Alistair Overeem Seems to be Fitting in Well in New Mexico. | Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Alistair Overeem, the well-traveled former Strikeforce, Dream and K-1 heavyweight champion who has fought everywhere from Japan to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and currently calls glamorous Miami Beach home, seems a little bit taken aback by his new surroundings.
In a good way.
“Everyone is too nice here,” he says. “I’m used to big cities. I live in Miami, New York, L.A., Las Vegas. The people here are damn friendly. You never know what you’re gonna get, and it was a pleasant surprise.”
It’s a late Tuesday morning in Albuquerque, and controversy is still swirling from the Fight Night event held here this past Saturday. Faulty scorecards, selective drug testing and fish-hooking, of all things, are the topics du jour, although that will change in just a few more hours when news of Chael Sonnen’s failed drug test begins to make the rounds. The Jackson-Wink MMA team is feeling the blowback from the first-ever UFC event in its hometown. It’s almost as if Greg Jackson himself is responsible for Jeff Collins’ scorecard or a bitter cornerman selling drug test conspiracies to the media.
With all that turmoil, the controversial Overeem’s presence in the gym would seemingly have the potential to make a tense situation downright flammable. Instead, just one week into his trial run at the renowned camp, the powerful Dutchman is a hit.
Based on prior accounts, one might expect Overeem to show up in the Duke City with his own set of high-maintenance guidelines and parameters. But there are no workouts behind curtains, no prima donna antics, and no blatantly malicious attacks on sparring partners to be found. Overall, “The Demolition Man” appears to be a model teammate.
At one point during the morning session, Overeem connects with a knee that has a sparring partner doubled over in pain. A concerned Overeem checks on his new teammate, and after a brief respite, the two heavyweights are back at it.
There is a wide gap in experience between Overeem and the other big men in the gym on this day, and nowhere was that more evident than during his brief go-round in the Jackson-Wink cage. However, skill and credentials alone do not afford him any special treatment.
“Get your ass out of the cage,” Mike Winkeljohn orders after the timer signals the end of the round. “You’re not that important.”
“How long [will] we have those jokes?” Overeem asks with a grin.
“They have jokes in Holland?” the striking coach replies.
The ribbing is all in good fun, but the underlying message is very real: All baggage from Boca Raton, Fla., should stay there.
“With Greg and I, it always seems to work out because of the nature of the gym,” Winkeljohn says. “If you don’t get along you’ll be ostracized and kicked to the curb. It’ll play out one way or the other.” After the heavyweight practice ends, Overeem spends about 20 minutes drilling wrestling and grappling technique with MMA novice Jonathan Hamm, a 6-foot-5 prospect who has been officially been a part of the team for approximately six months. A former defensive end at Clark Atlanta University, Hamm briefly harbored NFL aspirations before transitioning to a boxing career that saw him serve as an alternate for the U.S. boxing team in the 2012 Olympic Games. After a brief period as a professional boxer, Hamm decided his passion lies with MMA.
On the basis of his height alone, Hamm has been tabbed as a sparring partner to help Jon Jones prep for Alexander Gustafsson. However, he has yet to compete in a single bout at the amateur MMA level. Still, Overeem has no problem making time for the rookie. In the midst of his own transition, it would be easy to avoid such commitments.
“Before he got here, we heard a lot about how he’s tough to work with, he’s not a team player -- we heard all the negativity,” Hamm said. “Since he got here, he’s been great...All the guys [here] take part in helping me. Travis Browne helps me; Jon Jones helps me; Andrei Arlovski has been amazing. But as far as hands-on every day after practice spending time with me, [Overeem] has honestly done more than most. All those guys have been very helpful, but he’s been putting in a little bit more.”
If Overeem isn’t living up to the horror stories that precede him, perhaps that’s because the new environment is serving him well. Jackson, for one, is a firm believer in a person’s ability to grow and progress -- at any age.
“I always take that stuff with a grain of salt,” the trainer says. “There’s plenty of people that say negative things about me. While I am a huge jerk and a ruthless businessman, I have a tender side. So I’m always about giving people a chance.
“You’re different people at different times of your life and also, circumstances are different to make you a different person, too. Everybody is not the same all the time. I know people are always l like ‘keep it real,’ but you grow as a person. You should grow.”
When he moved to the United States in 2011, Overeem did a whirlwind tour of cities and gyms. While a trip to the New Mexico desert was on the original itinerary, Overeem would sign with the Blackzilians before he could make that journey. Later, future hopes of relocating to Albuquerque conflicted with bouts against Travis Browne and Frank Mir, both of whom have Jackson-Wink ties.
Prior to facing Mir, Overeem moved his camp to Thailand. He took a lopsided victory over Mir at UFC 169 and then officially cut ties with the Blackzilians, freeing him up to pursue other options. He plans on putting in another two weeks in Albuquerque before making a final decision.
So far, Overeem likes what he sees.
“We’ve been training every day, two times a day. It’s a very positive vibe in the gym, and I actually like the scene, too,” Overeem said. “I mean, it’s no Miami in the sense of [flashiness]...It’s not a world destination, but for me I like the people. It’s friendly. It’s not too big a city. There’s plenty of good restaurants, and for training camp it has everything I need.”
While Overeem left the Blackzilians amid accusations of injured training partners and arrogance, the Dutchman says he keeps himself isolated from the majority of what circulates through the media. He also has no resentment for the Florida-based camp.
“I don’t really follow MMA media. Of course, some people do read it and they come to me about it,” he said. “For me, it’s just unfortunate that it has to go that route. I’m just trying to be a gentleman about it. If everybody could just be that way, it would be [a lot easier]. But I think it has died down a little bit. It’s already history. Apparently they felt the need to voice their opinion to the media, but I don’t have that need.
“I wish all those guys good luck. And that’s it.”
Although his tenure at Jackson-Wink MMA is in its infancy, it appears that Overeem already has a new family waiting to welcome him. That is, if he’s willing.
“We all love him, so it’s really up to him,” Jackson said. “If he’s like, ‘Man I’m sticking around, this is fun’ then great. If he’s like, ‘You guys are a bunch of idiots’ that’s not great. The ball’s in his court. Things seem to be gelling really well.”