Alistair Overeem’s last ride continues on its merry way.
Saturday’s UFC Vegas 9 main event marks the 66th pro MMA bout for Overeem, and his 19th for the promotion he’s called home since 2011. Overeem, 40, has no illusions about what the remaining fights on his contract mean for him. If he isn’t able to work his way back to another heavyweight title shot, then this is the end of the road.
It’s a familiar path, one that he has to hope isn’t too familiar. Recent years have seen him string together wins only to see his contender runs stopped in brutal fashion by the likes of Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Curtis Blaydes, and Francis Ngannou. Will Augusto Sakai be the next to stifle Overeem’s championship dreams?
Sakai is on an impressive four-fight winning streak and he’s probably not wrong that a win over a name like Overeem puts him on the short list for his own title shot. Don’t be surprised when the dust settles at the end of this year and Sakai is right there headlining against another marquee name in his division.
In other main card action, veteran light heavyweight Ovince Saint Preux and Alonzo Menifield settle unfinished business, welterweight wild man Michel Pereira takes on Zelim Imadaev, Brian Kelleher finds himself in another featherweight fight when he faces short-notice replacement Kevin Natividad, and Thiago Moises and Jalin Turner meet in a battle of promising lightweight talents.
What: UFC Vegas 9
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
It isn’t time to count Alistair Overeem out just yet.
“The Reem” has put serious miles on his chin over the past 20-some-odd years, so this matchup with Sakai could easily play out like so many of Overeem’s recent encounters: His technical skills carry him to a competitive fight until his younger opponent connects with a big shot and puts him down. That’s his life now.
Even knowing this, I have to lean towards Overeem. I think on his best day he can beat anyone outside of the top-5 and I’m still not convinced that Sakai has the upside of a true contender. He packs a mean right hand and has good durability, but I’ve yet to see if he has that extra gear to break into the upper echelon of the heavyweight rankings. He has some proving to do is what I’m saying.
I predict that Overeem picks Sakai apart for five rounds en route to picking up a rare decision win.
Full disclosure, there’s literally nothing I can write about this matchup that I didn’t write two weeks ago when it was first scheduled to go down before a positive COVID-19 forced Ovince Saint Preux off of the UFC on ESPN 15 card. So here’s what I had to say then:
This is a great bit of matchmaking here as we have one of the light heavyweight division’s savviest veterans facing one of its most promising prospects.
Yes, the Alonzo Menifield hype train hit a snag in his previous outing against Devin Clark as he was put into some situations that he was clearly unfamiliar with and paid the price for it. It happens. The good news for Menifield is that it was the kind of loss a fighter at this stage of his career should learn from. He remains a terrifying force in the cage, with deadly quick-strike power and natural finishing instincts.
Ovince Saint Preux has an excellent chin, as evidenced by him sharing the cage with countless elite 205ers throughout his career. He should be resilient enough to absorb a few shots from Menifield and smart enough to take the fight in a different direction should he start to take more than expected. Saint Preux can be inconsistent at times, but I firmly believe there are levels to this and I don’t know if Menifield is where he needs to be yet to knock off a high-grade gatekeeper like OSP.
There’s bigger things ahead for Menifield, but I think we see him fall for one of Saint Preux’s sneaky submissions this time.
Has anything changed between then and now? Unlikely. Saint Preux’s team has said that the fighter suffered no ill effects from his positive COVID-19 test, so outside of that the initial analysis stands: “OSP” has the advantage in strength and grappling, Menifield could surprise with an explosive offensive outburst. I’m sticking with my original pick.
Pick: Saint Preux
Zelim Imadaev has the kind of confident standup game that will allow him to stand and strike with Michel Pereira without fear.
And that is why he will fail.
Look, Pereira isn’t going to change his stripes. He wants to walk out, waste a ton of energy doing crazy flips and tricks like he’s auditioning for the X Games, and then somehow turn that into a highlight reel knockout. There’s a method to his madness. Or maybe it’s just madness. But you know what? In MMA, sometimes that’s enough.
Imadaev has fundamentals and a decent chin, so it’s possible that he takes advantage of the flashy Pereira and outlasts him. He had some problems with the movement of Danny Roberts in his previous fight and Pereira’s movement is on another level. I expect him to stay composed early on before succumbing to the mystifying style of Pereira.
“Demolidor” by knockout, obviously.
I feel comfortable calling this a grappler vs. striker matchup. While both 25-year-olds have certainly shown they can potentially round out their games, Thiago Moises’ best path to victory remains on the ground while Jalin Turner will want to keep this one standing. “The Tarantula” is a supersized lightweight and he has the physical gifts to create a lot of headaches in the 155-pound division.
This is all going to come down to Turner’s takedown defense, because while Moises has some pop, he’ll be at a major disadvantage going blow-for-blow with the dynamic Turner. Conversely, as Michael Johnson learned, Moises only needs seconds to set up a fight-ending submission and those long limbs of Turner are ripe for the picking.
Let’s go with Turner by decision in what I see as the most difficult fight to pick on the main card.
Brian Kelleher couldn’t have asked for a more fan-friendly replacement than Kevin Natividad. His originally scheduled pairing with Ricky Simon was guaranteed fireworks, but the aggressive Natividad will give Kelleher the kind of fight he’s always looking for.
The relatively inexperienced Natividad is a patient and compact striker. He doesn’t overextend when approaching and he’s more than willing to take one to give on back. He’ll have to put a greater emphasis on defense though if he wants to hang with the speedy Kelleher. “Boom” definitely has a high enough level of boxing to put Natividad on his backside if he isn’t careful.
Kelleher just has more ways to win this one. He can brawl with Natividad and also slow him with grappling if he finds himself in danger. Kelleher has a slick guillotine choke, which he won’t hesitate to go all out for if Natividad insists on pressuring him. It’s these submission skills that should give Kelleher the edge and a bonus-worthy finish.
*Brian Kelleher now faces Ray Rodriguez