‘It’s never enough’: Derrick Lewis on family drama, love from fans and fighting near 40

It would be lazy to simplify Derrick Lewis‘ journey to the UFC as the clichéd tale of the Black kid who had to fight his way out of the impoverished confines of New Orleans to escape the fate of incarceration or an early grave. That story is told far too often when it comes to Black athletes. The success story that isn’t told about Black athletes enough is the one where they overcome a feeling of guilt for their accomplishments when the people around them act like they are owed something.

“I think I made it,” Lewis said uneasily. “There is a lot of stuff going on in my personal life that people don’t know about, but I am very comfortable with my life right now. I’m fortunate that my life turned out this way after all that I’ve been through.”

He was speaking a little over a week away from competing in his 41st fight as a mixed martial artist. And when the lights go down Saturday at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and Houston rap legend Fat Pat’s song “Tops Drop” pulsates through the arena, one of the UFC’s biggest cult heroes will make his way to the Octagon to a rousing ovation.

Everyone loves “The Black Beast,” right?

“I love my fans, but there are a lot of haters out there,” said Lewis (27-12, 18-10 UFC), among the most beloved figures in the UFC with over 2.2 million followers on Instagram. His main event bout Saturday against Rodrigo Nascimento on UFC Fight Night (ESPN+, 7 p.m. E.T.) will be the second fight of an eight-fight deal he inked with the UFC in 2023. Never mind that he has gone 2-5 in his past seven fights and has never tasted championship gold. The combination of earth-rattling knockout power and extraordinarily dry humor has turned him into a fan favorite.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that he’s a family favorite these days.

“The love from fans feels good, but the hate comes from my family,” Lewis, 39, revealed with a heavy sigh. For all that he has overcome and his success, Lewis has found that the most difficult people to please are those who share his bloodline. “People who don’t know anything about me and just see me on TV love me more and show more support than my own family. That hurts me.”

Of all the things he has been through in his life to get to this point — witnessing drug use and domestic abuse as a child growing up in New Orleans, along with serving prison time in Houston — the thing that potentially could have the most crippling effect on his happiness is the people who he pledged his life to support.

“I grew up wanting to take care of my family, and not having that support really hurts me the most,” he said. “They say I’ve changed because of the money, but I’m the same guy. I’m just trying to be smart with my money because none of them are helping me fight to make it.”

This cuts deeper than any loss that he has had in the Octagon.

But, like most things, he shrugs it off and focuses on the task at hand.

“I don’t even know his name,” says Lewis about who he’s fighting this weekend. “But I know it starts with an ‘R.'”

He’s not trying to be funny. He’s just being honest about how little he knows about Rodrigo Nascimento. Whoever he is, it doesn’t matter to Lewis. He has one job: Knock him out. He has been pretty good at it thus far. His 14 knockouts are the most in UFC history, coming courtesy of his “Swangin’ and Bangin'” style, a reference to Houston’s hip-hop and car culture scene. He’s not interested in wrestling or grappling, just punching opponents as hard as he can for as long as they can take it. And once they lose consciousness, he has something to say.

Good luck figuring out what it might be about. His postfight dialogue has ranged from having to use the bathroom to explaining why he immediately discarded his fight shorts after a win. When his postfight antics are uploaded to YouTube, the views are through the roof. His infamous “my balls was hot” quote after knocking out Alexander Volkov at UFC 229 has over 5 million views.

It’s why many believe the UFC signed Lewis to an extension last year despite him having a losing record since 2021.

“Derrick Lewis is an anomaly,” says Mike Jackson, a longtime friend of Lewis who has watched his rise from the amateurs to the pro ranks. The two met back in 2010 at the Silverback Fight Club in Houston. Jackson, best known for his 2018 UFC fight with WWE’s CM Punk when the pro wrestler tried his hand at MMA, has had a ringside seat for Lewis’ maturation as a fighter and a man.

“Fighting is entertainment, and he has the whole package,” Jackson said. “You know every time he steps into the Octagon there is a chance that he will bang you out, and when he’s on the microphone, that’s not a character. That’s genuine and authentically him.”

That’s why almost everyone loves him. And yet, Lewis considered retiring from fighting in 2017.

After a knockout loss to Mark Hunt that June, Lewis, then 32, announced that he was retiring from mixed martial arts. It felt abrupt to those closest to him, considering that he was barely scratching the surface of his fighting ability.

