If you’re an Alistair Overeem fan, Saturday night’s loss was particularly difficult to digest. It was crushing in both literal and figurative ways. It was thunderous and gruesome and agonizing because of how everything before it that had been so positive had been wiped out so thoroughly and ferociously.
Overeem was up on the judges’ scorecards—cruising, really—just needing to circle along the cage and play out the clock. All he had to do was what he had done for the previous 24-plus minutes, which was to stay out of Jairzinho Rozenstruik’s powerful reach and to stay conscious. He couldn’t do it.
A leaping hook later, and his massive lead vanished as quickly as his smile was destroyed. Rozenstruik’s ripping right exploded Overeem’s face, tearing a jagged new passage into the left corner of his mouth as he crashed to the ground and referee Dan Miragliotta called a stop to the UFC on ESPN 7 main event.
When Overeem made it back to his feet and processed what had just happened, he somehow managed to flash a grin, but his newly disfigured upper lip only made his attempt at levity more horrifying.
As bad as the visual was, the reality of his recent run is just as grim. There have been too many of these kinds of losses for Overeem. Yes, he is a legendary competitor, but he has now been knocked out in each of his last 11 defeats, and 14 times overall in his MMA career.
As we become more aware of head trauma and its long-term effects on the brain, it’s worth asking when enough is enough for the 39-year-old.
On one hand, Overeem is clearly still capable of excellence. He came into the fight ranked No. 6 in the UFC heavyweight division and largely controlled the action against a younger, hungry, undefeated fighter. At the time of the stoppage—which came with only four seconds remaining in the bout—Overeem was up 40-36, 39-37 and 39-37 on cards, this coming on the heels of two straight wins.
On the other hand, the recent past has been rocky for Overeem. He’s 4-4 in his last eight fights, and while he’s done well against fellow veterans, with wins over 42-year-old Aleksei Oleinik, then 39-year-old Fabricio Werdum, and then 42-year-old Mark Hunt, he’s struggled against the younger generation, with losses to Curtis Blaydes and Francis Ngannou as well as a lopsided defeat to divisional champion Stipe Miocic. While he did beat then 26-year-old Sergei Pavlovich in 2018, the young Russian was unranked at the time and making his UFC debut.
Because the UFC heavyweight division (and heavyweight MMA in general) skews old, there are ranked fighters within the weight class that he can still beat. He would probably be favored, for instance, against the likes of Shamil Abdurakhimov, Augusto Sakai and Maurice Greene.
But as someone who was once considered one of the greatest combat sports athletes on the planet, is that enough? Are those kinds of matchups attractive to him? And moreover, is it worth the continued risk for him to continue on in pursuit of whatever goal he is chasing?
Overeem is already one of the most decorated heavyweights of all time. He won the Strikeforce championship, the DREAM championship, and the K-1 World Grand Prix. He challenged for the UFC heavyweight title. He holds career wins over Werdum (twice), Brock Lesnar, Junior dos Santos, Andrei Arlovski and Vitor Belfort. His career recently crossed the 20-year threshold. He has nothing more to prove.
Of course, that is all easy to say from the sidelines. In his mind, Overeem either has a set goal he would like to accomplish before retiring, or he simply still loves to fight, and given his reputational currency, that’s all he needs. After all, no one can force him to stop competing. If the UFC cut him, someone else would gladly sign him and place him square in the middle of their event poster. If his coaches or management team advised him to retire, he might simply replace them. This will, of course, be his decision, and as we all know, many great fighters need a couple of attempts at retiring before it finally sticks.
In the end, it’s usually the incredible competitive spirit that got them this far that keeps them here too long. It’s why on the same night ‘Reem was being stopped by an aspiring star, 44-year-old former UFC champion Tito Ortiz was in Texas still plying his trade against a fellow senior in Alberto “El Patron” Rodriguez. Combat sports legends die hard.
There is a school of thought that observers do not get to carry concerns about fighters. That since we accept the risks of fighting in exchange for entertainment, that we somehow lose the ability to be empathetic toward the combatants. I reject that notion. We are humans watching other humans do what they love to do. We want to see greatness and moments of triumph, but when those moments start skewing more regularly toward danger and damage, it would be inhuman to ignore the potential costs.
Overeem has plenty to be proud of and nothing to apologize for. He’s created legendary moments and earned his honors. He’ll eventually go out with his head held high. Here’s hoping that moment is not far off in the distance.