As for the resilient Alistair Overeem, you can tell a lot by a man’s smirk

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If we’re being honest, Saturday’s main event in St. Petersburg wasn’t the most fetching affair, but there’s something about Alistair Overeem’s laissez-faire attitude that shouldn’t be ignored. This time it was Alexey Oleynik surprising “Reem” with a big shot fairly early on, a shot that sent him careening towards the fence. Oleynik followed his hulk and started to unleash what can only be considered a 41-year-old grappler’s version of hell, hard thudding shots that — to any casual viewer — seemed to signal trouble.

But if you’re reading this, you’ve long been familiar with Overeem’s brand of in-fight smirkiture. He’s the kind of guy that winks at you during a tempest, and makes you wonder if you’ve been misreading danger all along. He wasn’t playing possum (exactly), but he wasn’t sounding alarm bells either. He was coolly letting Oleynik spend himself. The old veteran couldn’t be bothered to reply, was all. If he was going to get knocked out in the process, well gotdambit, he was going to get knocked out, it’s nothing to get worked up over.

Once the trouble passed — and Overeem always trusts that the trouble will pass, just as a bad song will at the discotheque — he began to return fire in earnest. He got Oleynik in the clinch, and delivered some patented Ubereem wincers — those rib rattlers that make the Baltic ripple — and finally downed Oleynik for good with 15 seconds left in the round with a serving of knees and hands.

Wham, bam, thank you man — we have ourselves an old dog making his way back up the rungs at heavyweight.

Of course, none of this should excite any title talk. Oleynik is a tough customer, a crafty SOB who can sneak that Ezekiel choke on a larger body like an incubus, but he isn’t a springboard to Daniel Cormier. Overeem knew this full well and, when asked whom he’d like to face next after the fight, cited the man he was originally slated to take on in Russia, Alexander Volkov. That’s the fight to make. The 6-foot-7 Volkov was piecing up Derrick Lewis very nicely up until the final moments at UFC 229 before getting caught. Had he not gotten caught, he’d be riding a seven-fight winning streak, and would likely have been fighting for a belt himself.

Volkov’s the springboard to a title, or at least to very near it.

That’s another thing about Overeem that shouldn’t be ignored; he has a sense of his own bearings. In that same interview, when asked what he was going to do to celebrate his victory, Overeem said he was going to have some drinks in the beautiful city of St. Petersburg, but not too many, for you never know when you’ll be called on to fight again. At the age of 38 (he turns 39 next month), Overeem still knows the code words to gain free entry at the rave, but he also knows this is his last chance to make a run.

The takeaway: “Reem” still freaking wants it. After 20 years of fighting all over the world — in kick boxing, and MMA, from Yokohama to Mashantucket and all ports in between, dealing with Bigfoots and Ngannou uppercuts the whole way and second servings of horse meat — he still dreams of winning a UFC title. That’s all that’s left.

It’s hard not to appreciate this kind of twilight optimism. We’ve seen other heavyweights — older guys, guys with less menace behind their punches — end up in title fights late in their careers. We’ve seen them win titles. Overeem isn’t doing anything new, or dreaming anything unfathomable. He just wants to accomplish the one thing he hasn’t yet. He wants to wear a UFC belt. He had a chance back at UFC 203, but the situation was less than favorable. He was facing Stipe Miocic in Cleveland, the one place where Miocic is considered royalty, right when Miocic was at his most invincible.

When he lost, it felt like his last best shot had come and went. That, too, is a familiar feeling.

A long time ago, at UFC 156, Overeem was being groomed as the next challenge for Cain Velasquez. All he had to do was beat Antonio Silva and he would punch his ticket. He rolled up to the Mandalay Bay Events Center like he was there for bottle service. Twenty-five seconds into the third round he was flattened by Silva’s Thing-like fists, and his nostrils flared at the smelling salts. Since then he has been blasted by Travis Browne and Ben Rothwell, brutally KO’d by Miocic, posterized by Ngannou and left for dead by Curtis Blaydes. He has been in the proximity of a title for years, but there’s been hammers flying at him, anvils, ham hocks. He didn’t get out of the way of all of them.

He’s still there, though. Overeem went all the way to Beijing to begin that last trek back. He beat Sergei Pavlovich to get things rolling, then turned up in St. Petersburg and withstood Oleynik’s best shots, his face wearing that same half-smirk that it always does. Cocky? No, at this point it seems more like bemusement.

The old war horse isn’t going anywhere, and that kind of resilience is a little bit ornery.




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