The location of a UFC event can mean as much as, if not more than, the headline fighters themselves — and that just may be the case this weekend.
Saturday’s UFC Fight Night in St. Petersburg marks the promotion’s second event in Russia, with both taking place within a seven-month stretch. One can’t help but wonder if this sophomore card brings us one step closer to seeing undefeated lightweight champion and Dagestani superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov fight in Russia. Nurmagomedov, by the way, is expected to be in attendance to support his teammate, Islam Makhachev, who fights in the co-main event.
The main event carries high stakes for the two men involved. Alistair Overeem, 38, has acknowledged that the end of his storied career is in sight. A loss to Aleksei Oleinik, who is not widely recognizable to most of the UFC audience, would significantly hurt Overeem’s chances of one more heavyweight title shot.
For Oleinik, 41, this is an opportunity he’s waited a long time for. He is 6-2 in the UFC, and Oleinik has complained the promotion doesn’t seem to have a plan for him. Overeem is by far the biggest name he will have fought in the UFC to date — and this fight wasn’t even originally his; Oleinik was a late replacement for Overeem’s original opponent, Alexander Volkov.
By the numbers
131: Professional MMA fights, combined, for Overeem (44-17, 1 NC) and Oleinik (57-11-1).
45: Submission victories by Oleinik. He also has eight KOs, meaning only four of his 57 wins have come by decision.
2.7: Submissions per 15 minutes by Oleinik in the UFC, by far the best in heavyweight history.
73.1: Percentage of significant strikes landed by Overeem in his UFC fights, best ever not just among heavyweights but all fighters in the promotion.
5:39: Average fight time, in minutes, for Oleinik in the UFC — sixth-shortest all time among the promotion’s heavyweights.
Source: UFC Stats
Five vs. five
Overeem’s most recent results
Win: Sergei Pavlovich (TKO1), Nov. 24, 2018
Loss: Curtis Blaydes (TKO3), June 9, 2018
Loss: Francis Ngannou (TKO1), Dec. 2, 2017
Win: Fabricio Werdum (MajDec), July 8, 2017
Win: Mark Hunt (KO3), March 4, 2017
Oleinik’s most recent results
Win: Mark Hunt (SUB1), Sept. 15, 2018
Win: Junior Albini (SUB1), May 12, 2018
Loss: Curtis Blaydes (TKO2), Nov. 4, 2017
Win: Travis Browne (SUB2), July 8, 2017
Win: Viktor Pesta (SUB1), Jan. 15, 2017
“That stare-down is going to be weird, because we’re friends. It’s all smiles. … It’s not like we text, it’s not like we call, because there’s a little language barrier. But when we see each other, it’s just very good energy. It’s smiles. It’s hugs.”
–Overeem on his friendship with Oleinik, an occasional training partner
Brett Okamoto’s pick
It’s no surprise Overeem recognizes he’s in the twilight of his career. The man has been competing in professional MMA and kickboxing since 1999. It’s fair to question how much he has left, but whatever that answer is, I’m confident it’s enough to get by Oleinik. Overeem via TKO, second round.
Waiting in the wings
Last November, a couple of days after his TKO of Sergei Pavlovich, Overeem went on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show and let it be known whom he wanted next. It wasn’t Oleinik. Overeem wanted to fight Derrick Lewis.
“He’s a strong guy, but other than that I’m not impressed by him,” said The Reem. “If I fight him, I’m going to put him away.” Lewis ended up getting Junior dos Santos instead, though, and after “The Black Beast” lost by TKO to JDS last month, he underwent knee surgery. Lewis hopes to return to the Octagon by the end of the year, and Overeem could be there waiting for him. Why? “His humor, I think, is stupid.”
As for Oleinik, if he wins on Saturday he’d probably take anyone in the top 10 who doesn’t already have a dance partner. That could even mean Oleinik gets a fight with Derrick Lewis. Hope Oleinik can find the humor in a good “balls was hot” quip.
What to watch for (beyond the main event)
The fight within the fight
You’ve got to respect the fearlessness of Islam Makhachev. The 27-year-old Dagestani lightweight, who fights Arman Tsarukyan in the co-main event, is 16-1 and not shy with his callouts. After a 2017 win, he stood in the cage and addressed UFC president Dana White: “Hey, Dana, I want a money fight. Give me Mayweather. Woo!” Makhachev never got his hands on Floyd but was undeterred. Following his most recent win, a submission of Kajan Johnson last July, he stood next to his friend and training partner, 155-pound champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, and declared, “I want a fight with Brock Lesnar.” That’s thinking big.
Nickname of the week
With “Ubereem” and “Demolition Man,” Alistair Overeem would be our winner if we allowed for aggregate. But there’s only one entry per contestant here, and neither of the main eventer’s nicknames is marquee-worthy. The “Thunder of the North” of prelim fighter Alexander Yakovlev gets extra points because it’s attached to a guy who’s not only a mixed martial artist but also a rapper. But who doesn’t have a soft spot for “The Happy Warrior”? The most splendid thing about it is it’s perfectly descriptive, being the nom de guerre of ever-smiling flyweight Roxanne Modafferi.