by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
Perhaps no two fighters have done as much to raise their stock over the last couple of years as Sergei Kharitonov and Alistair Overeem has. Through their participation in the last two Pride Grand Prix, both Kharitonov and Overeem have gone from solid contenders to legitimate superstars.

Not much was known of Sergei Kharitonov prior to his entry into Pride FC at their Bushido 1 show in October of 2003. What was known was that he was a former teammate of Pride Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko and had left to join the Russian Top Team. It was also known that he had performed well in single-night multiple man tournaments such as Yalta’s Brilliant and the Tournament of Real Men. But just how good was he?

Heading into his debut Sergei had won his first five matches convincingly. He had taken two single-night tournament titles in 2000 and 2003, but he hadn’t competed with any consistency, taking years off between competition. That would all change after making a quiet, but convincing intro to Pride at Bushido 1.

In a match that went largely unheralded, Kharitonov defeated Jason Nobunaga in via armbar just over two minutes into the fight. Nobunaga had never fought MMA before (or since), so no one gave Kharitonov much of a thought after that fight. In his next bout Sergei defeated nearly 7′ monster LA Giant in an opening bout of Pride 27. Again aside from the circus attraction atmosphere surrounding Giant, the fight went largely unnoticed, but Kharitonov again performed solidly and impressed Pride.

Off his two solid performances Sergei was invited to participate in 2004’s Heavyweight Grand Prix. Largely seen as a set-up fight to Murilo “Ninja” Rua in the first round, few gave Kharitonov much thought beyond being a stepping stone. Sergei had other ideas however and this fight would be the turning point in his career.

Mostly thought of as a submission specialist, many thought that if Kharitonov dared stand with Rua he’d end up getting laid out on the canvas. Few thought Kharitonov would even dare trade shots with a skilled member of the vaunted Chute Boxe team. Overweight and lacking conditioning Rua’s sluggish movement became an open target for Sergei who picked shots throughout their fight. And while Kharitonov got hit and bloodied, he landed far more often than Ninja did and with far greater sharpness and resonance.

After driving Rua back to the ropes with a hard straight punch, Kharitonov quickly shifted angles and came with a wicked uppercut, sending Ninja down and out before half the round was out. Sergei had arrived, but still many questioned if he was that good because of Rua’s apparent lack of conditioning heading into their fight.

Kharitonov would answer to any critics in his next bout against Pride Interim Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in the second round of the tournament. Throughout their fight Sergei again put together the crisp combinations and solid groundwork he had shown in his previous Pride fights. In the end however he may have not taken enough chances or imposed his will enough to take a decision away from a Pride Champion and lost via unanimous decision.

In Sergei’s next two bouts his skills really began to shine. Perhaps freed by the encouragement and support of the MMA community, Kharitonov let lose and easily put down underdog Choi Mu Bae and then utterly destroyed former UFC contender Pedro Rizzo. After returning to Russia for a quick win, Kharitonov was brought back to Pride to face BJJ artist Fabricio Werdum in a battle of top contenders to Fedor’s crown.

Unfortunately while Sergei got the win, he looked bad in his effort and many thought perhaps he had been fighting too much and it was finally catching up with him. Whether or not that’s true, what is, is that he has to step up and be impressive again to remain a top contender and favorite in the Open Weight GP should he participate. In order to do that he has to beat another rising star in Alistair Overeem, a fighter that ironically had tread much the same path Sergei had.

Prior to his big breakthrough in Pride’s 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix, Alistair Overeem was viewed mostly as a fighter with a lot of potential, but ultimately someone that might never break through due to his tendencies to be too content and inconsistent at times.

Certainly Alistair’s output over the first couple years of his career wasn’t cause for concern. Since his debut in late 1999 Overeem had fought 17 times in MMA, not to mention countless kickboxing bouts. Mainly competing in his native Holland, where he trained with the renowned striking group Team Golden Glory, Alistair had gone 14-2 before winning his Pride debut in December of 2002.

Upon his KO win over Bazigit Atajev at Pride 24, Overeem proved impressive enough to be brought back to face Mike Bencic at Pride 26, to which he pounded Bencic out half way through the first round. With two wins in Pride and his numerous accomplishments in 2 Hot 2 Handle and Rings Holland, Overeem was invited to participate in Pride’s 8-man 2003 Middleweight GP.

In the first round of the tournament Overeem was to face UFC representative Chuck “Iceman” Liddell. Liddell had just come off his convincing loss to Randy Couture at UFC 43 and was eager to reestablish himself as one of the best 205lb fighters in the world, and it was perhaps this desire that helped him in the fight. Whereas Overeem had Chuck in trouble in the fight, nearly putting him out, his inconsistency allowed Liddell back into the fight. From there it was all Liddell as he drove Alistair back into the ropes before landing a left hand, knocking out the Dutchman.

The fight would prove costly for Overeem, as he would be out of Pride for over a year. During which time he’d win twice and qualify as an official Dutch representative in the 2005 Abu Dhabi World Grappling Championships. Then with Pride gearing up towards their 2005 Middleweight GP, Overeem was asked to face tough Brazilian Top Team member Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in a qualifying match for the tournament.

After losing what would be an ugly unanimous decision to Nogueira, where Overeem spent much of the time pinned to the ground, his future lay uncertain with Pride. Luckily fate intervened and in the 16-man field an opening was needing to be filled, so while he lost a the qualifying match, he was entered into the tournament to face UFC representative Vitor Belfort in a fight that many felt Alistair backed into.

Overeem would begin to silence critics as late in the first round after an exchange standing and a scramble on the ground, Alistair locked a guillotine choke on Belfort, sitting back and cinching it in for the victory. Impressive as he was, people were still unsure of his potential. In the second round the 6’5″ frame of the Dutchman was too much for 5’9″ tall Igor Vovchanchyn, as again Overeem locked a guillotine choke, this time in the standing position, just over a minute into the bout for the win.

Alistair served notice that he would not be an easy target in the tournament and with his growing submission skills, would be one of the most well-rounded fighters heading into Final Conflict 2005. In the semi-finals Overeem would run headlong into the eventual tournament winner, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and in a fight where Alistair’s inconsistency again did not allow him to properly apply himself, he fell to a TKO stoppage taking punishment on the ground.

Now Overeem must once again prove himself as he hopes to become a possible participant in Pride’s 2005 Open Weight GP and once and for all become a solid contender. To do so he must get past one of the hottest heavyweight fighters around in Sergei Kharitonov, in what could be the show stopping fight of the night against the two most complete fighters at Pride 31.

This fight could be a real pick ‘em type of fight. Both Kharitonov and Overeem are solid standing as well as on the ground. The real test could be conditioning as both are normally high-output fighters and unless one can finish the other early in the fight, it could be a war of attrition once they get into the second and third rounds. Another factor could also be the height and reach advantage of Alistair. Kharitonov must reach up and lunge to get to Overeem, plus he must work to get inside where his shots will be effective, as we saw in the latest Liddell/Couture fight, if you reach, you’re open to counter striking, which is something Overeem is very good at.

The winner of this fight will undoubtedly become a favorite to win the Open Weight GP should they be invited. And with the participation of Pride Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko in doubt, this could be a golden opportunity for either Sergei or Alistair to gain a lot of ground with the MMA community and become major players in the title picture.

Regardless of who wins the fight at Pride 31 between Sergei Kharitonov and Alistair Overeem, there is an equal amount of pressure on both fighters to step up and demonstrate they can be the fighters they have shown themselves to be in the past. If either one can live up to previous achievements then we might just be seeing the beginning of the next dominant fighter to emerge in Pride, the likes of which can ultimately achieve championship glory.