Alistair Overeem and The Great Heavyweight Debate

Saturday is Strikeforce champ’s chance to earn his place among heavyweight elite

Alistair Overeem is universally regarded as one of the top 10 fighters in the heavyweight division. Depending on where you look, the mammoth Dutch striker falls anywhere from the top of the charts to eighth place in the polls. Most critics cast him somewhere between #3 and #7.

Just as there may not be a greater and more feared striker in all of mixed martial arts right now, Overeem might also be the one fighter whose place in the rankings is most debated. While they are admittedly subjective, most pundits can come to a consensus when it comes to ranking the sport’s elite, but not Overeem.

His meeting this weekend with Fabricio Werdum is many things. It is a chance to avenge a previous defeat, as well as an opportunity to advance to the next round of the Heavyweight Grand Prix. More importantly, it is a chance for Overeem to prove once and for all that he rightfully belongs amongst the heavyweight division’s elite.

Before getting into the thick of the debate, let’s get one thing perfectly clear: Overeem’s victory in the K-1 Grand Prix has no bearing on his ranking. This is mixed martial arts, not kickboxing, and while it was an incredible display and confirms his tremendous striking prowess, counting it as criteria here is like saying someone is the best golfer in the world because they kick ass at mini-golf.

The case against Overeem’s inclusion in the upper echelon of the big boy division has been stated time and again.

During his current destructive run through the heavyweight ranks, the Strikeforce and Dream heavyweight champion hasn’t exactly been facing a Murderer’s Row of opposition.

Since making the permanent move to heavyweight in June 2007, Overeem has amassed an impressive 10-1 record with one No Contest through 12 fights. The two blemishes came against the best two opponents he’s faced during that stretch; losing to Sergei Kharitonov, and the No Contest against Mirko Cro Cop.

The ten wins, however, have come against a list of fighters who run the gamut from contenders to complete punching bags:

– Brett Rogers was a top 10 opponent at the time he stepped in with Overeem in May 2010, having just lost to then still iconic Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko.

– The man Overeem beat to claim the Strikeforce heavyweight championship in the first place, Paul Buentello, is a good but not great journeyman; a regional standout who could never make it over the hump in the big leagues.

– Before defeating Chris Tuchscherer at UFC 127, Mark Hunt was riding a six-fight losing streak. Gary Goodridge has currently lost eight straight, while James Thompson is 7-12 with one No Contest through his last 20 fights.

Compared to other fighters who share the same space as Overeem in the rankings, he’s had it relatively easy. Take a guy like Frank Mir, for example.

The two-time former UFC champion stepped into the cage against Antoni Hardonk at UFC 74 just two months after Overeem shifted to heavyweight on a full-time basis.

Since then, Mir has gone 6-2 in the UFC with victories over Brock Lesnar, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Cheick Kongo, Cro Cop and, most recently, Roy Nelson. His two losses — one to Lesnar, one to Shane Carwin – both came in bouts where some version of the UFC heavyweight title was on the line.

Mathematically speaking, 10-1 is greater than 6-2, but there is no question that Mir has faced the more daunting list of challengers in that span. Yet many people would place Overeem above the perennial UFC contender, prompting others to ask the understandable question, “Why?”

The argument for Overeem’s inclusion in the highest reaches of the heavyweight rankings is less based in statistics and more based on appearances and impressions.

While there is some debate to the level of competition he’s faced during his current ten fight unbeaten streak, there is no arguing the trail of destruction Overeem has left in his wake.

Buentello is the only man to make it out of the first round, surviving until 3:42 of the second frame before a barrage of knees left him forced to submit. Everyone else after him has been stopped in the opening stanza.

Note: the No Contest with Cro Cop was fought in Japan, and lasted until 6:09 of the first round. If it were fought under Unified Rules, he too would have survived to the second frame.

His last six opponents have lasted an average of 89 seconds on their feet, an impressive number no matter the level of competition. It’s this devastation that has his supporters lobbying for a place in the top 3 of the division for “The Demolition Man.”

Turning again to the current crop of fighters sharing real estate with Overeem in the top 10, the resume and ranking of Shane Carwin serves as a potential measuring stick.

Carwin made his debut inside the Octagon in May 2008, and rode a four fight winning streak into a heavyweight championship showdown with Lesnar at UFC 116 last July. From the time he beat Christian Wellisch through he loss at the hands of Lesnar, Carwin climbed into most everyone’s top 10, landing in the top 5 in many instances.

In the same time that Carwin went 4-1 with wins over Wellisch, Neil Wain, Gabriel Gonzaga and Mir, Overeem went 6-1, plus the No Contest. Both had some solid wins, both some less than stellar competition, and they each earned all their wins by way of first round finish, so what makes Carwin’s run more impressive than Overeem’s?

The beauty of the rankings debate is that logical men and women armed with facts, insights and opinions could argue for and against Overeem for days without coming to an agreeable conclusion.

The beauty of mixed martial arts is that, more often than naught, we end up getting these questions answered in the cage.

Except when it comes to the pound-for-pound debate; that one will remain the mythical unicorn of MMA for all eternity, since I don’t see Jose Aldo fighting Anderson Silva any time soon, and not just because they’re teammates and training partners.

Which brings us to this weekend, and Overeem’s meeting with Werdum.

Unlike Overeem, you cannot argue with Werdum’s place in the heavyweight hierarchy. Last summer, he became the first man to cleanly beat Emelianenko, submitting “The Last Emperor” in a tick shy of 70 seconds. In the fight before that, he scored a unanimous decision win over Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva.

While his upset loss to Junior dos Santos at UFC 90 sent him plummeting in the rankings and ending up being his last in the UFC, “Cigano” has shown that he is an elite heavyweight in his own right, taking away some of the sting of defeat for Werdum. Theoretically at least; I’m sure it still hurts to think about that uppercut.

As much as Overeem wants to secure a victory to advance in the Heavyweight Grand Prix and avenge his 2006 loss, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he deserves to be considered one of the best heavyweights in the sport has to be a motivating factor as well.

Should he come out on Saturday night and continue his reign of destruction, there will be no way of denying Overeem his place amongst the biggest names of the big boy division. Laying waste to Werdum would remove all arguments against his lack of competition and dominance over sub-par opponents.

Conversely, a second loss to Werdum is crushing. While most fighters are able to survive a defeat at the hands of a top 5 talent without much penalty, this is Overeem’s first real chance to prove himself, and failure will cast him as a fraud.

This isn’t Jon Fitch losing to Georges St. Pierre and still maintaining his standing as one of the best welterweights in the world; Overeem doesn’t have Fitch’s resume of name brand defeats to fall back on.

A loss lends credence to those who have said all along that Overeem shouldn’t be counted in the upper class of the heavyweight ranks, and it would be hard to argue against them.

Is Overeem a top 5 heavyweight or isn’t he?

That’s the question; we’ll get the answer on Saturday night.

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