BOSTON — When we last saw Alistair Overeem he was slumped on the ground, his body beaten, his mind scrambled, his opponent standing over him. The image of "Bigfoot" Silva being forcibly restrained by referee Herb Dean is one of the indelible moments of 2013, as much for what Silva did as for what Overeem did not do. In a matchup he was supposed to win, that he was owning, he not only lost, he was knocked cold, a victim, many believed, of his own arrogance. As he crashed to the ground, it seemed, so too did his draw, his allure as the heir to the UFC heavyweight crown.
For the longest time, he was it, the answer to the question of who would crack the 1-2 punch of Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. Fighting independently of the UFC system, Overeem held a certain fascination, created his own gravitational pull. The people on the outside claimed him as their own; those on the inside had to wonder if he was better than their guys. It was under that backdrop that he entered the octagon.
Since then, the ride has been rocky. He savaged Brock Lesnar with body blows, sending the hulking former champion in retirement. But then he failed a drug test and then he got knocked out, and now many have moved on to the next "Next Big Thing," sure that they misread the ‘Reem’s future.
Once upon a time, the biggest question about him surrounded the addition of muscle, and what role, if any, science played in it. After a failed April 2012 drug test, skepticism will continue to follow him throughout his career, but in a world where fight results seem to matter above all else, the only questions about Overeem now seem to be about whether he’s a frontrunner who caves to pressure or a strong-minded athlete who can deflect self-doubt.
"Losing is never good but then I’m an eternal optimist," he said after a Wednesday workout at the TD Garden. "I always make the best out of it and a loss makes you go back to the drawing board even more so. That’s exactly what I did, I went back to the drawing board, followed any possible detail that went wrong and worked on it to get it right. And now we’re four-and-a-half months further and I’m satisfied with the work done. And I’m also confident."
Overeem seemed at ease, signing autographs, hitting pads, even smiling his way through interviews, but it’s hard to tell whether his confidence pervades the rest of the MMA world. While some of his past fights were met with pomp, his Saturday UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen bout against Travis Browne has fallen a bit under the radar of the big night.
Perhaps that was somewhat by design. Acknowledging that in the past, his mind was "maybe dwelling on other things" — in other words, looking ahead towards dos Santos or Velasquez — Overeem surrendered himself to the process this time around, temporarily relocating to Amsterdam to train with Mike Passenier, a renowned striking coach who has kickboxing studs Badr Hari and Gokhan Saki in his stable.
There was some level of familiarity there. Overeem (36-12, 1 no contest) had first met Passenier nearly a lifetime ago, when he was about 15 or 16. They rejoined forces about a decade later, as Overeem trained under him for about one year. Now 33 years old, he’s back for his third go-round in hopes of finding focus. In his mind, that is the key to it all, ensuring that the camp has the same level of intensity and drive as the fight will have. He said so much when he addressed a question about shoring up mistakes he’d made in his loss to Bigfoot.
"Mistake? I think it’s a result of your training camp," he said. "Because in a fight, it all happens. Moments happen. But the preparation work, there lies the outcome of the fight."
That answer also suggests that his preparation last time around was sub-par, but that was a subject he did not want to delve into. It wasn’t worth it, he said, to dwell in the past or look too far into the future when danger is staring you in the face.
In Browne (14-1-1), he is facing a 6-foot-7 athlete who, like him, prefers striking. He has 10 knockouts among his career wins. In some ways, it is the perfect return match for him, an opponent that may be willing to engage him in his specialty. Intent to prove the Silva loss was a momentary lapse of concentration, Overeem spent over four months preparing for his return. But, he admits he knew little about Browne before agreeing to face him. At most, he’d seen one or two of his fights. Just enough to conclude "he’s definitely someone you shouldn’t underestimate."
That, after all, is what might have led to all of this in the first place. If Overeem had only taken care of Bigfoot, things could be so different. The title picture would have a third wheel. His aura would still be intact. That indelible image would never have been created.
But fighting is not a sport that allows moments to be erased. One second, one blink changes everything. Overeem has faced it down before. The losses led us here, too, to The ‘Reem, a self-described eternal optimist, who despite his own best intentions, can’t leave without noting a hope for a future fight with Velasquez, one where gold lies at the end. Even if he stresses repeatedly that he is focused on Browne, expectations are part of the Alistair Overeem/UFC package. They are tied together for the length of his run, impossible to ignore. Try as he might, even a man with his power can’t deny it.
"I think," he said, "I still have unfinished business with every heavyweight in the UFC."