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Derrick Lewis: The best of the worst

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Derrick Lewis doesn’t fight in the strongest division, and he doesn’t fight particularly well—but he’s got balls. And they’re very warm.

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UFC Fight Night: Lewis v Oleinik Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

UPDATE: Blaydes vs. Lewis has been cancelled due to Blaydes testing positive for COVID-19, is is presumed Anthony Smith vs Devin Clark will be elevated from the Co-Main and become the new headliner for the event.

First, there are a few things you need to know about Derrick Lewis. These are the characteristics that make him one of the best heavyweights in the world, and it’s best you reckon with them up front because Derrick Lewis seems like a decent man, and I am about to say a lot of other things about him that aren’t half as flattering.

Derrick Lewis is a very big, very strong man. That’s number one. He’s basically the Hulk, and if you don’t believe me, you should watch any one of the many fights in which he repeatedly escapes a bad position on the ground by simply… standing up. Derrick Lewis is so big and so strong that he defies the very first rule of MMA: “You have to know how to grapple, at least a little bit.” But that’s where the second thing comes in; because Lewis does know how to grapple—more and more as time goes on, in fact. I suspect he’s being coached somehow.

Lewis is particularly dangerous from top position, and that’s because—second-to-last thing—he is possibly the hardest puncher on the planet. Lewis is right up there with Francis Ngannou (whom Lewis beat in one of the worst fights of all time) in terms of sheer, skull-splitting power, which does not diminish no matter how devastatingly tired he is. And this is a man who gets powerfully tired.

The last thing you need to know about Derrick Lewis, and this is really the glue holding the whole beautiful mess together—is that he is a person of exceptional courage.

So here’s the rest of it. I’m now going to describe to you a good 60 percent of Lewis’ fights with only a single sentence. It goes like this: Lewis flails around, seemingly having no plan, gets hurt and, in a panic, hurts the opponent even worse, convincing him to spend the rest of the fight trying to outwrestle the living equivalent of one of those Easter Island statues. That synopsis doesn’t include the fight’s ending, because the ending is always the same: the opponent gets tired and then Lewis does terrible things to his body.

Now the sharper among you may have noticed that this scenario describes a series of comical errors made by both Lewis and his opponent. And if you’re so clever, you may have followed that keen observation to its logical conclusion. Even now, I suppose, you’re putting it together, pondering aloud: “If half of Derrick Lewis’ fights play out in this fashion... and he’s ranked number four in the UFC... then the UFC’s heavyweight division must not be very good.”

And you’re so nearly right!

The truth, of course, is that almost all heavyweights are not very good, not just in the UFC but around the world. This is a division ruled by a handful of middle-aged men too clever to die, and otherwise populated by several hundred versions of that guy you love seeing every now and then at the bar but would never, ever invite into your home.

If you’re now thinking to yourself, “But Hoagie Dave isn’t even slightly athletic...” then congratulations, you’re on the right track again! Athletes of gargantuan stature are a rare thing in this world, and most of those in existence are currently pursuing careers in sports that pay far better than MMA, like football, basketball, or mud wrestling. No, giant athletes aren’t any more common in this game than they are in your local dive. From Vladivostok to Vegas, it’s Hoagie Daves all the way down.

Derrick Lewis crushes these men with only slightly less difficulty than he probably experiences crushing an actual hoagie—that is assuming that every hoagie he eats nearly kills him. Because while Lewis is pretty damn athletic for a man of his size, he is not in great shape. On his worst days, the Black Beast has about two minutes worth of gas in the tank; on his best days, his back and knees are loose enough that he can actually move around a little. Injuries and poor fitness—each obviously connected to the other—have plagued Lewis throughout his career, long hindering his development as a fighter.

Yet Lewis has developed—often in very simple ways that nonetheless prove comically effective, because it’s heavyweight. Earlier in his UFC career, for example, Lewis used to panic when his opponents took him down. Instead of letting these foolish mortals crash against his bulk like a succession of impotent waves trying to take down a cliff, Lewis would exhaust himself in a desperate, rushed struggle to stand back up. Certain fighters would invest heavily in their conditioning after one or two experiences like that, but for Derrick Lewis, the adaptation took place entirely on the mental plane. Nowadays, he is not only harder to take down, but never panics when it does happen. Watch Lewis fighting from his back, and you will see him close his eyes, a deep calm washing over his face, and enter something like a meditative state until the opportunity to stand presents itself. Remarkably, this strategy works almost every time, because the assumption at its core is both scientifically and philosophically true: it doesn’t matter if you take Derrick Lewis down for four rounds straight if he still knocks you out in the fifth.

Of course, this unearthly peace is nowhere in sight whenever Derrick ends up in trouble on the feet. When Travis Browne hurt him with strikes to the body, Lewis folded over like a cheap lawn chair and dropped both arms to cover his belly, looking like King Hippo when one of Little Mac’s fists finds his appendectomy scar. It was a wonder his entire head didn’t start blinking red and white, screaming “FINISH ME.”

But that’s where Derrick Lewis’s fourth and most vital trait comes in.

Lewis doesn’t survive these treacherous moments with slick defense, or any kind of defense, for that matter. He doesn’t have the kind of chin you need to survive these kinds of beatings in the division where literally everyone hits hard enough to knock a man out; indeed he has been knocked out four times. Sometimes, he isn’t even bigger than the man attacking him—he wasn’t bigger than Travis Browne, nor Alexander Volkov. The power is always there, of course, but what does that matter

Derrick Lewis is simply one brave dude. You’ve probably heard the stories about Lewis confronting armed KKK members. Perhaps you’ve also heard the one about Lewis winning a street fight against 10 assailants. But all the evidence you need for Lewis’ tremendous courage is right there in the Octagon. The man has made an entire career of remarkable comebacks, carving his way to the top of the heavyweight division with nothing more than a cool attitude—with a small assist from inhuman, earth-shattering power. That helps, too.

Would this be enough in any other division? The answer is a resounding no, but the Black Beast doesn’t fight in those divisions. At heavyweight, only the very best in the world can beat him. This weekend, Lewis has been tasked with asking the question: is Curtis Blaydes one of the very best in the world?

Blaydes is undeniably heavyweight’s best wrestler now that Daniel Cormier is retired. He will not struggle to take Lewis down the way so many heavyweights have—not at first. The thing about Derrick Lewis is that he simply refuses to be put away. You have to get rid of him yourself, and the question of whether or not Blaydes can do that remains an open one.

And that’s all Derrick Lewis needs: to be there, round after round, with those two sledgehammers dangling from his shoulders. If he’s tired, Blaydes will be too. And then comes the kind of opportunity Lewis seizes again and again.

Would it work at lightweight? Who cares? So what if heavyweight is a weak division. If it were better, we wouldn’t have Derrick Lewis.


For more on Blaydes vs Lewis, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast for the finer points of face-punching.