Polarizing Overeem steals spotlight on deep UFC card

The main event of tonight’s Ultimate Fighting Championship card at Mandalay Bay pits the dominant featherweight champion against a former lightweight champion coming down in weight in a long-anticipated bout.

A charismatic former light heavyweight champion looking to bounce back from a disappointing and emotional title challenge is featured in the penultimate fight on one of the deepest cards in some time.

Yet, when a Super Bowl-style media day event was staged Thursday for UFC 156 at the arena, the biggest mass of microphones and cameras flooded toward a heavyweight who has competed just once in the UFC.

There is no debating the popularity of Alistair Overeem. Wherever he goes, he is the show.

Even Overeem, who fights Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, isn’t quite sure why he is such a captivating figure.

“I have definitely experienced a lot of attention, but I don’t want to take away attention from those other guys,” he said. “I am a heavyweight, and I just think heavyweights are the most popular at this time.

“There’s no one thing about me. There’s many things.”

Not all of the interested observers are admirers. Overeem is well aware that a solid percentage of the attention comes from detractors.

“Some people love me; some people hate me,” he said. “I get a lot of support, but I also get a lot of hate. But it’s all good.”

It’s also good for business. Should he win tonight, Overeem’s ability to sell tickets and pay per views probably will propel him into a shot against champion Cain Velasquez this year in a fight UFC president Dana White predicted would be “huge.”

Overeem, who often has been described as cocky, already is looking ahead to that fight.

“I think the belt would look a lot better on me than Cain, and I’m pretty sure most people would agree with that,” he said.

Count White among those who at least would like to see Overeem get the chance.

“He’s a beast,” White said. “I mean, you look at the guy, and he’s an absolute freaking beast. You don’t see guys who look like him every day in the fight business. Plus, he’s an intriguing character, and people want to see if this guy can win the title. I want to see if he can win the title.”

The sculpted physique, and how he acquired it, are part of the Overeem mystique.

Rumors of performance-enhancing drug use have followed the 32-year-old Dutch striker throughout his career. Many of his critics felt vindicated when he tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone and had to pull out of a title bout against Junior dos Santos in May because of the resulting suspension.

Overeem, however, maintains his innocence. He has claimed all along the test results were due to a mixture of medication given to him by a shady Texas doctor with whom he no longer associates.

He still consistently refers to himself as a clean fighter and is more than willing to challenge anyone who says otherwise. Overeem grew irritated and cut off an interview Thursday with a reporter who pressed him on the PED issue.

It’s all part of the phenomenon that is “The Reem.”

“He’s mysterious,” said Rashad Evans, a teammate of Overeem’s at the Blackzilians camp in South Florida. “He doesn’t say too much, and he’s enormous. You see him, and you’re like, ‘That’s a big human being.’ And you never know if he’s pissed off. He gives you that look like he just wants to smack you sometimes.

“He’s just a big teddy bear, though.”

Overeem treats opponents more like a grizzly. Explosive finishes are his trademark, with 34 stoppage wins among his 36 career victories in fights around the world.

He took 2:26 to maul Brock Lesnar in his UFC debut in December 2011 and plans to similarly dismiss Silva and claim his title shot.

“I have to just do my thing,” he said. “Enjoy myself. Destroy Bigfoot, hopefully leave him face down, sleeping. Then, we’ll go from there.”

In the main event, featherweight champion Jose Aldo puts his belt on the line against former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, who will fight at 145 pounds for the first time.

Evans, a former light heavyweight champion, returns to action after losing a decision in a highly emotional title fight against former friend and training partner Jon Jones to face Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.

The main card starts at 7 p.m., with the preliminary card airing live on FX (Cable 24) at 5.

Two bouts will air on Facebook beginning at 4 p.m.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.

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