Originally a fight between Alistair Overeem and Alexander Volkov, Volkov’s withdrawal and the entry of Aleksei Oleinik has turned the main event in St-Petersburg into a far more binary affair; the new main event is between the division’s most decorated kickboxer and its most bizarrely effective submission threat.
Oleinik is off the biggest win of his career over the great Mark Hunt, and Overeem has found his way back into the win column with a mauling of then-undefeated Sergey Pavlovich; while neither fighter appears to be in title contention, both have a reasonable amount of momentum, and a win may turn out to be significant in a division as weak as heavyweight.
Few fighters have gone through an evolution as clearly delineated as Alistair Overeem over a 19-year career. While a gifted kickboxer since his MMA debut, Overeem went from an uber-athletic destroyer (against Lesnar) to a skilled but fatally flawed heavyweight in the years following; at this point, Overeem is something in between, as one of the more technically sound strikers in the division but also one of the most fragile and inconsistent.
At this stage in his career, Overeem’s distance game is a bit of an enigma; it changes somewhat significantly from fight-to-fight, and while some tendencies remain, they aren’t necessarily good ones. Of recent Overeem, the best performance was against Mark Hunt at UFC 209; against a more plodding opponent who wanted to force the pocket, Overeem was able to float around the outside and pick at Hunt with side-kicks and front-kicks to keep him at bay, and ran Hunt into the clinch when he got too close. The Werdum rubber match was more a display of counterpunching, where Overeem looked fairly solid; while he couldn’t create the openings he wanted Werdum to show and spent a great deal of time just waiting, he was able to keep Werdum from being too aggressive until round three.
However, while Overeem’s kickboxing pedigree suggests that he’d be one of the stronger distance-strikers in the UFC, he’s shown consistently exploitable flaws at the top. Overeem is a capable outfighter against someone who doesn’t (or can’t) consistently pressure, but against Stipe Miocic, Overeem’s inability to stay off the cage and his weak defense (essentially just a high-guard when stuck against the fence) left him with few options; his only measure to get off the fence was to turn his back and run, which worked for a short while but wasn’t going to work for long. Overeem’s strongest skillset has always been in the clinch; his knees are legendarily damaging, and he does a great job using frames and collar ties to set them up, but his discomfort in the pocket makes it difficult for Overeem to actively find clinching opportunities.
All that said, very few heavyweights are better in a technical sense than Overeem; past perhaps Miocic, Overeem’s skillset left him with concrete and replicable ways to make some his worst defeats less catastrophic. Past all technical considerations, perhaps Overeem’s largest issue has been that he’s thrown away fights at key points where his tactics or his discipline have been tested. Overeem’s performances after the Hunt rematch swung between passivity and panic; he spent minutes at a time waiting on Werdum and Blaydes to act, and unwisely made the Ngannou fight into a pocket-brawl when the clinch didn’t pan out. While the temperamentality of Overeem’s style seemed to be patched up a bit under Jackson, when things aren’t going well (or even when things are going too well, as they did during his fight against Travis Browne), Overeem has trouble leveraging his advantages, and his decision-making under stress is suspect (hurting both Miocic and Blaydes and pulling guillotines, for instance).
In that sense, the Pavlovich performance was somewhat encouraging, even though it wasn’t against a proven opponent; Overeem survived a scary spot where Pavlovich knocked his guard around to actively pursue his safest win condition (in the clinch and from the top). While it’s unlikely that he’s going to become a picture of composure this deep into his career, it definitely bodes well.
The Boa Constrictor
In contrast to Overeem, there’s very little to work with in breaking down Aleksei Oleinik’s game; his UFC tenure has been marked by unlikely chokes sandwiched around a brutal knockout of Jared Rosholt. The 57-11 Russian is one of the more dangerous grapplers in the heavyweight division, but his grappling attack isn’t a positionally-sound one; Oleinik’s signature on the ground has been conceding objectively disadvantageous positions in MMA and winning anyway with the Ezekiel (which shouldn’t be nearly as high-percentage as he makes it). Oleinik can work with good positions as well, as another signature of his is the scarf-hold (with which he finished Mirko Cro Cop), and he was able to submit Mark Hunt with the rear-naked choke; however, overall, Oleinik’s grappling game is a bizarre one that seems to present unnecessary risk.
On the feet, Oleinik is somewhat aggressive but not particularly polished. Essentially, his entire game is throwing gigantic overhands, but it works at heavyweight since virtually no one he’s faced has had the defense to avoid it nor the counterpunching to stop him. On the plus side, Oleinik is legitimately powerful (even for heavyweight), he’s active in the clinch (as he showed against Blaydes), and he can march forward and throw since he doesn’t have to worry about the takedown; however, his game on the feet is technically fairly underdeveloped and he has very little defense to speak of. Oleinik’s bizarre game allowed him to hurt Mark Hunt with a looping blow behind the head, but he also got chewed up with leg kicks beforehand; Oleinik probably won’t consistently out-tech anyone on the feet, but it isn’t too hard to see him landing one weird and pivotal blow.
Overeem vs. Oleinik prediction
It’s hard to call an Overeem fight a “shutout” since Overeem is often prone to making a fight far more difficult than it needs to be, but Oleinik doesn’t really have the tools to challenge him. Oleinik walking forward and throwing big shots poses danger to Overeem, but it also gives him a lot of opportunities to counterpunch and to pull Oleinik into the clinch (where Overeem is significantly more skilled and more offensively potent than almost anyone).
If Oleinik gets stuck on the outside, Overeem’s kicking game is strong enough to cause him serious issues (Hunt was able to kick Oleinik with impunity), and outside of Blaydes, wrestling Overeem is historically extremely difficult.
It’s entirely possible that Overeem turns out to be more declined than the Pavlovich fight showed, or his defense doesn’t hold up at all, or he panics and throws himself underneath Oleinik, but it’s ultimately Overeem’s to lose.
Prediction: Overeem via KO (Round 1). This writer caps Overeem at -300.