Alistair Overeem has probably never heard of Lee Atwater, but at this point “The Reem” might be wise to heed that ruthless 1980s political strategist’s most famous rule of thumb: That perception is reality.
It can hardly be considered news that Overeem has an image problem in MMA circles, though in recent weeks the former Strikeforce heavyweight champion and his handlers have acted as if they have no idea. For a guy who is already under public scrutiny as a suspected steroid abuser, Overeem’s decision to skip the country last month on the same day the Nevada State Athletic Commission notified him of a “random” drug test prior to his UFC 141 bout against Brock Lesnar is the kind of public relations gaffe he absolutely can’t afford.
The NSAC spent some considerable time on the phone with Overeem on Monday, ostensibly trying to sniff out his intentions for fleeing back to Europe, even though in this instance, reality is all but irrelevant in the court of public opinion.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what the truth is. When it comes to Overeem and drug tests, it only matters what it looks like the truth is, and a lot of people are going to assume the worst.
Your perception of what happened during Overeem’s teleconference with the NSAC probably depends on what your opinion was about the fighter a week or a month ago. It probably also depends on your feelings about the quality of drug testing in our sport and the job you think state athletic commissions do policing it.
If you’re an Overeem fan, you may well believe his story that his assistants purchased tickets for him to fly home to Holland to visit his gravely ill mother days before the NSAC told them about the test. You probably believe him when he says he’s never been subjected to this kind of testing before as he prepares for just his third American appearance since 2007 and his first ever fight in Nevada. You might even believe that he couldn’t find an adequate independent lab to do the testing in his home country and that in the end he thought it would be cool if his “personal sports doctor” conducted the exam.
If you’re any other kind of person, you’re probably not buying it.
You may have had considerable trouble in recent years accepting Overeem’s transition from beanpole 205-pounder to Herculean heavyweight. You might think commission drug testing is a joke and one of the only ways a guy could actually get caught is if he didn’t know a certain state had recently reinstituted out-of-competition testing. If that’s the case, you likely think Overeem found out about his pending drug test and jetted and, in response, the NSAC gave his enormous wrist the softest possible slap, granting him a conditional license and crucial time to rinse and repeat before returning to the states to take the test the commission ordered nearly a month ago.
Depending on your side of the argument, you probably believe the “assistant” who allowed Overeem to leave the country without taking his test should be fired or -- maybe -- that he should get a considerable raise.
Which is true? Which is reality? Doesn’t matter.
The only thing that does matter is that Overeem had an opportunity here to put some distance between himself and his doubters by promptly taking and passing the commission’s random test -- and he bungled it. Instead, he just gave his detractors more ammunition, whether real or just perceived.
That chance slipped away because, while fighters have assistants and handlers and coaches, most still don’t employ public relations strategists.
Perhaps Overeem ought to think about it.