Smaller than anticipated.
That was my first thought walking into Alistair Overeem’s home in November 2010. Maybe it was the shrinking sensation the fog brought to everything in Leusden, Holland, the blackness of night, or the cramp to the first floor, but the place seemed too small, and the man entirely too large for his surroundings.
Overeem, who clocks in at 265 pounds, took up most of his kitchen as he skulked for food. He barely fit down the condo’s spiral staircase. Hunched over his dining room table, he resembled an ox at rest.
A nearby display case could barely contain the trappings of his career, which included PRIDE and K-1 trophies, two Strike- force belts, and various honors bestowed over 10 years of kickboxing and MMA. In a few months, available cabinet real estate would shrink even further with the gilded laurels from the 2010 K-1 Grand Prix and the silver strap of DREAM’s Interim Heavy- weight Title.
Soon, he would need more room.
An airy storehouse in the sea-hinted air of Santa Monica, Calif., seemed fitting, not only for Overeem’s hulking physique, but also for the scope of his ambitions. It was 14 months later in January 2012, and opportunity was behind every cor- ner. Toymaker Jakks Pacific was casting a mini-Overeem in honor of his retirement beat-down of Brock Lesnar at UFC 141. Producers watched him do pushups be- fore auditioning for a swords-and-sandals movie to which Tom Cruise was attached. LMFAO put him in a second music video,
“Sorry for Party Rocking.”
“There’s been so much happening that I haven’t had time to calm down,” Overeem then said. “I’ve been running around, meeting everybody, plane in, plane out, and just shaking a lot of hands and mak- ing a lot of connections. All is going very well, and I’ve made great progress coming into the U.S. market.”
Overeem was also something of his own island. He had hired a private equity man- ager he met while clubbing in Croatia—Co-lin Lam, who once purchased a yacht from UFC boss Lorenzo Fertitta—who had en- listed Tom Brady’s lawyer to tell him he was getting shafted on a UFC contract negotiated by his management team of 12 years, Golden Glory. A million-dollar signing bonus was or wasn’t disclosed, depending on whom you ask. He sued Golden Glory anyway, and soon, they countersued and went to work putting liens on his future earnings. Millions of dollars were at stake: pay-per-view profits, ancillary revenue, and fight purses. Meanwhile, childhood friends had taken up the slack in managing his in- creasingly chaotic life, but there had been severe foul-ups—a missed drug test nearly cost him the Lesnar fight.
Still, there was promise in the air, like a band about to go from big to U2. Once dis- missed by UFC president Dana White, he was crowned the next heavyweight con- tender and scheduled to vie for Junior dos Santos’ belt at UFC 146 in May 2012. With a win, he would, in the eyes of his handlers, be to Europe what Jon Jones is to America, Georges St-Pierre is to Canada, and An- derson Silva is to Brazil—an ambassador to the sport. He would be the biggest heavy- weight in the world.
But then, Overeem would be cut down to size—by himself.
Camera crews are filming at the JACO Hybrid Training Center in Delray Beach, Fla., for a UFC Countdown show in advance of his fight against Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva at UFC 156 in February. They’ve been following him all day, and he’s holed up in a room between takes. Several times, he shoos them away in mid-answer.
“It’s only taking all day, but that’s fine,” he says.
The attention is not unusual, of course. Although he doesn’t get recognized in his new home of Miami as much as in Las Ve- gas or his native Amersfoort, he is someone that never goes unnoticed. He’s been in the palm-draped city since March 2012, and already cuts an imposing figure at Team Blackzilian, whose biggest star is ex-UFC champ Rashad Evans. Bigfoot Silva, who had left nearby American Top Team for the squad of UFC vets and emerging tal- ents at the Blackzilians, left the gym upon Overeem’s arrival.
Overeem met with a total of three candidates (he won’t say whom) before deciding to sign with Team Blackzilian owner Glenn Robinson and move full-time to Miami. A 28,000-square-foot facility was not only big enough to accommodate his bulk, but had the kind of amenities he lacked back home—for one, a cage, which meant he didn’t risk running into a wall if he missed a takedown. Robinson helped him secure a house and a car. Sponsorships from clothing brand JACO and supplement company F3 Nutrition, both of which Robinson owns, followed. Ex-Glory teammates Siyar Bahadurzada and Dion Staring soon joined the team, and his longtime Muay Thai coach Roberto Flamingo tagged along for the ride.
“Alistair and I clicked right away,” Robinson says. “What started off as a client relationship has grown to so much more. I believe in him and always have.”