“Derrick made it to the UFC with raw ability,” Jackson recalled. “He made it this far with the basic settings, and then we started seeing the growth over time. He didn’t have any real jiu-jitsu. If he was taken down in a fight, his coach would say, ‘OK, Derrick. Get up!’ And with another grown man on him, he would just get up. He’s been able to do that on instinct. Now he’s adding the ground game. He realized that if he applied himself to get better, the wins would come easier for him.”

Lewis reconsidered retirement after just a few months and returned to the Octagon the following year. At that point, fans saw some deliberate improvement in both his skill set and physique.

“I had a goal [to retire before 35] when I first started fighting,” Lewis said of his brief retirement. “But I believe everything happens for a reason. In 2017 I said I was going to retire and did for a little bit. But I would have never had two title shots. If I retired, I wouldn’t have experienced any of that or the money that I’m making now.”

And he has made plenty of money since then.

His eight Performance of the Night bonuses rank second in UFC heavyweight history. Since returning from retirement, Lewis has challenged for both the heavyweight and interim heavyweight titles and knocked off the likes of Francis Ngannou, Curtis Blaydes and Alexander Volkov along the way. His 28 UFC heavyweight fights and 18 wins rank second all time.

But when you tell him about his accolades, he shrugs it off.

“I don’t really care about all of that,” he said. “I wouldn’t even know if they didn’t show it on TV.”

What he cares about is taking care of his wife and three kids, who are more concerned about the man that he has become than the fighter who obliterates opposition and then puts his humor on display.

“They don’t watch my fights,” he said of his children. “I’m cringe to my kids, no matter what I say or do. I go to my kids’ school, and their friends are saying, ‘My balls hot.'”

He laughs at the idea of preteens reciting his off-the-wall postfight interview quips in school, because he has always aimed to be an influence — just not in this way.

“But then the teachers are saying it, too!” he said, shaking his head. “My kids are really embarrassed about me. Whenever I’m in the Octagon and say that crazy stuff, I don’t think about it. That’s in the heat of the moment. I don’t think about if my kids or wife will see it.”

Other than watching him fight or entertain afterward, you might have caught Lewis rescuing people from floodwaters caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. It’s something else he waves off because he doesn’t want to be recognized for things he believes people are supposed to do.

Unfortunately, the things he would like to be recognized for aren’t being received.

“[My family] wants me to keep giving, but they aren’t trying to help themselves,” he said. “I gave them cars and helped with their houses. They won’t even get the oil changed on the cars I bought. They want me to pay the car note, the house note and pay their bills. It’s never enough.”

It’s obvious that this is a troubling subject to Lewis and the wound of not having his family’s support is still fresh.

“I almost think that our relationship would be much better if I wasn’t successful,” he said. “I went through the same struggles as they did. They know everything about me. They knew how bad I wanted to be a fighter, and none of them ever came to my local fights. I had no support. They wouldn’t even give me a ride to the gym. I’ve been doing this since 2009, and none of them have ever been to any of my fights.

“And now I’m the bad guy.”

He’s OK with being the bad guy to family members these days. He refuses to allow people to take his joy away, no matter who they are.

“He’s not a people pleaser,” Jackson said. “He has a lot of pressure to show out for his city, and he’s trying to take care of people without letting them down. But there really isn’t anything misunderstood about him. He is who he is, and what you see is what you get.”

Lewis has put childhood hardships in the rearview mirror. But as he approaches age 40, is he really going to fight seven more times to finish his latest UFC contract signed back in August?

“The way this money is coming in now? I sure am!” he said with a laugh. “I ain’t trying to be the best fighter in the world. Forget all of that. I don’t care. I’m trying to get that check.”

He’s coy regarding the financial details of his current deal. When asked, a smile slowly stretches across his face. To Jackson, the bigger incentives have led to rededication to the craft.

“He has abs now,” Jackson said. “You know what his motivation is, [his wife and kids], and you know what he aims to do. There is a high chance that you’ll get to see one of those spectacular Derrick Lewis knockouts.”

If the knockouts and interviews are what fans love, Lewis doesn’t have to overextend himself to keep them happy. And as long as the checks keep coming in, we’ll get to hear “Tops Drop” in arenas for at least a couple more years.

“I’ve reached a point in my life that I don’t have to try to please everyone anymore,” Lewis said. “I just focus on my wife, kids and winning fights.”

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