LAS VEGAS – Brock Lesnar, the former UFC heavyweight champion and ex-collegiate wrestling star, hadn't really heard much of Alistair Overeem when he received a call from UFC president Dana White in the late summer while he was riding a tractor on his remote Minnesota farm.
White proposed a bout with Overeem to Lesnar, who said yes before he knew much more about Overeem than his name. Overeem has won everywhere he's been, in pretty much every sport he's tried, but he’s never become a household name like Lesnar.
But that didn't matter. Lesnar knew that if White felt that Overeem was good enough for a UFC main event, he had to be an elite fighter. "This isn't bingo-hall fighting," Lesnar said. "It's the real thing."
So Lesnar will give Overeem the opportunity to make his name on the sport's biggest platform. They’ll meet Friday at the MGM Grand Garden in the five-round heavyweight main event of UFC 141.
Overeem has had extraordinary success: He's a K-1 kickboxing champion and a former DREAM and Strikeforce heavyweight champ in mixed martial arts. But because he hasn't fought on the biggest stage, he's largely unknown beyond the diehard MMA fan base.
His introduction to the MMA mainstream has been fraught with twists and turns. He's had to fend off suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use and he's had to deal with a personal tragedy, all the while preparing for the most significant fight of his career.
His mother is battling cancer, and Overeem left his Las Vegas training camp in early December to return to the Netherlands to be with her for as long as he could. In a telephone interview from Europe with Yahoo! Sports, Overeem said he had no choice but to return home.
"I don't like to discuss my personal life," he said. "But there was only one place for me to be when I heard, and that was with my mother. I knew I had this fight and this fight is very important, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be or could be but [at home with her]. It was an easy decision, not a hard one."
On Tuesday at the UFC Training Center in Las Vegas, his striking coach and longtime friend, Roberto Flamingo, said Overeem is able to compartmentalize his life. Overeem has been dogged by steroid accusations, but he answered those questions calmly and rationally Tuesday. Though myriad issues have cut into his preparation, he shrugged and said they wouldn't impact his performance.
Talk is cheap, but Flamingo said he's been around Overeem long enough to know that the fighter is not going to be affected by the distractions or the hoopla surrounding his UFC debut.
"Alistair is one of those guys who knows that work is work and home is home," Flamingo said. "When he's at work, all he focuses on is his work. These things are only distractions if you let them become distractions. He's very well prepared."
There was a mix-up with his prefight drug screening, so shortly after Overeem left the United States for the Netherlands to be with his ailing mother, he was summoned by the Nevada Athletic Commission for a hearing. He'd provided a blood sample, but Nevada wanted a urine sample – and in order to grant him a license to fight, he'd have to get it in pronto.
So on Dec. 13, he flew from Amsterdam to London to submit a urine sample, which came back clean. But because of the confusion, Nevada gave him additional requirements. He provided another sample when he arrived in Las Vegas on Monday; will be tested postfight; and then must submit to two more random urinalyses over the next six months.
It's a lot to go through, but to many, Overeem doesn't pass the eye test. He was a 6-foot-5 light heavyweight in PRIDE. Suddenly, he turned into a 260-pound muscular heavyweight, raising suspicions.
Overeem attributes his increase in size to maturity, hard work and a diet that includes horse meat. After a PRIDE loss to Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, he felt he'd be better competing at heavyweight and set out to rebuild his body.
The questions and the frequent testing haven’t negatively impacted him, Overeem said, who said he'll be as ready for Lesnar as if none of it occurred.
"There have been some distractions, yes, but I'm pretty good at focusing myself, keeping the focus on my training," Overeem said. "Also, I have to thank my team because they've taken, I'd say, 99 percent of the weight off of my shoulders. That kept me focused.
"I think [there is more scrutiny on me] because the fight is as big as it is. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest fights ever, and of course there are going to be more media, more cameras, more opinions, more everything. But it's part of the job. I'm not complaining. I'm happy I'm here. I'm happy it's this big and it's all good."
It will be better if he wins. To do that, he'll have to stay off his back. He's a better-rounded fighter than some who haven't followed his career closely think, but there is a perception that the fight comes down to Overeem's striking against Lesnar's wrestling.
Those kinds of fights almost always favor the wrestler, but Overeem takes pains to point out that he's a mixed martial artist, not just a puncher.
"People tend to look at the last couple of years," Overeem said. "Even then, I have some submissions. Like I say, I'm an all-around fighter. I do everything. I've got wrestling, I've got submissions, I've got striking. My striking is something that I focused on because of the K-1, and my striking obviously got a lot better because of K-1 and the fact that I prefer knockouts over submissions anytime. I think everybody does."
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Lesnar, who doesn't have Internet service at home and doesn't pay much attention to MMA except when he's fighting, made it a point to learn all he could about Overeem. And while Lesnar is confident he'll win – "You can't replicate me [in training]," he said – he has grown to respect his upcoming foe.
"I really didn't look at people outside the UFC," Lesnar said. "I'm not the kind of guy that sits around and ponders that kind of stuff. Obviously, this is a guy who is threatening. You don't get into this company and get into this division if you're not a threat. He's a threat."
And despite everything that is swirling around him, Overeem appears ready.
"No worries," he said of his out-of-cage woes. "When they close that door, none of that will matter. It will be me and Brock Lesnar in there and we'll get the chance to show the world what we have."
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- Brock Lesnar
- Alistair Overeem