The fit wasn’t as easy on the mats, at first. There were concerns from Overeem that the Brazilian faction of the Blackzilians was passing information, videotaped or otherwise, to Silva, whose friendship with Junior dos Santos presented a conflict in camp for the upcoming May fight. Training sessions were tense, with Overeem afraid to show his strategic cards, according to an associate. Slowly, though, strangers be- came friends, and trust was developed. It’s since been full steam ahead.
“Alistair is a consummate professional,” says UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione, who joined the gym around the same time as the Dutch heavyweight. “He knows what works best for him. He is a very intelligent dude, and he’s very methodical in his preparation. He doesn’t do anything off the hip.”
Which is why he’s more than a little gruff over the PR thrust onto his plate during training. Overeem is a hard guy to reach, and not by accident. Not only do his camps present a nearly impenetrable barrier to interviews, but he doesn’t easily let people into his life, and insists on control of his surroundings.
There are restrictions to our conversation, for instance, that preclude questions about his license denial from the Nevada State Athletic Commission—the result of a failed drug test before the dos Santos fight that prompted his admission he’d injected himself (unknowingly, he so claims) with prescribed testosterone—that essentially put his career on hold until late-December 2012 and sealed his image among critics as a PED user. There are questions about his former training partners that harden his demeanor (“I miss them like a bad toothache,” he says.). And there have been demands that come along with shooting cover pictures of a physique so admired and suspected—including a cover story scratched earlier this year that came with the stipulation that he not appear shirtless in pictures. (He wanted to separate himself from the pack, Lam said. As you see, things change.)
The people who get the closest look at the man in this moment of his life are the Blackzilians. His arrival in March ended his relationship with his longtime fiancé Zelina Bexander. He admits his relationship with his mother and father could be better. And he misses his 98-year-old grand- mother, with whom he briefly took refuge in Amersfoort.
“But I have to do it,” Overeem says about his distance. “I just want to make the most of my career.”
Indeed, Overeem has set this stage, and for good reason. There was nothing for him in Amersfoort. To ascend to the Olympus he’s created in his mind, America is where he must be. And at the level he’s competing, he must remain something of his own island. Now that he’s making a comeback— a funny idea considering he barely set foot in the Octagon—maybe even more so. Considering the forces that pushed him to this point, you might understand why he’s dead serious about making his new life work.
It was called a school for kids with too much energy.
Before ADHD, Paxil, and Ritalin pacified the rambunctious, there were schools like Amersfoort’s Mulock Houwer. It was a place for parents who couldn’t get con- trol of their children. Think about all the kids who caused havoc in your grade school classroom, and then picture Alistair Overeem among them.
Despite I.Q. tests that confirmed he was of exceptional intelligence, the first grader with the mischievous smile was deemed uncontrollable. He had been rejected by all the normal schools in town. Houwer was his only option, as it was for his brother Valentijn, who preceded him and was consid- ered a resident badass.
Walking among criminal’s kids and gypsies, he met Remco Peperkamp fists first. Like many, Remco didn’t fare well, but well enough to win him a friend. The two palled around Amersfoort, occasionally engaging in petty theft for extra cash. If they ever got in over their heads, the bigger Valentijn was the chief enforcer. But the more fighting Alistair did, the better he got at it. And the better he got, the more he developed a taste for it.
“He liked to tease people, to bully people,” says Fabrice Deters, who first met Alistair at 14 years old. “Not in the extreme form, but he always wanted to prove himself.”
Deters, who went to a nearby school, remembers an incident where a classmate loudly heckled Alistair’s reputation, which had by then extended beyond the walls of Houwer. The next day, on a break from class, he saw Alistair outside the school. Claiming ignorance on the shit-talker’s whereabouts, he high-tailed it back inside and explained the situation—“He’s com- ing!”—before hiding the hunted in a video room. Finding a potential fight irresistible, the other classmate formed a search party, and eventually, the kid met his fate.
“He got an ass-whupping,” says Deters. If the Overeems were generous in the dispensing of such justice, it was because there wasn’t much authority back home. When Alistair was five years old, his mother Clair took her sons from their father in London to Amersfoort. There, she worked full- time as a secretary, and the wild boys often fended for themselves.
Overeem’s street-fighting led to several run-ins with the police. One argument at a bar ended with him being glassed under his left eye, leaving a prominent scar. Nothing, however, was serious enough to keep him in jail. He had another talent to help him— talking himself out of trouble.
