Demolition: Training with Alistair Overeem

International Kickboxer Magazine, Vol.19, No.1

If there was one incident that made me wonder about people who make fighting their profession, it was the day I found myself in the shower with Alistair Overeem.

When I trained at Golden Glory in 2008, there were probably twenty regular guys. The biggest ‘name’ fighter was Chalid Arrab, but the gym also had a number of younger fighters who were just on the verge of making a name for themselves.

I felt the four best ‘relative’ unknowns were Gokhan Saki, Errol Zimmerman, his cousin Benjey Zimmerman and Alistair Overeem.

I liked Alistair very much. He was pretty merciless in sparring; while the others relented a little more to give me the opportunity to learn, Alistair was ruthless and really beat the hell out of me. He did, however, take the time to teach me things after the fact and show where I was going wrong.

Alistair had been around for quite a while and was at least five years older than Benjey and Saki. He had also fought a number of times in Japan, as part of Pride. Personally, I feel that Pride set the standard for Mixed Martial Arts: the only prohibited techniques were eye gouging, biting, groin strikes and direct attacks to the spinal column or back of the skull.

Essentially, Pride rules were all about eliminating any kind of technique that might kill or entirely incapacitate a fighter. This was in the interests of providing a compelling contest, regardless of the danger to the athletes. Gotta love those wacky Japanese, I say.

Alistair had his first kickboxing fight at seventeen years of age in 1999. The burgeoning martial arts tournament scene in Japan was a double-edged sword for Western fighters; it meant abundant opportunity, but the learning curve was steep.

After early consecutive wins at home in Holland, Alistair soon found himself fighting in Japan on the K1. He fought Errol Paris and Glaube Feitosa and was knocked out by both.

In fact, Alistair had been active from his late teens, originally fighting at middleweight. He had lost to various name fighters in Pride, and the inconsistency of his record had been raised by Remy Bonjasky prior to their meeting in 2009.

(When you think about it, going from no kickboxing fights in four years to fighting Badr Hari and Bonjasky, two of the best heavyweights the K1 has produced, is a feat in itself). The truth about Alistair is that like the vast majority of heavyweights, he arrived at his peak in his thirties.

His experience has now caught up with his physique, which one can only assume has fully matured at 120-odd kilos of ripped-and-stripped muscle, gristle and bone.

The Hari and Bonjasky fights showcase separate aspects of a genuinely remarkable athlete. While MMA is a highly-sophisticated sport, kickboxing as a spectacle is much ‘cleaner’; it allows a fighter to clearly showcase the various aspects of his or her game.

Hari had built his reputation on his timing, which is exactly what Alistair used to defeat him in the form of a left hook, followed by a jumping knee. Bonjasky, on the other hand, was entirely at-sea for the duration of his encounter with Overeem. Alistair did exactly what has served him so well in K1; he refused to fight according to the conventions.

Alistair might not have scored by repeatedly dumping Remy, but he successfully imposed his dominance and literally threw Remy off his game. Bonjasky however, displaying the kind of skill fight-fans have come to believe is partly supernatural, caught Alistair with a magnificent straight right late in the final round.

The close-up slow-mo is fantastic; it shows Alistair’s face as he extends his neck that inch too far and the realisation that he has exposed himself is clearly visible in his eyes. He closes them, and Bonjasky knocks the obligatory glove straight onto his jaw.

Another aspect of Alistair’s success is undoubtedly his team at Golden Glory. He has regular access to many of the best fighters in the competition, notably stable-mates Saki, Zimmerman, Arrab and Schilt.

The learning curve in the Golden Glory gym has been enormous, with Saki also showing a significant improvement to an already fearsome capacity over the last three years. (In the opinion of this humble reviewer, Saki would have beaten Overeem in the 2010 K1 GP, had it not been for the broken arm that prevented his continuing).

Cor Hemmers, head-trainer, approaches each opponent with the same strategic care. Overeem swiftly dismantled Ben Edwards by applying himself precisely to the weaknesses of Ben’s game. This was very obviously the same in regard to his approach to Hari and then Bonjasky; Alistair has the tools, and the experience to apply them as required.

When I arrived at the Golden Glory Gym, I was told to watch out for Alistair; he had once seriously injured one of the other guys to assert himself. Given this information, I was careful to play low-status and ensure we were on good terms from the get-go.

Alistair was freakishly strong. I had watched him wrestle one day and between he and his partner, there was at least two hundred and twenty kilos of muscle, gristle and bone slamming around the ring. The sounds of the impacts they made would have been more at home in a zoo. It was literally like watching lions fighting over food.

The first time we sparred, he utterly dominated me. He had astonishing strength of a very different kind to what you experience with a striker.

Rather than generating force through eccentric muscle contractions where the arms and legs extend at speed to make impact, Alistair had tremendous isometric strength; he would essentially grip you, and then man-handle your body into position. This was accentuated by his ability to manipulate your balance and then exploit your lack of posture.

All of this was highly unorthodox, and very difficult to interpret. He augmented this with what I considered an odd repertory of strikes; he never kicked, but had immensely powerful punches which he kind of swiped with.

He’d then leap up and knee you in the face, or pull your head down into the knee. This is an extremely effective method – just ask Ewerton Texeira. It should be no surprise that Alistair has been as successful in K1 as he has. He has found a whole new way to play the game, coming as he does from a code with so few stylistic strictures.

There was one shower head in the change-rooms at Golden Glory. The Dutch winter is brutally, oppressively cold; you can’t leave the gym sweating or wearing light clothes, or you freeze. You have to shower, change and then be dry and rugged up in order to travel home. I had gotten under the water and lathered up when Alistair came in for a shower.

He stood in the corner of the large cubicle and talked to me about the day’s sparring, made some suggestions for my improvement and asked a few questions about Australia. I stepped out from under the spray to get my shampoo, and Alistair calmly stepped under the water to take his shower.

I stood and continued the conversation, not sure what to say; standing there as I was, dripping wet and covered with soap. Alistair continued to chat until he had finished, then stepped out and got his towel to dry off.

This remains to date the singly most peculiar conversation of my life. I often remember it and wonder to myself, ‘How does Alistair Overeem go to the post office and stand in a queue?’

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