It’s a worn out cliché in sports just as it is in life, but tomorrow really shouldn’t be taken for granted. That couldn’t be truer than in the fight game, where people sometimes go from hunting jaws to dropping them by spontaneously retiring after a bout. It happened at UFC 210 in Buffalo, when 33-year old Anthony Johnson caught everybody off guard by calling it a career after a loss to Daniel Cormier.
And though he definitely left some wiggle room in his conviction, it happened again in Auckland, when Derrick Lewis said there was a good chance we’d seen the last of him in the Octagon.
“I’m getting married next week and I don’t want to keep putting my family through this [anymore],” he said. “Most likely, this will be my last fight in the UFC.”
In a sport that establishes pecking orders through rankings and forward-thinks beyond every current match-up, this is a reminder that fighters themselves don’t always see opponents as springboards — some of them simply see the end. One last strain on the psyche, one last sleepless night. Lewis has never shied away from talking about the burden of fighting, and he’s been conspicuously indifferent about title shots for the three years and change he’s competed in the UFC. His game plan, if you paid close attention, has always been to get in, make some money, and get out.
That’s what makes things like this bittersweet — just how reasonable that kind of thinking is. If the 32-year old Lewis truly walks away, he’s essentially achieved what he wanted. He negotiated a better deal for the Hunt fight, withstood the 14-hour plane ride to New Zealand, popped the register drawers one last time, and got himself a fight night bonus too. For a guy who served three years in Sugar Land and at one time worked as a AAA tow truck driver — who had a broken, dispirited childhood and only wanted to give his own children a better chance at life — it’s already a tidy redemption story.
Lewis is the kind of blackjack player who knows when to get up. He rode a hot hand until he lost, and now it’s back to the room to count his winnings.
Then again, it shows just how unreasonable it is to try and structure the fight game into any kind of logical world of nexts. Lewis fought a dozen times in the last three years (going 9-3), and came into the fight with Hunt on a six-fight winning streak — five of them KO/TKO finishes. That’s a very conversational kind of momentum. Not only that, but he has established himself as a comical, quirky, often anti-PC character in the game, a fan favorite. He’s been essentially a human wrecking ball of potential, and potential is one of those words that carries forth.
The inclination was to see Hunt as a hurdle to perhaps Francis Ngannou, a fight that filled in the imagination that much more beyond his current situation. Or perhaps to a title shot against Stipe Miocic, who rarely sees a scorecard.
Or in any case, to see just how far Lewis would go.
It’s just not that easy when dealing in motivation, in desire, and the human psyche — fighting collects tolls, just as doing media does, and appearing in your underwear for a public, and pondering CTE, and having USADA arrive at 6am at your door, and eating clean, and missing moments with your family for fear that if you’re not training, the other guy is. If there’s one nugget of wisdom to be found in Dana White’s effervescent hyperbole it’s that if a fighter doesn’t want to fight, he shouldn’t fight. Especially in that butcher’s shop of a heavyweight division.
With Lewis, who gassed out pretty severely there at the end against Hunt, it’s hard to know how motivated he was to uphold the rose-colored framework that we prefer to operate in (“the pursuit of greatness!”), versus something less far marketable, but perhaps more human (“just one more payday”). Sometimes fighters fool themselves into believing the one, which allows them to make sense of the other.
Fighting is a strange thing, and with the UFC now in its 24th year of existence — and about a decade into the orbit of the casual grasp — the reality is that nothing is truly predictable. We all know this, yet there’s fun to be had in the futility of believing otherwise. Part of being a fan in this game is having your expectations scrambled and handed back to you time and again. It’s to think and then to rethink, and to argue around the potholes. That tumult is really the shared experience. That the human psyche is in constant motion, and motivations are impossible to fully know. Greatness is a squint, careers are a turned cheek.
Just like that, the “Black Beast” is done.
Who knows if we will ever see Lewis in the UFC, or Johnson for that matter, especially with him already reporting that “itch.” It’s just as likely both will return at some point. Yet if they don’t, it’s hard to fault them for walking away in the thick of it all, especially when you come to understand that whatever “thick” means has something to do with just a bunch hopeful expectations, and none of them to do with their own.