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UFC 141 Breakdown: The Main Event

Over a year after a devastating loss to Cain Velasquez, former UFC champ Brock Lesnar makes his long awaited return to the Octagon to face off against former Strikeforce heavyweight title-holder and UFC newcomer Alistair Overeem. Eager to finish 2011 on a high, both men will be looking to put a difficult year behind them. Earlier in the year, Lesnar’s career was once again in jeopardy after being re-diagnosed with diverticulitis,  while Overeem’s turmoil saw him drop out of the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix and subsequently released from the promotion, before being predictably signed by the very company that owned his previous employer. And because there is never enough outside-the-cage drama in this sport, the Dutchman found himself in hot water with the Nevada State Athletic Commission after some drug testing related issues, but was ultimately cleared to fight. Luckily, the stage has been set for this mega clash of the titans, and the heavyweight behemoths will finally lock horns this Friday night.

Heavyweight Fight: Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem

Once again, Lesnar will be entering a fight with question marks surrounding his health. Perhaps more worryingly, he is coming off a fourteen months layoff, most of which spent outside of the gym. When Lesnar first burst onto the scene, he was deemed to be someone learning on the job, and the general consensus was that at such an early stage in his career, he will improve on a fight-to-fight basis. While that notion might still hold true, Lesnar’s progress has certainly been hindered significantly in the past two years, as injuries kept him out of the cage and robbed him of some precious gym time.

Lesnar’s striking in particular, has held him back considerably. Throughout his young career, Lesnar’s stand-up has consisted of a straight right hand, occasionally set up by a halfhearted jab, and very little else. In his defense, his frame will always be a major limitation when it comes to his striking, which is partially why he looks so stiff on the feet, especially compared to how fluid his movement looks in grappling oriented situations.

However unpolished his offensive striking will look come fight time, it will be vital for Lesnar to rectify the defensive mistakes he committed in the past. When pressured, Lesnar reacts awkwardly. His immediate instinct is to backpedal in a straight line rather than switch levels and drop for a takedown or circle out. In such situations, Lesnar would at least need to attempt to cut his opponent off and clinch up.

Overeem brings a striking acumen that none of Lesnar’s previous opponents possessed. However, he has thus far failed to translate some of the aspects that led him to K-1 glory to MMA. Most notably, Overeem’s ability to slip punches and counter with power shots — especially the right hook — has been missing in his MMA fights. Additionally, the Fabricio Werdum bout saw Overeem content to throw single strikes rather move forward and put together combinations. Given Lesnar’s apparent inability to hold off any offensive onslaught, Overeem would be better served to let his hands go and throw with volume, especially given his unique blend of power and technique.

“The Reem” is at his most dangerous on the inside. Be it his ability to put together some heavy leather from close-quarters or his knees from the clinch, if Overeem manages to close the distance, Lesnar’s night could be very short. Lesnar is by no means vulnerable in the clinch, but he will need to turn that position into an exhausting grappling battle by getting underhooks and pushing his opponent against the fence. If Overeem is able to secure the muay Thai plum however, Lesnar will be in trouble. Overeem’s knees to the body in particular, are some of MMA’s most savage weapons.

In theory, Lesnar would be better off utilizing his reach to stay on the outside and look for the first opening to rip a double leg. However, given his striking deficiencies, both offensively and defensively, and his opponent’s proficiency in that regard, this would be a risky game for Brock to play. Instead, Lesnar would be smart to take a page out of Werdum’s playbook — no, not beg his opponent to dive into his guard — and aggressively stalk Overeem down to force him on the back-foot. In fact, Overeem’s concern of getting taken down by Werdum saw him become tentative and somewhat gun-shy on the feet. Against a wrestler of Lesnar’s caliber, that apprehension might be further magnified. Of course, such an aggressive strategy could backfire if Overeem cuts Lesnar off and counters, particularly when factoring in Lesnar’s iffy head movement. However, it is a risk Lesnar would be wise to take, as he ostensibly possesses the speed and explosiveness to rip a power double before Overeem could catch him.

Lesnar’s wrestling isn’t exactly versatile, and he is over reliant on said power double, but as long as he doesn’t shoot from outside the proper range, he should be able to plant Overeem on his back. The latter’s takedown defense is solid, but he is far too overzealous to sprawl immediately. This could come back to bite him, as the sprawl is generally a last resort method of defending the takedown, and should only be used when necessary. Yet, despite Werdum clearly not getting close to securing a takedown, Overeem kept sprawling like his life depended on it. The problem with that approach is that it leaves room for scrambles and chain wrestling sequences, especially if he isn’t quick to disengage. Lesnar is a seasoned enough wrestler to maintain a grip on Overeem and transition into a single leg off of a double leg attempt, which could then result in “The Reem” finding himself on the bottom with Lesnar on top.

Conversely, the sprawl position potentially allows Overeem to lock up a bread and butter guillotine, though he should be extremely careful before flopping to his back while grabbing a hold of Lesnar’s neck, as a sloppy attempt means the former Strikeforce champion will find himself in a possible fight-costing position.

It will be important for Lesnar to secure a takedown away from the fence in order to prevent Overeem from utilizing the cage to get back to his feet. If Brock is successful in putting his opponent on his back in the center of the cage, the fight could well be over. Despite the narrative that Lesnar only relies on size and strength, Brock has turned into quite a capable submission grappler. His top game has improved significantly since the days of him wildly hammer-fisting Frank Mir at UFC 81. In fact, not only has Lesnar ameliorated his guard passing and submission game, he has also worked on his ground-and-pound power and accuracy. If Lesnar is able to get to half guard and starts unloading, history suggests Overeem’s chin will likely not hold up, as the Dutchman is notorious for crumbling in similar situations.

The fight could well be decided by cardio. While Lesnar showed signs of fatigue against Velasquez, his conditioning usually holds up during fights in which he’s in control. For a man his size, Lesnar’s cardio is quite decent. Overeem on the other hand, has a history of tiring in some of his bouts, and it has cost him dearly in the past. If the fight gets past the first round, Lesnar will likely emerge victorious, as even a tired Lesnar should be able to secure takedowns on a completely exhausted Overeem.

The first round will likely prove to be a huge indicator as to the outcome of the fight. If Lesnar gets an early takedown and keeps Overeem on his back for a while, the latter is unlikely to come out fresh for the subsequent rounds, if he makes it that far. However, with Lesnar, the risk of him getting caught early is always there, and unlike Shane Carwin, Overeem isn’t going to let him off the hook. If Lesnar turtles up, Overeem is going to punish him with knees to the body, ground-and-pound and maybe even some elbows until the referee pulls him off. And while this fight is open to any possibility, I expect this very scenario to unfold. Despite recently warming up to the idea of Lesnar coming out on top, and despite the fact that his chances will grow with each passing minute, the layoff could prove too costly as Overeem catches him early and finishes him with strikes on the ground.

Official Prediction: Alistair Overeem to defeat Brock Lesnar by TKO in Round 1