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No small wonder: Derrick Lewis’ journey from Sugar Land to the Promised Land

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Derrick Lewis made his UFC debut in April.

It was the first fight on the card, and the crowd had not yet filled into Amway Arena in Orlando. He scored a TKO victory over Jack May, himself a newcomer to the heavyweight division. It was not all that memorable; just a couple of bull figures slapping clay. They were locked in a grappling battle initially -- too much grappling for the bloodthirsty early crowd -- but May went for a takedown and ended up pulling Lewis on top of him. That mistake was the beginning of the end.

Lewis delivered a quick onslaught of heavy punches, and it was over.

Perhaps more memorable was Lewis’s post-fight speech, when he talked about his kids and very humbly told everyone that he hadn’t felt any nerves until he heard announcer Bruce Buffer call his name. That’s when the Hitchcock sense of vertigo came over him, and all the hard things that led to that moment weakened his legs.

“It was just like all the hard work finally paid off,” he says, remembering that piece of time. “I always had dreamed one day Bruce Buffer’s going to be introducing me…Derrick ‘The Black Beast’ Lewis…and I just always pictured him saying it. And then was finally saying it and I just froze up. I really was star struck. My dream came true. First time ever one of my dreams had come true like that.”

You can forgive Lewis for soaking in the moment, even as he was moved along so that the next fighters could come out. Up until that point, very few of Lewis’s dreams had come true. He had lived a lot of people’s worst nightmares, though, stemming back to his impoverished childhood in Louisiana. That’s where his mother and stepfather, from the time he was eight years old, were engaging in “fist fights,” he says, “nearly every single day.” His earliest glimpses of fighting were in his own house, with his mom forever featured in the main event against a foe she could neither defeat or escape.

They eventually fled from his stepfather to Houston when he was in his early teens, but the impressions were already dyed in the wool.

“I’ll say this, it was really scary, I was scared all the time,” he says. “It was a blessing for us to get away. I was happy. At first I was crying and saying I didn’t want to move to Texas and ride no horses and all that. That’s the way I thought it would be.”

It wasn’t exactly how he envisioned it. In Houston, Lewis spent much of his teenage life on an accelerated track to nowhere. With very little guidance and a violent upbringing, he fought. He got into trouble, and he fought. At one point he tried to do what wayward kids with pent-up anger sometimes do, which is find a gym to let out the aggression. To find a heavy bag to unload on.

For a little while, Lewis found a gym he liked.

“I was fighting in the streets just about all the time,” he says. “Hanging out, I boxed for like three months when I was 17 at a gym over here and soon I was getting ready for my first amateur fight and the guy had shut the gym down without telling anyone. I went there the next day and everything was cleared out.”

Then things got worse. When he was 19 years old, he had a little romance with an older woman, a divorcee of 36. “She was being flirtatious and we wound up messing around,” he says. That woman’s ex-husband found out about it, and came looking for Lewis.

“He came to my neighborhood looking for me with a shotgun,” he says. “A couple of my friends and I, we were coming from a party, and we saw him at the corner. I told my friends, don’t drop me off, I don’t want to start anything in front of my house, just drive to the back of the neighborhood hoping he would follow us. We tried to make it known that we saw him so he could follow us from the house. We took him to the back of the neighborhood and we blocked him in to a dead end. I got out of the car and I walked up to his truck, and I asked him why he was following me?”

This is the crossroads in his story. This is where his tale goes from tragic to sad, where young men like Lewis lose their bearings and make the kinds of mistakes they don’t come back from.

“He reached over to the passenger side seat tried to grab his shotgun, and I didn’t give him the opportunity,” he says. “I just started sticking it to him right there. His car was still in neutral, and he was rolling, about to hit another car, so I stopped hitting him. He took off and we chased him to the police station. About four days later, they’re arresting me at school.”

Aggravated assault. Serious body injury. The man Lewis had been striking, as much in self-defense as with an eagerness to fix trouble the way he knew best, lost sight in his left eye. That was two weeks after he graduated high school, not long after receiving an athletic scholarship to play football at Kilgore Community College. Lewis received two years probation.

“But I wound up violating it because I didn’t have transportation to get to all my classes and I didn’t have any money to pay the fees they required me to pay on my probation,” he says. “So I violated it and wound up doing three-and-a-half years in prison.”

They could have given him 20 years.

