Derrick Lewis has always made it clear that competing inside the UFC Octagon isn’t about fame for him; it’s about providing for his family, plain and simple.
That’s the reason why the Houston-based heavyweight logged 12 appearances in his first four years on the roster and why in the midst of a six-fight winning streak, the man who casts a menacing shadow in the cage continued to shy away from the spotlight. He lit up social media, but when it came to talking about his success and rising popularity, the 33-year-old continued to be uncomfortable.
So when Lewis was forced to withdraw from his UFC 216 showdown with Fabricio Werdum due to a lingering back issue only a handful of hours before the two were supposed to square off at T-Mobile Arena, you knew things had to be pretty bad and the decision didn’t come easy to the hardworking heavyweight.
“It’s a big pill to swallow. I was crying,” said Lewis, who returns to action this weekend against Marcin Tybura. “I was still in pain. They had to put me in a wheelchair – that’s how much pain I was in. It was difficult.”
Opting out was hard, but Lewis knew what it was like to step into the cage with limited mobility.
When you’re a six-foot-three bulldozer who cuts weight to make the 265-pound heavyweight limit, back issues are always going to be a concern and they were a regular pre-camp visitor for Lewis. But as his weight started to come down and he started to get into the swing of preparing for his next fight, the issues would subside and he would be able to do his thing.
And for 16 months, “The Beast” did his thing, showcasing true fight-changing power and impressive resiliency to collect five finishes during a six-fight run of success that propelled him up the heavyweight rankings, landing him in a main event matchup with Mark Hunt in Auckland, New Zealand.
But instead of working out the kinks during camp, Lewis’ back issues lingered and they only got worse once he stepped into the cage with the veteran knockout artist.
“The Mark Hunt fight, it stayed the whole time, every day,” he said. “The camera guy who was there, he saw that we had to take breaks to work out my back, get a massage or something like that in the middle of training while he was filming.
“If my back wasn’t hurting, I still would have been in there, still would have been fighting, but I couldn’t move any more. I couldn’t move at all; my back just locked up. I couldn’t throw my right hand anymore because the right side of my back was tore up.”
With a little more than a minute remaining in the fourth round, Lewis’ winning streak came to an end. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake against Werdum, so instead of going forward, Lewis stepped aside.
Four months after UFC 216 and now eight months removed from his last appearance in the Octagon, Lewis is champing at the bit to get back in the cage and kick off another winning streak in his home state of Texas.
“I believe everything happens for a reason and by me taking the time off that my body needed and my mind needed, I feel more hungry than I ever have before,” said Lewis, who had talked about retiring early last year before accepting the Werdum assignment. “I’ve got the hunger back again.
“A few fights before, I was like, ‘I’m really getting tired of this; I need a break.’ Even the fights I was winning, I wasn’t really satisfied because I don’t feel like I really won because my mind wasn’t really there. I just needed some time off and now that I’ve had that time off, I really feel like I’ve pressed the reset button and I’m anxious this time.
“At first I wasn’t anxious – ‘Yeah, I’ve got a fight’ – but now I’m really anxious to get back in there.”
Sunday in Austin, Lewis will finally square off with Tybura in a fight that was originally scheduled to happen in October 2016 in the Philippines before the card was scuttled and the rising heavyweights went their separate ways.
Tybura collected victories over Luis Henrique and Andrei Arlovski before dropping a unanimous decision to Werdum late last year in Sydney, while Lewis scored main event victories over Shamil Abdurakhimov and Travis Browne prior to his ill-fated fight with Hunt in Auckland.
Now both men enter off a loss, eager to regroup and regain their momentum, and while Lewis and his team have prepared for Tybura in the past, they know they’re facing a very different fighter this time around.
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“We know what to expect, but he’s with a different camp now,” Lewis said of his upcoming opponent. “He’s training with Greg Jackson now, not the guys he was with in Poland. He’s training with them a little bit, but he’s with Jackson now.
“The stuff that I see change in his game right now is that he’s doing the world famous oblique kick they teach everybody, where you kick the knees and stuff like that,” he added. “But I feel like he’s going to try to wrestle me.”
It’s a wise tactical approach given Lewis’ jarring power and one his opponents have sought to deploy in the past, to varying degrees of success.
But Lewis is healthy and hungry and has a few new tricks up his sleeve that he’s looking to unveil Sunday night at the Frank Erwin Center.
“I’m feeling a lot better than I did and I’ve got some new tricks, have been learning some new things and hopefully I can put it all together on fight day,” he said. “Hopefully everything goes well, God willing.
“I know he’s a tough opponent – he’s a good grappler, a durable guy with great conditioning and he’s with a good camp, so we’ll see how everything goes – but I’m going to go out there and fight hard because I feel like I’ve got some things to prove.”