On Oct. 6, in a span of five minutes, Derrick Lewis managed to show exactly why he is such a star among ultimate fighting fans.
And, he managed to help his popularity grow.
Time was running out for Lewis, the UFC’s No. 2-ranked heavyweight, in his match against Alexander Volkov that night. Over the contest’s first 14 minutes and 43 seconds, he had been thoroughly beaten. For every significant strike Lewis landed, Volkov connected on approximately three. Defeat seemed inevitable.
And then came the thundering right hand, which landed flush on Volkov’s jaw and sent him crashing to the deck.
Amid gasps and cheers from a sold-out T-Mobile Arena crowd in Las Vegas, Lewis followed up on his perfect strike with some devastating ground-and-pound. Volkov had no answer. Only 11 seconds remained, but referee Herb Dean could not let the action continue.
Derrick Lewis had turned an almost-certain loss into a stunning victory.
But it was what happened next that really endeared Lewis to fans. As he paraded around the octagon in celebration, Lewis removed his trunks — stripping down to his underwear. After Lewis’s hand was raised in victory, perplexed commentator Joe Rogan asked the heavyweight why he’d taken his pants off.
His answer, at least, was direct and matter-of-fact.
Rogan went on to ask the 33-year-old from Houston about his winning right-hand shot. Between deep breaths, though, an exhausted Lewis blew past the question and delivered a non-sequitur that made him an Internet sensation.
“I forgot,” Lewis said. “A few hours before the fight, Donald Trump called me and told me I’ve got to knock this Russian [expletive] out — ‘cause they making him look bad on the news. You know, him and Putin and [expletive]. [Expletive] what they talking ‘bout. U.S.A. in this [expletive]."
Incredible power. Hilarious quips. A devil-may-care attitude. All of it on display in those five unforgettable minutes.
All of it so quintessentially Derrick Lewis.
“He’s interesting, isn’t he?” UFC president Dana White said during the UFC 229 post-fight news conference. “That guy’s interesting.”
With UFC 230 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday badly in need of a headline bout, White’s choice was easy — bring Lewis back for a showdown with UFC great Daniel Cormier. There was some question, though, as to whether Lewis would be willing.
The subject came up in the octagon immediately after the Volkov fight, and Lewis (21-5) seemed cool to the prospect, on account of his less-than-stellar physical conditioning.
“I ain’t trying to fight for no title,” Lewis said. “Not with no gas tank like that.”
But it’s happening. Lewis reversed his position and agreed to take the fight against Cormier with less than one month of turnaround time.
So, what changed?
“It’s the money,” Lewis told The Washington Post. “That makes it worth jumping back in there. Ain’t no telling when I’m going to get another opportunity like this.”
Lewis is not one to squander opportunities. Not anymore, at least. Not since a probation violation sent him to prison for more than three years, costing him a football scholarship at Kilgore College, a community college in Texas.
The probation stemmed from a physical altercation with a man who Lewis has previously said was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He received two years probation and was later sentenced to jail for the subsequent violation.
Soon after his release, Lewis was introduced to mixed martial arts. He took a couple of amateur fights in 2009 and jumped quickly into the pro ranks in 2010. His skills were obvious early on. He began his career with four out of five victories, despite limited time in the amateurs.
He also caught the attention of George Foreman, the legendary heavyweight boxing champion. Foreman had wanted Lewis to pursue boxing, and even took some time to train the young fighter.
But Lewis was drawn to MMA. The victories kept piling up and eventually, he landed in the UFC. Along the way, his popularity mushroomed — thanks to his penchant for pulling off shocking knockout victories, his undeniable charisma and a strong social media presence.
Among the videos he has posted to his Instagram account, which has more than 1 million followers, was footage from Hurricane Harvey, in which he helped save more than 100 people by riding his truck to the edge of the floodwaters, he told ESPN.
The majority of the content on Lewis’s Instagram page, though, features far more levity. The videos, which can be colorful, aren’t for everyone. But Lewis isn’t concerned about the way he is received online.
“My friends know that’s the way I am,” Lewis said. “That’s the type of person I [am]. I don’t care what people think."
Not this month, though. Since agreeing to this potential career-making fight against Cormier, Lewis has been focused on business. He’s dramatically increased his time in the gym in preparation for Saturday. Lewis has never been past the fourth, but he is hoping the added conditioning will sustain him.
“I used to only train 30 minutes a day,” he said. “But now I’ve been training damn near all day long. I’m dehydrated and thirsty just talking … right now.”
It’s a superior effort from a man who has admitted to slacking off in the past. And it raises the question: For all of the magic Lewis has produced inside of the octagon and out, could there actually be more to come?
“It’s really eye-opening to myself, knowing that if I put in just a little more work than I have been, I can really go far,” he said. “I also guess it’s pretty good, because everyone underestimating me. They really haven’t even seen 50 percent of myself yet.”
Rick Maese contributed to this report.