UFC 230: Derrick Lewis can provide UFC a crossover heavyweight champion it desperately needs

It’s fair to question entering Saturday’s UFC 230 card in New York whether it was the Hail Mary right hand Derrick Lewis landed four weeks ago or his colorful post-fight interview that was most responsible for him securing a last-minute title shot against Daniel Cormier. 

It was the latter, of course — highlighted by Lewis’ unforgettable line about the temperature of his genitals at UFC 229 in October — which helped the burly heavyweight nearly double his Instagram followers and become the overnight sensation of casual fans getting their first taste of “The Black Beast.” 

Yet the right hand he used to remove Alexander Volkov of his senses in the closing seconds of a fight Lewis (21-5, 1 NC) had lost nearly every second of certainly didn’t hurt his chances, even if the Houston resident enters Saturday as a large underdog who is only being led to the slaughter because Cormier (21-1, 1 NC) views him as an overweight lamb whose gas tank might be easily drained. 

The 39-year-old Cormier, who is risking an impeccable exit strategy of Brock Lesnar and a possibly trilogy with Jon Jones for a shot at headlining Madison Square Garden for big money, more or less said so during the promo he cut at Wednesday’s open workout. 

“There are levels to this game. I am the highest level, I am the A-standard. I am what mixed martial arts is made of,” Cormier said. “Derrick Lewis has a puncher’s chance of beating me. If you have a puncher’s chance to beat Daniel Cormier, then you have no chance at all.”

In the short (and obnoxiously transient) history of the UFC’s heavyweight championship, the promotion’s most prestigious title has produced a handful of distinctive archetypes of those who have held it. There was the comic-book monster (Lesnar), the giant (Tim Sylvia), the quiet conquerer (Cain Velasquez) and the blue-collar patriot (Randy Couture). 

But there has never been a heavyweight champion in UFC history quite like Lewis, who is mixed martial arts’ answer to a self-deprecating clown prince with a fighting style that’s almost as reckless and raw as the top-of-the-dome responses that have made his post-fight interviews destination viewing. 

In theory, champions like Cormier have the best shot at coming off as relatable to the hard-working, Middle American core that forms as the foundation of UFC’s fan base. Yet the difference between him and Lewis is that DC presents the type of positive characteristics that the average joe aims to be like but never quite reaches. Lewis, on the other hand, acts publicly in a way that most people actually are behind the scenes — wars, scars and character flaws be damned. 

Should the 33-year-old Lewis prove able to shock the world, he would provide UFC with a must-see champion as uniquely designed for crossover stardom as anyone who has worn the title. Only Lewis doesn’t rely on insincere trash talk, chiseled abs or an aura of invincibility to market himself. He’s too busy being himself by balancing refreshing honesty with well-timed wit. 

If you’re looking to collect a virtual greatest hits of his sound, Lewis has plenty and admits he does so as a defense mechanism for his bitter dislike to be interviewed thanks to the constant regurgitation of the same questions. Like the deviant who can’t help but spike the punch at a dry party, Lewis has provided a variety of gold including “my balls was hot,” “where Ronda Rousey fine ass at” and stories — both made up and disturbingly true — about his bathroom habits, sexual exploits at home and time spent golfing with President Donald Trump. 

Despite a short training camp that will see Lewis enter UFC 230 on a 28-day turnaround from his win over Volkov, he has yet to disappoint in terms of his ability to fill notebooks at each press stop:

On whether Cormier’s right hand injury will be an issue: “I go in every fight with a bad back, over weight and damn near diabetic. It doesn’t matter to me.”

How he celebrated his UFC 229 win: “We drank a little bit and snorted a few lines to help my weight stay down. Other than that, we was good.”

What it would mean to him to be heavyweight champion: “It wouldn’t be anything too special. I’m happy that I’m going out there and getting paid.”

On fighting at MSG: “No, [it doesn’t mean anything special,] not at all. I don’t care if I’m fighting in my backyard or I’m fighting in Madison Square Garden. To me, it’s just a fight and I’m going out to fight there anyways.”

On the hardest he has ever been hit: “I think it’s the right hand my wife landed on me three years ago. She hits hard, man.”

Whether it matters if Cormier, or anyone else, respects him: “I don’t care if people don’t respect me because I’m not a mixed martial artist. I don’t respect the sport and train like a mixed martial artist. I’m just a brawler.”

Lewis has been at this authentic best of late, even if it means openly admitting he doesn’t deserve the title shot (despite winning nine of his last 10 fights) or revealing that he isn’t quite ready to go the five-round title distance. 

“There are a lot of guys in this division who probably deserve this shot more than [me] getting it,” Lewis said. “I probably don’t deserve the shot. Stipe [Miocic] deserved to get it [more].

“I feel like [Cormier’s] game plan is going to try to come in there and get me tired. He believes that I don’t have a gas tank to last 20 minutes and shit, I don’t blame him.”

Whether or not he’s being completely truthful or hedging a bit to plant seeds, Lewis said he doesn’t typically work out for more than 30 minutes a day and has “never given myself 100 percent chance” as a real mixed martial artist.

“I don’t stay in the gym like everyone else does or all of my opponents,” Lewis said. “It’s pretty obvious like after the fight I’m laying on the floor all tired and ready to go see some McDonald’s somewhere. But this training camp, I’ve been training for so long and drinking more water than I have needed to and just taking it more serious. It’s not going to be no excuses from myself — win, lose or draw you will see my all. 

“I believe that he’s thinking it’s going to be an easy fight for himself, but go ahead and think that. I think it’s just amazing that I have been able to get this far with the type of training I do for each fight.”

While Cormier agrees with oddsmakers that he’s deserving as a heavy favorite (and has been fairly transparent in saying he turned down a Miocic rematch in favor of Lewis), he isn’t willing to accept Lewis’ shtick at face value and instead presented him as more of a wily fox. 

“Don’t think that Derrick Lewis is some kind of ignorant guy,” Cormier said. “This is a guy who went to jail as a youth and when you go to prison as a kid, especially a young black kid, a lot of people give up on you. In that cell, you tell yourself a lot of things about how you are going to change and the vast majority of the guy that do say those things, they never change. They go back and say the same thing. 

“Derrick Lewis didn’t, he became a millionaire and is fighting for the heavyweight championship in the world. There is something different about him. So let him try to trick you guys but play close attention to who he really is. He’s a smart guy and he ain’t tricking me. “

Regardless of where the truth lies on Lewis, one thing for certain is that he’ll retain a shot at winning on Saturday until the final horn inside the Octagon. He’ll also never give up, despite how bad the fight may go for him. 

While it’s clear that a Lewis victory would be a sound blow to the best-laid financial plans for both UFC and Cormier moving forward, there’s a quality to Lewis that’s so refreshing that it’s hard not to cheer for an upset, just to see what might happen next. 

Lewis is very much antithesis of the typical UFC star and if the recent string of headlines are any indication, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

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