of wins by submission
• 20% of wins by decision
• Former UFC heavyweight champion
• Submission of the Night winner for Carwin bout
• Current layoff of 433 days is the longest of his professional career
• 31 years old
• 81.5-inch reach
• 35-11, 1 NC overall
• 41 out of 47 professional fights ended inside the distance (35-5, 1 NC in those fights)
• 40% of wins by KO/TKO
• 54% of wins by submission
• 6% of wins by decision
• Former Strikeforce heavyweight champion
• 2010 K-1 World Grand Prix champion
• First man to ever hold K-1 and major MMA titles in same year
• Current layoff is 195 days