Bellator MMA has finally started cashing in on its long-rumored signing ambitions recently with the additions of Sergei Kharitonov and former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. The rumors don’t stop there, though, and include other big names like former Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem.
Bellator’s heavyweight division has always lacked premier talent. The promotion’s early top heavyweight star was Cole Konrad, who only defended his title once before retiring to pursue more lucrative options outside of fighting. Back then, Bellator didn’t really have the talent to evenly match Konrad with somebody who could give him a run for his money. His lone defense came against Eric Prindle, who has gone 3-5 in his subsequent outings and 0-4 in Bellator since his failed title bid.
Then, there was Alexander Volkov. He marched through Bellator’s tournament format in 2012 to claim the heavyweight gold, but turned around and lost the title in his first defense against Vitaly Minakov.
Minakov has held the title since November 2013, but he has made only one defense, which came against Cheick Kongo. Minakov has fought outside of the promotion, where he has kept his undefeated record intact. He hasn’t fought much inside of Bellator, though the promotion recently announced that he should return to action in the Bellator cage sometime this year.
The newly signed Kharitonov certainly is a splash to help strengthen the division, which really only boasts the returning Minakov, plus Kongo, Volkov and pro-wrestler-turned-MMA-fighter Bobby Lashley. Bellator also has Kimbo Slice and a couple of other notable names on its heavyweight roster, but no one would compare to the addition of Overeem.
The 35-year-old Overeem already has a relationship with Bellator MMA CEO Scott Coker dating back to when the two worked under the Strikeforce banner. However, the money Bellator could throw at Overeem is the big sticking point in this deal. If rumors are to be believed, it’s well above what the UFC is willing to pay.
This seems like the incorrect decision on the UFC’s part. Overeem is a top-five heavyweight and has won his last three fights, including a TKO of former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos in Overeem’s most recent outing. Letting that slip away to Bellator is a significant move.
The best heavyweight names are in the UFC, whereas the talent pool outside of the UFC is relatively shallow. Overeem to Bellator could have big ramifications for the promotion, which could possibly get a stable, big-name heavyweight. It would tip the scales and create a larger pool of credible heavyweight talent outside of the confines of the UFC’s Octagon.
But how would Overeem stack up against the rest of the division? And if Overeem does move to Bellator, who could he potentially face first?
This is probably the most interesting part of Overeem’s move over to Spike TV and Bellator. His first fight could very well come against a regional talent that Bellator uses to bring in and help build the striker as a title challenger. The company has already gone this route with the likes of Josh Thomson, and it tried to do the same with Melvin Guillard.
Benson Henderson has been a different story. He is immediately getting a welterweight title shot upon his Bellator debut. Henderson, like Overeem, is a former champion. In his own respective division, Henderson is ranked similarly to where Overeem stands at heavyweight. Henderson also has a level of popularity that current Bellator welterweight champion Andrey Koreshkov lacks. This could be the reason Henderson is getting the title shot, and the same formula could be applied to Overeem. Minakov isn’t nearly as popular or well known as Overeem, so we could very well see a title-shot debut for Overeem.
There is also a third and final option Bellator could consider for Overeem’s debut: a match against Tony Johnson. Johnson has quietly made himself a title challenger, but his grinding wrestling style hasn’t been the most entertaining. Johnson could possibly use his non-fan-friendly technique against Minakov, grinding the champ against the cage and on the ground in order to steal the title from the Russian. Most likely, Bellator would like to prevent this from happening. The promotion could line up Overeem with Johnson to not only add a Bellator title contender to Overeem’s list of victories, but also to stop Johnson from getting a match with the heavyweight champion.
Returning to the Henderson title-shot debut approach, it seems Minakov could be the most likely first candidate to face Overeem if Overeem does make the jump over to Bellator.
This leads us to a title-shot breakdown, albeit an extremely early one made under the assumption Overeem actually makes the jump to Bellator.
So, how does Overeem stack up against Minakov?
Well, Overeem has risen to the status of a top-five heavyweight in the UFC, which makes him easily better than a majority of Bellator’s heavyweight division, if not all of the division. Minakov is probably one of only a few names Overeem could face outside of the UFC and still be in a fight that would be considered a close or equal match-up.
Minakov, much like Overeem, is a strong striker. Overeem is still a much better striker, but they do share this common strength. The downside for Minakov comes in the size department. The Russian, who enjoys a 78-inch reach, has generally been the bigger fighter in his outings. Minakov won’t have the same luxury here. Overeem checks in with a three-inch height advantage and a two-inch reach advantage. Overeem is likely to use these advantages to pick apart Minakov from a distance. Overeem is a former K-1 champion, so there is no way he doesn’t take the striking battle if the fight remains on the feet for its entirety, unless his chin gives out or he gets too cocky, like he was apt to do at times during his UFC run. Overeem does have some holes in his defense, but training at Jackson-Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, N.M., has certainly helped hide the holes and made his striking a lot better.
On the ground, people may be surprised to learn that these two men have accumulated a combined 25 submission victories. Overeem actually has more submission finishes (19) than knockout victories (17). The last time Overeem submitted somebody, though, was in 2009 when he finished James Thompson. Still, Overeem’s ground game tends to get overlooked.
Overeem is capable of putting the first blemish on Minakov’s perfect record, most likely by TKO or knockout. Minakov might last a few rounds before being totally overwhelmed by Overeem.
There are other opportunities for Overeem in Bellator. One that comes to mind involves Bellator’s relationship with the Japanese-based Rizin Fighting Federation, which featured MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko on its first event. What are the chances we could see Overeem take on Emelianenko?
The short answer? It’s a very slim chance. Overeem could be lended to Rizin to help build a super card against Emelianenko and give the pound-for-pound GOAT a solid and interesting fight everybody would want to see. It would be a really tough fight for Emelianenko to win, considering how good Overeem has looked during his current three-fight winning streak. If Emelianenko were to lose again, it could be a tough blow to his career and to the Rizin promotion. Emelianenko is the face of Rizin currently, and it just seems unlikely that the company would take such a risk by putting him in a fight with Overeem.
There is no doubt that Overeem would bolster Bellator’s roster in a huge way. He’d immediately enter the title picture in some fashion, and he’d become an immediate star for the organization. Emelianenko fight or not, Bellator fans have to be hoping they’ll see Overeem in the organization soon.