‘When he hits you, it’s different’: What it’s like facing Derrick Lewis

Editor’s note: This story originally was published in August, ahead of Derrick Lewis’s interim title bout with Ciryl Gane. Lewis lost that one and is back this Saturday, facing Jailton Almeida at UFC Fight Night. (Prelims start at 6 p.m. ET, main card at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN+)

It was Oct. 6, 2018, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Derrick Lewis was losing badly, on the verge of one of the worst losses of his career.

Six-foot-7 Russian heavyweight Alexander Volkov was seconds away from victory. To add insult to dominance, Volkov was talking trash midfight. When Lewis’ cornermen were telling him to “go” and throw more punches, Volkov would mock them, saying, “Go, Derrick! Go!” while he landed shots of his own.

But with 11 seconds left in the fifth round, Lewis had the final word. He walked Volkov down and landed a sizzling left-jab, overhand-right combination. Volkov’s head snapped back, and he fell to the canvas. Lewis finished with punches on the ground as the referee stopped the fight. Lewis, who calls himself “The Black Beast,” had pulled out another come-from-behind victory.

“[Volkov] was taunting me that whole fight,” Lewis told ESPN. “He was trying to taunt my coaches. Once I hit him, and the way I did it and everything, it was just, like, perfect.

“I finally woke up at the end of the fight. I turned into Beast mode, or whatever, at the end of the fight and decided, ‘OK, I want this fight over with.’ And I ended up ending the fight.”

With that win, Lewis earned the first title shot of his career, which he lost to Daniel Cormier at UFC 230 in November 2018. Then, in August, Lewis lost to the up-and-coming Ciryl Gane at UFC 265 in a fight for an interim title. That latter fight was in Lewis’ adopted hometown of Houston on a card built around Lewis, which shows his evolution not only as a fighter but also as a popular figure in mixed martial arts.

Along the way, Lewis has developed a loyal following with his self-deprecating humor and an ability to rally from imminent defeat to knock foes unconscious. Lewis has four knockouts in the third round or later, and he has three KOs when having a negative strike differential. His 12 KOs/TKOs are tied with Vitor Belfort and Matt Brown for the most in UFC history, and he is the all-time leader for knockouts in UFC heavyweight history.

“I like to knock people out,” Lewis said. “I get a high off of it. It’s a great feeling. … It’s like the best feeling in the world.”

Here is how some past opponents describe how Lewis’ punches feel and how surprised they are that a 6-foot-3, 260-pound man can be so agile and keep his power until the very end of a fight.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity

Daniel Cormier, former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion

Beat Lewis via second-round submission at UFC 230 on Nov. 3, 2018

Derrick is very powerful, obviously, in all regards. He hasn’t had the success of a guy like Jon Jones or Conor McGregor, but he’s one of those guys who is absolutely free in there. He has no fear. He just wants to fight, loves fighting. He’s tremendously talented. I think that’s one of those things people miss about Derrick Lewis — how athletically gifted he is. You don’t get to do some of the things Derrick Lewis does and not have elite-level athleticism. There are times when he does things and I’m like, “Wow, this big dude can put this together.” It’s tremendous.

When he hits you, it’s different. I was holding his leg up, and he was punching me, and I had a black eye for three days. That’s the power that he has. A guy with his leg up in the air, about to get taken down, and he’s just throwing punches defensively because I’m holding him in that position. When he was punching me, I was like, “Wow, this dude hits really hard.” But it’s not even just the punches. I think that’s what’s missing in the whole thing. People think Derrick Lewis just punches hard, but he did a jumping kick and it hit my arm, and I had knots on my arm. It’s everything he does. He’s a very big, dense guy.

He’s one of those guys with that demeanor like, “Oh, I’m kind of just here.” You kind of get lost in the jokes and him messing around when the reality is, he’s a high-level mixed martial artist. I think his fight against Curtis Blaydes showed that after I beat him in the fashion I did; he went back to work. Because his wrestling is better now. Curtis is a good wrestler. We’ve seen Curtis ground everybody, but he was not able to take Derrick down. And even when he did get takedowns, he wasn’t able to hold him down. He did a good job of getting back up when he was taken down.

I think at this point it’s time to stop considering Derrick Lewis as just a brawler. That knockout of Blaydes was him backing up. He was on his heels when he did that. That’s next-level power — when a guy can do that backing up, time that and land the shot that he did to finish Curtis Blaydes. I couldn’t believe it. Not only did he knock him out, he f—ed him up bad. He slept him. Let’s not let that aw-shucks attitude trick you. This guy is the real deal. Gane has to be on his game or he’s going to beat him.

Tony Johnson, ACA heavyweight champion

Beat Lewis via unanimous decision at Bellator 46 on June 25, 2011

Derrick is super f—ing strong, and he hits so damn hard. Every time he hit me, you could hear it. It sounded like frickin’ bricks hitting each other. After that fight, I swear I was like a newborn. I had like soft spots on my head. I didn’t train like I needed to for that fight, and he taught me a valuable lesson: Never underestimate anybody.

I think it was the third round. I had his leg. I was trying to take Derrick down. I had the single leg, and he got some kind of angle and hammerfisted me one time. And I felt that. The second time, I felt light-headed. The third time, I was like, “Oh s—, I can’t stay here any longer.” The dude has power throughout the whole fight. That’s why he’s so dangerous. He’s never out of it. I got cracked with his full punch, too. It didn’t feel great. I looked like Quasimodo after that fight in my face.