“He’s always right, and it’s always some- body else’s fault,” says Peperkamp, who now manages Overeem’s finances and PR. “He’s always finding an exit.”
An avid gamer, Alistair dreamed of being an army marksman. But when Valentijn ordered him one day to accompany him to a professional fighting gym, he dutifully fol- lowed. He must have thought he’d do okay. For most of his teens, he had been the king of the jungle on the streets, or at least the king’s brother. But housed with men who beat on each other for a living, he was a paper tiger.
“Alistair didn’t like it at all,” remembers Peperkamp. “Alistair was a very skinny guy, so he constantly got beat up there. Every time when he finished fighting, he called me. He was like, ‘I want to quit. I don’t like it at all.’ I said, ‘Go for another sport.’ But his brother was constantly pushing him.”
Valentijn was, by all accounts, the more physically gifted of the two, and one year later was invited to train in Amsterdam with Holland’s MMA forefather Chris Dolman. It was Alistair, though, who won notice when, at 16 years old, he followed Valentijn to the big city and began beating 30-year-old vet- erans at the gym.
It’s a classic duality: the one whose talent is effortless is wasted on a lack of true love for craft, while the one without natural ability is fueled by a disappointment that drives him to negate the disadvantage. Between the brothers, it wasn’t always an uneasy alliance.
“Valentijn is more a people person,” says Peperkamp. “Alistair is more an ego guy—very few friends. Valentijn is more like a family guy, going out with friends, and Alistair is constantly training. He’s more addicted to his sport.”
For a time in the late 90s, Valentijn was the next big thing in Europe. A submission specialist, he fought in Holland’s big shows and then in Japan. Alistair had to work twice as hard to earn recognition. But an adventure that started out as complete failure was starting to turn around. Alistair was getting bigger.
Peperkamp saw his partner in crime turn into a man who directed his energy toward a goal. The skinny kid who turned his back on opponents now fired back. He was too tired to act the fool. He was more interested in becoming the best fighter in the world.
“Every time I fought, I got the confirmation and went a step up,” Alistair says. “I worked my ass off, and I took it to another level.”
This is not The Reem’s first comeback (and he would probably say don’t call it that). The 11-fight streak that put him on the brink of universally recognized greatness came on the heels of a 2-5 slump. Between 2006 and 2007, the punches of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Ricardo Arona, and “Shogun” Rua felled him. It got so bad, Dutch MMA icon Bas Rutten said, that Golden Glory had to blackmail promoters into using him.
The story of how he went from a highly beatable light heavyweight to a heavyweight contender opens the artful web documentary The Reem. A companion piece to his rise between 2010 and 2011, the black-and-white series is about a talented man who’s ultimately distracted by his personal life. There are bad relationships with a girlfriend and a trainer, a fussy kid, and a mom diagnosed with cancer. Action is taken to change every circumstance that doesn’t further his goal. The result, shown in knock- outs and screaming arena glory, is unstoppable success.
Later, it’s a major reckoning for a man consumed by one goal. Overeem acknowledges he’s made mistakes in the past year, pointing to a former management team that “wasn’t good for him,” and admitting there were “errors” with his “medical staff.”
“It’s all part of learning,” he says. “I try to react by not making them a second time.”
As he prepares for his return, he continues to keep his childhood friends closest. Peperkamp manages his finances and splits PR duties and scheduling with Deters, who’s considering a move to Miami, “depending on how Alistair’s career is going to go.” Both remain loyal to Alistair. (Peperkamp, though, apologizes for his friend’s gruffness.)
Overeem looks at Silva as a mere stop- over on his march. He calls the Brazilian slow and says he hasn’t watched tape to prepare for the bout, which takes place February 2 in Las Vegas. Junior dos Santos, who initially said he wanted Overeem as his next opponent but then committed to a rematch with Cain Velasquez at UFC 155, remains his chief target.
“He is a zig-zagger,” Overeem says. “I’m not going to say he’s afraid, because people can make up their own minds. But if you want to fight me, and then you don’t want to fight me, then you sign to fight Cain, that means you’re a zig-zagger. I don’t like zig-zaggers. I like people who are honest. I like guys who are direct.”
At his own insistence, cameras will return to Overeem’s world in the coming months. A revamp of the documentary The Reem: 3.0 will chronicle his road back to the championship and the redemption he’s convinced is inevitable.
There’s one piece of real estate he doesn’t yet have.
“The UFC belt is missing,” he says. “In my mind, it’s just a matter of time.”