It looked as though this day would never come. Two years ago it was near unthinkable that Alistair Overeem would fight for the UFC heavyweight title after a streak of misfortune in the cage and an obviously deflating body after being caught using banned substances. Yet we stand on the cusp of UFC 203 and barring any last minute mishaps he is set to challenge Stipe Miocic for the UFC strap.
For Overeem, it has been a long and rocky road to get here. A journeyman light heavyweight in PRIDE FC, Overeem built himself into a legitimate heavyweight after the closure of that organization and padded his record in the B-leagues. After winning a classic Japanese style MMA fighter versus legitimate kickboxer mismatch under kickboxing rules, against the great Badr Hari, Overeem began competing in kickboxing and MMA simultaneously. Overeem claimed the Strikeforce heavyweight title, the DREAM heavyweight title, and the last important K-1 Grand Prix title while putting together an incredible streak of wins. When the UFC finally signed him he put a savage beating on Brock Lesnar and stopped the former champion in the first round. It was then that the wheels fell off the wagon. After failing a drug test, Overeem returned in 2012 to lose three of his next four, with all three losses coming by knockout—cementing all the rumors of his shaky chin. After some tentative performances to get back in the win column, Overeem now seems back on track with the confidence necessary to put top fighters away, but the caution necessary to keep himself away from the power punches.
Stipe Miocic, meanwhile is the unlikely champion. While many were waiting for Overeem to achieve his potential, and others were denouncing him as just a can-crusher, Miocic was quietly working his way up through the ranks. When he boxed up Junior dos Santos for several rounds there were some nods of approval and raised eyebrows. When he put a mixed martial arts clinic on Mark Hunt fans started to pay attention. But no one could have expected him to win the heavyweight title with such ease. Fabricio Werdum's usual aggression failed to faze Miocic, and the Brazilian's habit of breaking his stance to chase, leading with his chin, and carrying his hands low cost him dearly as Miocic hit a counter right hand on the retreat which decked Werdum in one blow.
While Overeem has the reputation as a kickboxer, much of his best work in mixed martial arts has been done with strikes either in the clinch or on the ground. The Dutchman has the best knee strikes in MMA from almost any position. Overeem stopped Sergei Kharitonov with knees to the head from side control in their first fight (which all PRIDE fans miss under the unified rules of MMA), he winded Brett Rogers badly with knees to the body from side control, he turned Travis Browne and Paul Buentello fetal with knees to the body along the fence, and the double collar tie knee he hit Ewerton Teixeira with looked like it might have killed the karateka. K-1 actually changed the rules on using the double collar tie to land knees solely because of Overeem.
In his two most recent fights Overeem has used his entire skill set on the feet and fought from the outside rather than attempting to box. Overeem's hands were largely mediocre until later in his kickboxing career, but in the cage there is just no reason for him to be hanging around in range to trade with his opponents when he is so skilled at longer range with kicks and in close with knees and trips. Against Dos Santos, Overeem exploited the range advantage with long kicks before bursting in to knock Dos Santos out with his favorite shifting left hook. Everything in moderation.
Against Arlovski, Overeem punched into clinches and pushed Arlovski away whenever he thought the Belarusian banger might come back with punches. Punch and clutch is an excellent method for a man with a shaky chin and top notch skills in the clinch. The move and kick style has been working extremely well for Overeem and giving up playing the bully has meant that opponents start walking onto his strikes and stepping in too close to swing at him cleanly. Arlovski had the misfortune of walking onto a crane kick of all things.
Miocic, meanwhile, is a very classical upright boxer. The jab and the straight right hand are his best weapons and his money maker is the inside right straight, often with the inside parry with his lead hand. That short right straight down the inside of his opponent's left hand has won him a lot of fights. Andrei Arlovski and Fabio Maldonado know it well.
What Miocic is also excellent at is mixing his boxing with level changes to force the opponent to protect their hips and consider sprawling at all times. After an aggressive cage-cutting performance against Junior dos Santos, Miocic turned around and put together a picture perfect outfighting showing against Mark Hunt. Showing jabs that only actually came on the second or third pump of his shoulder, Miocic completely neutralized Hunt's powerful counter punching by getting Hunt to take his finger off the trigger. No fighter wants to keep winding up and swinging at air, so they start waiting a little later to see if the punches are really coming before they attempt to counter, except that 'extra time' doesn't exist when you're dealing with the fastest and most dexterous weapon in fighting—a good jab.
Clearly this is a bout in which both men have the firepower to make quick work of the other at the first sign of any mistake. Miocic and Overeem also both appreciate the value of the feint, which is rare in MMA and like diamond dust at heavyweight. One interesting play off is the straight right counter that Miocic loves with the cross counter—the overhand across the top of the opponent's jab—which is Overeem's go-to. Overeem lunges behind his punches a little and has a tendency to lean on the way in, that is exaggerated in the overhand because he takes his head forwards and off centre.
Yet Miocic is such an upright fighter that he can be an easy mark for the offensive overhand. Couple that with being a slow starter. Against Fabricio Werdum, Miocic would pump a couple of feints and then get hit with the counter overhand that he had been trying to draw and exploit.
Another area of interest is Miocic's level change itself, which is done more at the waist than at the legs. Going for the hips with the head down makes a fighter more susceptible to the guillotine, which was always a favorite of Overeem but which has become less frequently seen since he began packing on muscle. Perhaps the beefier wrists are harder to get under the chin, perhaps not many guys have shot on him because he's far more hurtable on the feet and his ground game is an unnecessary can of worms.
Really this fight gives the fans everything they love about the heavyweight division, while appealing to even those suffering from heavyweight apathy. There is the high probability of a knockout, but you also have two exceptionally skilled strikers in different areas of the game—one upright boxer-puncher with a few inside low kicks, one varied kickboxer. Two excellent clinch fighters who emphasize different aspects—one being the more traditional wrestler / dirty boxer, the other being more at home with foot sweeps and knee strikes. And two very different ground games with one man preferring to sit on his opponent's bottom leg in half guard to hold them in place for punches, and the other preferring to work from the top of side control and hunt submissions. It is hard to see this one going the distance, but it could be a treat which seems to be flying under the radar in the recovery from UFC 202. Get back here Monday for the post fight breakdown.
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