Alistair Overeem is hunkering down.
The immediate reason? He’s in Newark, New Jersey. In January. The wind chills are in the single digits. Kind of a shock when you're coming from Thailand.
“I have a hat on my head, and I’m inside,” Overeem said. “I’ll say it that way.”
It’s Wednesday, and he's in Newark for his fight with Frank Mir, which happens in just a few days' time at UFC 169. Holed up in his hotel, Overeem probably wishes his wagons were circled only against the elements. But that's not the case. It's a veritable Oregon Trail out there for "The Reem," with snakes and dysentery behind every rock.
The reasons for that are many.
First, there’s the fact that Saturday’s loser between these two brand-name veterans may be asked to, as they say, leave town. Just Tuesday, UFC president Dana White reiterated (per Fox Sports) that the loser’s departure “appears” to be a distinct possibility. He stopped short of saying someone was as good as gone, though. So no pressure there.
Second, there is the small matter of fact that The Reem is winless in his last two fights and stuck in neutral on that once-divinely mandated ascent to the top of the UFC’s heavyweight division. The guy who ate Brock Lesnar alive in front of a global pay-per-view audience to close 2011 and open his UFC career seems a long way away now.
Third, his last two losses were both clean knockouts. The insult on top of that injury: He was winning them both before he was losing them. The Reem was almost toying with Antonio Silva until Silva reared up and bullied back for one of 2013’s biggest stunners. In August, Overeem had Travis Browne dead to rights (and, in the eyes of some, deserved a stoppage that never came) before Browne laced a front kick through Overeem’s defenses. In both efforts, plenty of observers questioned Overeem’s mental game, wondering whether he underestimated his opponents or overestimated himself.
And fourth, it all happens before the backdrop of performance-enhancing drugs, a charge that has followed Overeem ever since he began looking like a comic book villain. When he made MMA his full-time job, he wasn’t so much a converted kickboxer as a converted centaur.
In 2012, he was denied a fighting license for nine months after failing a pre-UFC 146 drug test for elevated testosterone ratios (per Brent Brookhouse of Bloody Elbow). Overeem said a doctor injected him with an anti-inflammatory medication that, unbeknownst to Overeem, contained testosterone. Questions about the incident, his physique and the recent drop-off in results that accompanied the failed test continue to follow Overeem everywhere.
No wonder the guy is hunkered down.
No wonder, either, that he addresses questions today with a little less of the aplomb seen on “The Reem,” the popular webisodic documentary chronicling Overeem’s life, and in which Overeem is closely involved.
And yet, he does his hypely duty and answers the questions. Overeem prefers to spend time discussing Saturday’s matchup, in which he points out the same striker-grappler tension and general something’s-gotta-giveness that fans and pundits are so hotly anticipating.
“Obviously, Frank Mir can strike, but I wouldn’t say he’s at my level,” Overeem said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “Everyone in the UFC is well-rounded. I just want to play my game. Whether it’s the first round or the last round, just stay sharp. He’ll try to submit me. Overall he has submissions, he’ll try to work that, and I’ll try to do what I do.”
He also speaks surprisingly fondly of Mir as a person, saying the two have become acquainted in recent months.
“We spent some time in Russia in November,” Overeem said. “We did some appearances and interviews together. We had some dinner. We shared a cab. We hung out. I actually did like him. He seems like an intelligent guy. That doesn’t go for all my opponents. Some of them I can’t stand.”
Mir, 34, is 16-8 in MMA and has worn UFC gold on two separate occasions. He has also lost three straight (hence the loser-leaves-town aspect of the contest). And while Mir is treated like the grandfather of the two, Overeem may be older in fight years despite being a year younger at 33. Overeem is 36-13 (1) in MMA, and that’s to say nothing of his kickboxing odometer, which itself notches 14 contests.
So while much of the retirement speculation has focused on Mir, it’s not illogical that Overeem, in the event of a loss and potential UFC release, might himself do a little void-staring—especially given that he could probably move back into pure kickboxing without much trouble.
But contradictory to previous comments (via MMAMania), Overeem says now that he won’t consider retirement, win or lose, after UFC 169. He seems determined to make it in the octagon, too. So no move back to kickboxing.
“No, I’m not going to retire,” Overeem said. “Not going anywhere. I’m focused on the UFC. It’s the biggest stage.”
After this camp, Overeem says he feels more “energized” than he did before the Silva or Browne contests. Earlier this month, the news came out that Overeem has again changed camps, this time parting ways with the Blackzilians (via MMAMania) and heading to Thailand to train for Mir. He also said he feels more prepared.
Does that mean he took his previous two opponents too lightly? Overeem sidesteps claims of athletic arrogance, even at the same time that he, very indirectly and perhaps subconsciously, acknowledges them with admissions that his “fundamentals” were not sound in the run-up to the prior fights.
“I think they are wrong [about arrogance],” Overeem said. “My fundamentals were wrong. You can’t get caught by surprise. I’ll let people make up their own minds. All we can do is our best.”
As for the failed drug test, the only thing Overeem can do now is move forward, buoyed by his own claims that he’s a new and far more careful man.
“I have a nutritionist and a doctor,” Overeem said. “Everything is checked. Thoroughly. Everything I take is checked out first. That situation cannot occur again…I educated myself on all the rules and regulations.”
When asked about the notion of voluntary testing through an independent anti-doping agency like VADA, Overeem was less firm, but at least theoretically open to the idea.
“I don’t know, it hasn’t happened yet,” Overeem said of anyone asking him to perform voluntary tests. “But we could talk.”
Talking is always a good place to start. So, too, is a win over Frank Mir. At this point, Overeem would probably welcome anything that could help him out of that foxhole.
Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more, follow Scott on Twitter.