There is something magical about the flash-knockout artist.
One moment, you are down three rounds in a three round fight, with no hope of victory in sight and the clock ticking away. The next you are standing over your stunned opponent, and the ref is raising your hand and Bruce Buffer is saying your name, and everyone is wondering “what the fuck just happened?”
Derrick Lewis has done what should be impossible. Using a skill-set that would have been outdated in the early 2000’s, the Louisiana native has Hail-Mary-ed his way to Heavyweight title contention, wincing and gasping for breath the whole time. Again and again, he has put away taller, fitter, and more technically adept opponents; like Alexander “Drago” Volkov, or the formidable Travis “Hapa” Brown, a 6’7 Hawaiian who looks like he could answer a casting call for the role of “Terrifying Henchman.” In an era of MMA dominated by the arrival of the super athlete, Lewis is a throwback to the era of back-alley tough guys.
Lewis’s appeal is not limited to his seemingly miraculous ability to overcome a lack of technique using pure gumption and God-given power. The guy is hilarious. The stocky black fighter seems built, not for the silver screen, but for grainy Instagram video and internet memes. He speaks in rumbling, ghetto witticisms that hint at a highly developed sense of irony hiding behind his clownish persona. Pudgy around the stomach and bald with fading tattoos, Lewis looks more like an aging bouncer than a heavyweight title contender. Yet here he is.
In the last 30 years, the technical arsenal of MMA fighters has wildly expanded. From the early days of the Don Fryes and Tank Abbots, who combined rudimentary boxing with elementary school wrestling takedowns, the modern MMA fighter trains an assortment of techniques drawn from all over the world. Spinning hook kicks from Karate, and Imanari rolls from Sambo fused with Thai Boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and countless other arts.
Fuck all that, says Lewis. His weapons are that of a bar brawler, but his ability to land the over-hand right, against opponents who on paper should roll through him, suggests some hidden genius. If there is some subtle art to his footwork, by which he draws in his opponent and then intercepts them with that wrecking-ball of an overhand right, it is invisible to me. Clearly though, there is a method to the seeming madness of his shambolic fighting style.
Fresh out of a three-year stint in Texas’s notorious Sugarland prison, a young Lewis had been taken under the wing of boxing great George Foreman, who must have seen some premonition of the miraculous power that Lewis displays again and again in the cage. Foreman had sought to groom Lewis for boxing stardom, perhaps seeing something of himself in the young puncher. He had inundated Lewis with gifts, like cash and a car. But Lewis had eschewed boxing, deciding to pursue a career in MMA after finding success in his debut fight. “MMA is easier than boxing, you don’t have to train as hard in MMA,” he told an interviewer in a recent podcast appearance, explaining his rationale for the career transition.
In the cage, there are three different Derrick Lewises. There is the wheezing, hurt Lewis, wincing from his back pain, the one we saw for the first three rounds of the Volkov fight. Then there is the Derrick Lewis we saw in the last fifteen seconds, suddenly swinging a left hook and then a right with a force you could see through the camera, flooring his opponent and springing on him without a moment of hesitation, fists rising and falling.
It’s hard not to think of some ancient smith-god, like the Norse Thor or Santaria’s Ogun, as he hammers his opponent to the ground and then, the ref pulling them apart and raising his hand, dives into a serpentine yoga pose my old jiu jitsu coach called the judo pushup, sticking his tongue out in the traditional Maori gesture for “I will eat your flesh”. Then there is the third Derrick Lewis, who stands up, tears his shorts off, and then deadpans to Joe Rogan that his “balls was hot” before scoffing at his own performance and saying he needs to do more cardio.
Yet the man’s vulnerabilities are gaping. He has, through remarkable ingenuity and luck, managed to parlay a limited skill-set into success in the cage, but the formula to beat him is obvious. Instead of picking up new tricks, the 33 year old has seemed to narrow his game, abandoning the tentative kicks and defensive wrestling we saw early in his career. He appears to have zero offensive grappling, especially off of his back, and will often lie with his legs open in bottom half guard, hoping his opponent steps into side control so he can muscle his way back to his feet. How long till someone is able to take advantage of these deficiencies?
On Saturday, November 3rd, Lewis will fight Daniel Cormier for the UFC heavyweight championship. To a fan like me, charmed by Lewis’s wit as much as his capacity for separating his opponents from consciousness, it feels like the death knell of Lewis’s bizarre and compelling tear through the heavyweight division. Cormier, a ferociously strong and eternally in shape former Olympic wrestler, is a nightmare matchup for Lewis, who consistently demonstrates a lack of conditioning rarely found in the top echelons of any combat sport, and an almost disdainful ignorance of the basic rules of grappling. UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby seems determined to quash the dreams of Lewis’s fans, and in the same stroke diminish the unlikely yet growing star, in an era where the promotion is in dire need of compelling personalities.
Yet, as always for Lewis, there is a puncher’s chance.