I’ve been hit by him and Francis Ngannou. I don’t know which one hits harder, Francis or Derrick, but they both hit like frickin’ Mack trucks. I’ve been hit by Deontay Wilder. I’ve been hit by the hardest hitters in the sport. Deontay tops everyone, but it’s close between Francis and Derrick.

Derrick, he don’t give a s— about takedowns or kicking you. He wants to knock your head off. He sits down on his punches a little more. Derrick moves real well for a heavyweight, too. He’ll surprise you. You know he’s working because he stopped Curtis Blaydes’ takedowns. He’s going to be a problem.

Justin Frazier, Ultimate Fighter 28 participant

Lost to Lewis via first-round TKO at RFA 2 on March 30, 2012

I felt like I was doing really good, but Derrick has a way of kind of turning around and wrecking people really fast. I started out really strong, put him in a bad position and took his back. I was going for a rear-naked choke. And dude just kind of stood up with me on his back like I wasn’t there. His strength was crazy. He just kind of manhandled me off to the side. We started trading — I knew that was a bad idea. I knew not to get myself against the cage, but he didn’t give me any other choice. Dude hits hard. I felt like the fact I didn’t go to sleep was a testament to my chin, because he’s put some people away.

He’s explosive, too. I think he kind of sandbags it. I came out and I threw this kind of setup overhand and I cracked him. And the second I hit him, I went and got him down and got full mount. I felt really comfortable eight seconds into the round being on top. But I couldn’t do anything with him once I got him there. He was so strong. He just kind of climbed back up. When he explodes, he explodes. He could have been a phenomenal defensive end or something in the NFL.

Roy Nelson, UFC and Bellator veteran

Lost to Lewis via split decision at UFC Fight Night: dos Anjos vs. Alvarez on July 7, 2016

He just doesn’t give up. If you’re going to beat him, you’ve got to finish him. You’re not going to be able to skate by. For me, I did everything. I lost by split decision because he just kept on getting up, getting up, getting up, getting up.

I think the best example is the Alexander Volkov fight. Volkov beat Derrick from one end of the ring to the other end of the ring for three frickin’ rounds. If Volkov would have just ran for the last minute like everyone else does when they’re fighting a puncher, then Volkov would have won. But he didn’t, and Derrick knocked him out.

When Derrick fought Travis Browne, Travis Browne was throwing body kicks. I don’t know if Derrick was hurt or not, but he was acting like he was. And Travis Browne started throwing more kicks. Derrick baited him to walk into a right hand. I think Derrick grabbed his side like, “Oh, that hurt.” But I don’t think it really hurt.

Rakim Cleveland, PFL veteran

Lost to Lewis twice — at Worldwide Gladiator on Nov. 12, 2010 (submission), and Legacy FC 9 on Dec. 16, 2011 (TKO)

The difference between Derrick and other guys is he always has power. It doesn’t matter if he’s tired or he’s fresh. It stays the same, no matter what. Some guys start off really strong and throw really hard. His power just stays constant. It’s not something that comes out strong in the beginning and then disappears. Not everybody has it.

Viktor Pesta, UFC veteran

Lost to Lewis via third-round TKO at UFC 192 on Oct. 3, 2015

What is so unique is he looks kind of sloppy. But then he always comes back and pulls off that great upset, which could be called luck or something — but he’s doing it all the time. Obviously, it’s not luck. It’s just something … I don’t really understand how he’s doing it — if it’s strategy or if he’s kind of like winging it and pulls it off. It is really impressive. I feel like whenever people ask me, what’s my prediction for his fight; who is going to win; should I bet on him — I can never tell. He’s so hard to bet on or bet against.

You’d expect Lewis to lack cardio when you look at him. That’s what I thought, too. I thought I’d wear him out and finish him in the later rounds. He came out stronger in the later rounds. That’s unique, too. That might be part of his strategy, just kind of chilling and saving his energy. He only uses the energy when he feels like he can get something out of it. He TKO’d me, but it was more like I was so exhausted and he was on top of me. I wasn’t knocked out. He hit me good. He obviously has power, but to me it didn’t feel like something that crazy. I don’t think he has Francis Ngannou kind of power.

“I was holding his leg up, and he was punching me, and I had a black eye for three days.”

Daniel Cormier

After the first round, I felt really confident. I felt like he’s got nothing on me. It was like midway through the second round when I was starting to get tired. He’s so much heavier, and to keep wrestling him and taking him down was exhausting. By the end of the second round, he just kept getting up. I went for a desperate takedown, and it wasn’t very well done. I got stuck on the bottom. I thought I’d just stay here and hang out until the end of the round. There were 20 seconds left or something. He just beat me up so badly that it was almost stopped at the end of that round.

Derrick has a lot of tactics, even though he pretends like he doesn’t. He’s a self-proclaimed brawler. I think he’s a smart fighter, and those comebacks are really well-thought-out. I don’t think they’re swings and try to hit something. He wants an opponent to feel comfortable, and then he strikes hard.

Ilir Latifi, UFC veteran

Lost to Lewis via unanimous decision at UFC 247 on Feb. 8, 2020

I think Derrick Lewis is a fighter who is mostly known for his knockout power, but people underestimate his skills and tactics. He is a fighter who can ride out the storm and come and finish the fight with one punch, but also he’s very athletic for his size. He threw a switch-kick and flying knees against me — all kinds of crazy stuff.

I was surprised over his speed and athleticism, how well he moved. That was impressive.

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