Alistair Overeem will return to the Octagon when he meets fellow heavyweight veteran Alexey Oleynik on April 20 at UFC St. Petersburg. And considering that the two men share over four decades of combined MMA experience, it’s unsurprising that the short-notice matchup won’t mark the first time their paths have crossed.
“Alexey and I, we have a little bit of history,” Overeem explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “We’re actually okay together, we’re friends. I like him a lot. I helped him on his Cro Cop several years ago, 2013, and then he helped me for the Frank Mir fight (in 2014 at UFC 169). And then he signed with the UFC, so I kind of knew somehow, somewhere that we might end up fighting again. To me, it’s not a problem, because we’re not teammates and it’s been years ago [since] we helped each other, so it’s fine. I kind of know what to expect. He’s tough, a veteran fighter. He’s got a sneaky submission game.”
Oleynik was actually a late addition to the bout, as Overeem was initially slated to meet Russian contender Alexander Volkov at UFC Saint Petersburg before Volkov withdrew due to “health issues,” per the UFC.
It’s a tricky adjustment to make on the fly for Overeem, as Oleynik and Volkov are essentially polar opposites of one another on the stylistic spectrum, with the former being a savvy submission artist and the latter being a tall, lanky striker. But “The Reem” is one of the most well-traveled heavyweights in the entire fight game and has dealt with similar situations in the past, so he didn’t hesitate to accept his new foe for UFC St. Petersburg.
“The only thing is that Volkov is an entirely different opponent than Alexey Oleynik,” Overeem said. “So that’s the only thing. But you know what? I had this [same situation happen in 2008] when they threw me in the K-1 fight, I was actually training for a rematch with Cro Cop, and then Cro Cop, something happened to him, he withdrew or someone withdrew, and then they came with the Badr Hari fight on less than three weeks notice. ‘Yeah, the Cro Cop fight is not happening but you can fight Badr in K-1.’
“And I’m at this phase right now, I’m in great shape, I feel ready, I want to fight, I want to kick ass, and it is what it is. I’m ready, so it doesn’t really matter. I’m just ready to kick ass, so it doesn’t matter who, what, when, where — we’re going to get it on.”
With the heavyweight division in a state of flux at the top, the current path back to a title shot for Overeem is a bit of a murky one.
“The Reem” rebounded from back-to-back losses in November with a first-round knockout of Sergey Pavlovich at UFC Beijing. He now rides into UFC Saint Petersburg as the No. 7 ranked heavyweight contender on the promotion’s official media-generated rankings.
But with UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier expected to defend his title against Brock Lesnar next, and the status of former champion Cain Velasquez uncertain, Overeem knows the division may not start to figure itself out until, at the earliest, later this year.
“Rankings are rankings — you’ve got to see what happens,” Overeem said. “Brock, is he coming back? That’s a weird situation, coming back and fighting for a title after what happened there. Cain, yeah, is Cain even still fighting? … He didn’t look good in his last fight, with all due respect. Didn’t look good, didn’t look on a diet. I don’t know.
“So we’ll see what happens. I’m just focusing on my training, on making sure that everything around me is good.”
Keeping true to his mantra of only concerning himself with what he can control, Overeem said he hopes to fight twice more in 2019 after UFC Saint Petersburg and he hopes to begin 2020 in title contention. At age 38, he admitted that he only thinks he has two or three good years left to spend in MMA, so he wants to make the most of the time he has left, and that will begin on April 20 — regardless of whether the name that ends up joining him on UFC St. Petersburg’s marquee is ranked below him or not.
“A win is a win is a win is a win,” Overeem said. “And then after, we’ll have to figure out what’s next. Right? You just need to keep stacking those wins and then that’ll get you to the title. I don’t really look at the rankings, I’m just focused on the guy ahead.”