When, in September 2014, Derrick Lewis was dropped and stopped inside 41 seconds by Matt Mitrione, an ex-professional footballer, it seemed unlikely he’d one day string together six consecutive UFC wins and be the sixth-ranked heavyweight in the world.
It got worse, too. Shawn Jordan, the following year, kicked and punched Lewis to the deck, halting him inside two rounds, and now we were sure of it. Now we were sure he wasn’t the heavyweight to solve our problems.
Yet, such is the unpredictable nature of the heavyweight division, and such is the rate of Lewis’ improvements and the power in his fists, we’ve been forced to re-evaluate. Days from a fight against fellow banger Mark Hunt at UFC Fight Night 110 in New Zealand, Lewis isn’t just back in the game, he’s arguably a win or two away from fighting for the UFC heavyweight championship.
Not that ‘The Back Beast’ gives a damn.
“I don’t care about the belt,” Lewis said ahead of Saturday’s (June 10) fight. “The reason why I want to fight for the belt is because the champion’s the guy who’s making all the money right now. So, if I never fight for the belt, I never get it.
“I’m not doing it for the top ten and I’m not trying to be the best fighter in the world. I’m not trying to be the prettiest fighting style out there. It ain’t nothing like that. I’m just doing it for the money and to take care of my family. That’s about it.”
It’s this honesty that fans find endearing. It’s also this honesty that has seen Lewis creep up on us and suddenly emerge near the top of the heavyweight pyramid. The man from New Orleans, you see, isn’t the type to talk himself up, nor talk title shots. A simple modus operandi, he just gets in there and fights. Sometimes it goes wrong, as was the case with Mitrione and Jordan, but most of the time it goes right. This means Lewis wins; typically, by eye-catching knockout. There has been one decision in his six-win run – against Roy Nelson in 2016 – but, other than that, he’s finishing fights inside the distance and making a statement each and every time he does so. His last fight, a second-round knockout of six-foot-seven Travis Browne, shouted loudest. It was the performance that transformed Lewis from a heavyweight on a good run of form to a heavyweight possibly in the title mix.
To get there, though, to strike the jackpot, Lewis must keep winning. He must also somehow beat Mark Hunt at his own game this weekend; one thing chopping down heavyweights who cower when your punches so much as glance their face, another thing standing in the pocket and attempting to outlast a former K-1 champion like Hunt.
“It’s one of the fights I wanted, because I just knew Mark is going to come out and bang,” Lewis said. “He’s not going to try to hold me. He’s not going to try to run from me or anything like that. He’s just going to come forward. Coming forward, like he does, is going to make it an entertaining fight.”
Lewis, 18-4 (1 NC), is the sort of fighter who will tell you he has just as much chance of being knocked out by his opponent as he does of them knocking them out. A realist, he has experienced enough already in his seven-year MMA career to know this is the truth. It’s what keeps him grounded. It’s what keeps his expression deadpan and his answers to questions tongue-in-cheek. It’s also what makes him dangerous on fight night. Fearless, Derrick Lewis is, in the eyes of the men he fights, the worst kind of heavyweight. Derrick Lewis is a heavyweight not afraid to lose. And you know what that means. It means he’s free. It means he’ll take risks, let his hands go and look to finish.
“I stack up right along with everyone else,” said the 32-year-old. “I have a puncher’s chance, just like everyone else does. I’m excited and I’m happy I’m on this roll – this six-fight winning streak – and I just want to fight all the entertaining fighters. Nobody that wants to run and make a fight boring. I just want entertaining fights.”
Good news, Derrick; on Saturday, you’ve got one.