Any concerns Derrick Lewis had about getting kicked in his surgically-repaired knee evaporated pretty quickly during his recovery process thanks to his two sons.
“They’re the same every day: they don’t care,” said the proud father of three when asked if his boys took it easy on him following the long-overdue surgery to repair multiple damaged ligaments in his knee. “They were jumping on me and their mom was screaming at them, telling them about my knee.
“My knee is good, though. They were kicking it, hitting it. Without them, I wouldn’t have known it won’t hurt when I get hit there because they probably hit it more than I get kicked in sparring and stuff like that.”
Saturday night, Lewis will test his knee against UFC-level competition for the first time as he looks to snap the first two-fight losing skid of his career in a main card showdown opposite Blagoy Ivanov at Madison Square Garden.
This weekend’s bout marks the second consecutive year Lewis has competed at “The World's Most Famous Arena,” but he does so this year under very different circumstances.
Last year, the 34-year-old Houston native arrived on a three-fight winning streak, having won nine of his last 10 bouts and fresh off his last-second finish of Alexander Volkov. He was one half of the main event and the challenger in a UFC heavyweight championship fight against then-champion Daniel Cormier.
This year, he arrives at UFC 244 facing myriad questions, as fans and observers ponder his place in the heavyweight pecking order and what to expect from the soft-spoken heavy hitter as he looks to get back into the win column and close out 2019 on a high note.
“I don’t like it, but at the same time, I don’t blame them as well,” Lewis said of the fans and pundits questioning where he fits in the division and wondering what he has to offer going forward. “That’s another reason I wanted to take everything a little more serious.”
Some people are bound to buck when they hear Lewis say he’s taken things more seriously this time around, as the Top 10 fixture has crafted a lane for himself based in part on not taking himself all that seriously. Between his NSFW social media game and a string of post-fight interview comments that instantly turned up on t-shirts, Lewis has positioned himself as the lovable everyman who doesn’t particularly enjoy all the work and effort that typically goes into being an elite athlete competing at the highest level in their given sport.
Much of it, of course, is an exaggeration — ridiculousness for the sake of a laugh that doesn’t show the legitimate hours he’s putting in under the watchful, demanding eye of Kru Bob Perez — but Lewis has also been forced to limit himself throughout several training camps, as the longstanding issues with his knee created back issues that were so painful that it forced him out of a scheduled bout against former champ Fabricio Werdum just hours before the two were supposed to compete.
“The doctor said that my knee is the reason why my back was hurting so bad, so it was real good to finally get it fixed,” said Lewis, who credits his loss to Junior Dos Santos for motivating him to finally go under the knife and get his knee repaired. “The only person holding me back and causing me to lose these fights was myself.
“Even in the fights that I won, I should have been finishing these guys way earlier in the fight and all of that had to do a lot with my training because I wasn’t training as much as I was supposed to because of those injuries.”
Now, after a couple years of fighting compromised and dropping consecutive fights for the first time in his career, Lewis has a clean bill of health and a renewed commitment to his craft.
“It seemed like I was never at home — I was always at the gym, training,” explained Lewis, who said he finally understands what other fighters mean when they talk about being in the gym all day and wanting to train as much as possible. “(Training as much as I have) and eating well made a big difference.”
That’s right — Derrick Lewis, heavyweight fast food advocate, even changed his diet heading into UFC 244.
“I hired a nutritionist to come down and stay with me for a month and a half,” Lewis said with a laugh, acknowledging the decision as a major shift from previous camps and one that is sure to catch some people off guard.
While all the talk of changes is accompanied by his deep baritone chuckle, the fact is that these are all major strides for the popular heavyweight, who has made it this far with a jacked up knee, a balky back and training camps crafted around his limitations.
“It’s a new lease on life,” admitted Lewis. “Now if I lose these fights, it’s only going to be because these guys are way better than me; it’s not going to be that I didn’t train hard enough or I wasn’t 100 percent.”
And the first test of that comes on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, where he’ll stand across the cage from Ivanov, who enters on a two-fight winning streak.
“I found out about him when I was watching footage on Junior,” Lewis said of the Bulgarian heavyweight, who dropped his promotional debut to the former champion in July 2018, but has since rebounded with decision wins over Ben Rothwell and Tai Tuivasa.
“Watching the fights that I watched, he gets hit a lot and I believe it’s not going to take too many hits if he wants to fight the same way,” he added, breaking down Ivanov’s “take one to land one and get inside” approach. “I believe he’s going to want to come in and pressure me, try to get the clinch and take me down, but I really believe that I can get him out of there.”
It’s been a long, challenging year between trips to New York for Lewis, but this time, he’s heading into battle healthy and fully prepared, and if a compromised version of “The Black Beast” can post nine wins in 10 starts before falling to a pair of UFC champions, just imagine what he might be capable of now.