He spent most of his time in Sugar Land, at the infamous Central Unit where Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter did his time for murder before he became a legend in the blues. During this stint of his life, while idling through a thousand days of incarceration, Lewis began thinking about the fight game.  That’s when he began to dream about turning his life around when he got out, and to put the work in to make it as a prizefighter.

That’s when he began dreaming about Bruce Buffer announcing his name in a cage. Like so many fighters before him, he had to know bottom to understand there is a top.

“I believe that the whole thing really helped me,” he says now, so soft-spoken that you can barely make out the words. “I really do believe it helped me because I didn’t have a father figure growing up, there was nothing positive about my childhood. So I believe prison was the best thing that could have happened. My mind is more clear. I see everything more clear. I understand a lot more. That’s the reason I want my own kids to have a better childhood.”


When Lewis got out he began an odyssey towards that other kind of cage. While working as a tow-truck driver for AAA to support his child, he boxed. And he showed enough early promise that one of boxing’s most historical figures -- George Foreman -- took him under wing a little bit in Houston. After years of honing his boxing on the streets, there was some much-needed opportunity in his fists.

“George Foreman acts more like my grandfather,” Lewis says. “He and my grandfather act just alike -- they’re both Christian type guys. They try to help everyone. He reminded me of my grandfather when I was just sitting there talking to him.

“But I was training with George at his gym and I had his manager taking me to venues to train, places like Floyd Mayweather’s gym. They wanted me to go into boxing so bad, they had even bought me a car, they wanted to put me up in one of those high-rise apartments downtown Houston right next to Lou Savarese’s gym.”

The car was a Buick. It was the first car that Lewis had ever owned. As much as he wanted to revel in the treatment he was receiving, as much as it validated him and felt like his first form of actual salvation, he couldn’t stop thinking about MMA. That’s where his training blossomed; on the mats of the Silverback Fight Club in Houston.

“I was going to do it, I was going to box, but I had booked a fight, and I just told them to see how my first pro fight was going to go in MMA,” he says. “And it was the next month and I wound up dominating the guy, knocked him out in the second round and I was like, aw, I’m staying with this. I told them I’m okay, I was sticking to MMA, and they wound up taking the car back.”

Though he once again would have to find transportation to his gigs, that first pro fight against Nick Mitchell (TKO) in Paradise, Texas became a new addiction -- it became a pursuit. His second bout was against Shawn Jordan in the Cajun Fighting Championships, and he ended up on the short end of what he sees as a home-skewed decision for the former LSU fullback.

“I’m telling you, they screwed me,” he says. “Shawn Jordan would tell you, you can interview him to and he’d tell you. He said I hit him, knocked him out after the bell, but it wasn’t after the bell. Shawn Jordan didn’t hit me not one time that whole fight. Not once that whole fight.”

From there Lewis began collecting heads. He fought eight times between 2010-11 on the regional shows. He rolled on to RFA, and then to Legacy, where he sprung an upset over Jared Rosholt. In the meantime, he had earned the name in his gym as “The Black Beast,” because, he says, by then he’d become “the official mascot” of the Silverback gym.

Now he trains at Four Ounce Fight club in Houston, and his next fight is against the Blackzilians fighter Guto Innocente at The Ultimate Fighter 19 Finale in Las Vegas on July 6. He has three children, two of them toddlers. He’s had to come up with new dreams. These dreams are far-fetched. He dreams now of becoming the UFC’s heavyweight champion. And why not?

He draws gauges between him and Cain Velasquez, who at one point fought Jeremiah Constant in St. Petersburg, Russia in a BodogFIGHT, and took four minutes to dispose of. When Lewis fought Constant in Denver, it took only 48 seconds to vanquish him…although, there’s a caveat: it was ultimately deemed a “no contest” due to perceived strikes to the back of the head. 

But so what?

When dreaming, might as well make it big. Where Lewis came from, dreams had to sustain him. Without them, he’d never have walked out of Sugar Land a gentler giant, with something like “worth’ burgeoning in him faster than he could act on it. Without them, he might never have lived to hear Bruce Buffer call out his name, before and after his UFC debut… in a moment when dreams began falling over themselves, and he couldn’t tell what was real and what was just some desperate thing he had planted in his mind to one day become possible. 

“It really was like a dream,” he says. “I wanted to be like, ‘time out, hold on, hold on, this can’t be real.’”

Turns out it was. All of it.

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