Derrick Lewis: More skilled than you think

Derrick Lewis has long been a fan favorite, both due to his game-changing power as well as his charm and sense of humor. And yet, we rarely ever think of him as a potential champion. This is in spite of the fact that he is about to fight for a UFC title for the second time in his career.

He has been around for a while, and has fought more or less everyone; winning more often than not. We love watching him fight, and he’s clearly good at it. So why don’t we take him more seriously? 

We don’t take him seriously because we get too caught up in what Lewis himself says about MMA. Lewis, for all intents and purposes, is the quintessential prize fighter. Ostensibly, he has no respect for the sport of MMA; rather, he’s just here to make some money and support his family. We hear his words and simply take them at face value, but does it even make sense?

Lewis is surely not lying. He absolutely sees fighting as a job first and foremost, but there is more to it than that. If he was truly indifferent to the sport, he would not have called for a rematch with Roy Nelson right after beating him, nor would he have expressed disappointment in his performance after beating Shamil Abdurakhimov.

Derrick Lewis is in in perhaps the 99th percentile of UFC fighters in terms of career accolades. Is it possible to accomplish what he’s accomplished without taking the sport seriously? If we say no, it sort of feeds into what much of the general populace thinks about MMA: that it’s not really a sport and doesn’t require real skill.

But we know better. We know that’s not true. And yes, athleticism and power (of which Lewis has plenty) certainly plays a role in shortening the learning curve of MMA, but if it were just as simple as being athletic and throwing a hard punch, Greg Hardy would be a contender. He is not. But Lewis is. Lewis has been a fixture atop the UFC heavyweight rankings for years. After beating Alexander Volkov at UFC 229 he had won 9 of his last 10 fights, setting him up to challenge Daniel Cormier for the title at UFC 230.

He lost the fight, but of course there is no shame in losing to Cormier. Since that loss and his ensuing loss to Junior Dos Santos, he has won four of his last five fights and is again in position to challenge for the title. Contrary to what we may believe, and what Lewis himself often plays up, he is not a meme. He’s a legitimate contender.

But how? In my opinion, it boils down to two factors: talent and coachability. Lewis has an abundance of natural talent. After all, how often do you seen a man of his size throwing switch kicks as effortlessly as we have seen him do time and time again? And in spite of having no grappling background, he’s taken down guys with legitimate credentials. In fact, for someone with supposedly zero grappling ability, he has lost by submission just once, and that was to an all-time great in Cormier.

We can make all the memes we want about how funny it looks when Lewis just stands up when his opponent is in a dominant position, often giving up his back in the process. But it doesn’t matter if it works.

The second factor that makes Lewis so dangerous is coachability. Every fighter is unique; what a good coach does is not to try to fit them into a mold but rather, to try to help them become the best fighter they can be with the abilities they have. Derrick Lewis has some very clear strengths and weaknesses; a good coach must factor all of this and try to develop a blueprint for him to win based on it.

But that’s just one side of the equation. The fighter must actually be receptive to this blueprint and implement it effectively, and this is where Derrick Lewis stands out. He does not fight dumb.

You may remember during Adesanya vs. Vettori 2 at UFC 263, between the rounds Rafael Cordeiro kept telling Vettori that Adesanya was winning and that Vettori would have to be more aggressive if he wanted to stand a chance. After the fight, Vettori’s teammate Giga Chikadze said the fight should have been scored in favor of Vettori, to which Vettori commented that Chikadze is “one of the few who understand striking,” essentially implying that legendary striking coach Rafael Cordeiro does not understand striking.

This is the type of behavior we would just never see from Lewis. He fights in a way that maximises his chances of winning, and is very much cognizant of his shortcomings, which is more uncommon than you may think.

In his most recent right, against Curtis Blaydes at UFC Fight Night 185, Lewis had the perfect Lewis performance. Blaydes was dictating the pace of the fight in the first round in spite of not having attempted any serious takedown attempts. But Lewis’ supposed passivity had a purpose to it. He wanted Blaydes to get comfortable; waiting for that inevitable entry from Blaydes, which eventually came in the second round. Blaydes shot for a double leg, and Lewis landed a perfectly timed upper cut that knocked Blaydes unconscious.

There is no wasted movement with Lewis. He waits for an opening, and then seizes the chance when the opportunities present themselves. Lewis is very efficient with his energy usage, which is important for a big guy who puts everything into his punches. And while his physique may not look like it, Lewis is a tremendous athlete. He is surprisingly explosive, which again, fits right into his blueprint for winning. It is not a coincidence that oftentimes, he is losing a fight until he wins it. That’s by design.

If he manages to get the interim belt against Ciryl Gane at UFC 265 and set himself up for a rematch against Francis Ngannou, it will be very interesting to see how things turn out. And as much as I am unapologetically an Ngannou fanboy, I cannot deny that Derrick Lewis becoming the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion would be the best timeline.