Because of his silly and breezy personality along with frequently self-deprecating comments, Derrick Lewis fostered a reputation as being not serious regarding his fight career. As such, he has for a long time been overlooked as a title contender, and even now, is being mostly discounted as a title threat to current heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier in their UFC 230 main event matchup.
Despite winning nine of his last 10 fights, including seven via knockout, Lewis is a serious underdog in the betting lines; as much as 5-to-1 on some books. That means that a Lewis victory would be seen by some as on par with a legendary upset such as Matt Serra over Georges St-Pierre. That’s not quite right. While the heavyweight division doesn’t pack quality depth, winning nine of 10 is a fantastic feat that is rarely done. Only some of the weight class’ greats like Cain Velasquez, Stipe Miocic and Junior dos Santos can claim those kinds of runs (Cormier himself has only competed three times at heavyweight, and is 3-0).
Still, even while lauding Lewis’ achievements, we must note that he has shortcomings that make him particularly vulnerable in this specific matchup against Cormier. Chief among them is his wrestling defense. During his UFC career, Lewis has successfully defended only 57 percent of the takedown attempts against him, per FightMetric. Little more than two years ago, Lewis faced Roy Nelson, who had no major wrestling experience and was far below average in regards to his UFC career takedown rate (just 27 percent). Nelson scored seven takedowns against him. How will he respond then to Cormier, a two-time Olympic freestyler who is used to tossing around bigger men? The answer to that question will likely tell the story of the bout, mostly because Cormier would be wise to put the fight in that world, and Cormier is a high-IQ athlete.
For one thing, Cormier fully understands that Lewis’ best chance to win the fight is keeping himself upright. Lewis has wrecking-ball power, as evidenced by his 10 career UFC knockouts, the most in divisional history. In addition, Cormier has every motivation to find the safest route to victory, given the possibility of a huge-money payday against Brock Lesnar in the near-future.
The thing is, Lewis knows that, too, setting up a battle where each man will be hellbent on setting up his strength while foiling his opponent’s counter strategies.
While Lewis has built his entire game as well as his fearsome reputation around his right hand, he has other underrated standup tools that often go ignored. Namely, he has powerful, even graceful high kicks, and he throws wicked knees from the clinch.
Lewis (21-5, 1 no contest) says he is not a mixed martial artist, that he’s a “brawler.” That isn’t quite right though, as he flashes skills in all areas, although he definitely prefers a fight with a bit of chaos in it. He often likes to push forward, and he’s not shy about throwing lead right hands to instigate action. His combinations aren’t textbook, but they are effective, often being punctuated by wide overhand rights. That said, when he wants to, he is quite capable of tightening his technique. It seems that he does this on feel based upon how his opponent reacts and defends. There is no question that he has the power to rattle anyone, including Cormier (21-1, 1 no contest).
For Cormier, the challenge will be in breaching the distance to get inside. At just 5-foot-11, Cormier has faced that kind of problem throughout his career and has usually had little difficulty in doing it.
Against Lewis, Cormier should have a decided speed advantage that should aid him in this goal. In his early career, Cormier’s jab was a cursory one, but it has improved over time and aided him in several of his most recent fights, including his win over Volkan Oezdemir. He will pump that jab and likes to follow it inside with a ducking overhand that confuses opponents into dropping their hands to defend a takedown that never arrives. Even if he misses that strike, he often lands on the inside, ready to engage in a clinch, drop to a single leg or dirty box, all of which are Cormier specialties. These are all danger zones, and the exact method he used to knock out Stipe Miocic and win the heavyweight belt. His knockdown shot came off a right uppercut while hanging on to Miocic’s neck with his left. It’s a power shot in a short space; a technique he’s used to great effect against several opponents, including Alexander Gustafsson.
But Cormier certainly does his best work on the ground. He averages only a 42 percent takedown rate, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Cormier’s decorated background precedes him, making opponents hyper-aware of the takedown, and also, he often abandons attempts to move to the clinch positioned, an aforementioned favorite of his.
In this fight, I would expect him to have more purpose in his attempts, forcing Lewis to expend energy and perhaps, putting him in a position he doesn’t want to be in. If Lewis finds himself on his back, he has a knack of extricating himself from precarious situations. Against Marcin Tybura, for instance, Lewis was mounted, then gave his back, and then simply stood up and shook Tybura off, all in the matter of seconds. He’s found his way back to his feet with black belt Gabriel Gonzaga on his back, and with Roy Nelson in side mount. He just finds a way, mostly with raw strength and determination.
Cormier has historically been able to hold down anyone, pinning their shoulders to the mat and working ground and pound. If he’s able to hold Lewis in that position early, it will be a long night for the challenger.
When it comes to intangibles, there are two worth noting. First, it is a short-notice fight. Both men had less than a month to prepare. Lewis is just weeks removed from his final-second KO win over Alexander Volkov, while Cormier hasn’t fought since July, but also wasn’t expected to while waiting for Lesnar to regain eligibility. As a result, Cormier’s stamina may not be at its best, so it makes sense that he would fall back on his most prized weapon, his wrestling.
The other intangible is Cormier’s injured right hand. He broke a knuckle in defeating Miocic, and while the bone is healed, he didn’t do any sparring for months until he signed on to face Lewis. That’s another factor that suggests he’ll spare the striking for takedowns and ground work.
The matchup here is clearly in Cormier’s favor. Though he’s far smaller, he has power and a game perfectly suited to negate the power of a striking stylist. Cormier will probably put him on the mat several times, and with a short-notice camp, Lewis may start to fade. The pick here is Cormier by fourth-round submission.