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As he makes his return, Derrick Lewis doesn’t have any regrets about whirlwind title shot at UFC 230

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Derrick Lewis may have gotten his title shot against Daniel Cormier under less-than-perfect circumstances, but his life has changed for the better since UFC 230. Not only did he secure a lifetime membership with Popeye’s Chicken and get a fat check to go with it, he got to co-star in an episode of CW’s Black Lightning. He moved into a new house he had custom built in the Houston area, and he is showing up to Quick 30 in his new twin turbo Lamborghini.

Things didn’t go his way at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 3, but everything’s been generally looking up. He just signed a new contract with the UFC, with his first fight on the new deal taking place on Saturday against Junior dos Santos in Wichita, Kansas.

All of this is why he says he doesn’t have any regrets in fighting Cormier for the title on short notice.

“Not at all, I know I’m just not getting started,” he told MMA Fighting. “I had trained real well for those last two fights, I’d trained real well for them. I felt more in shape with the DC fight than I did for the [Alexander] Volkov fight. Maybe because I didn’t have any time off [in between], and I just felt more in shape.

“And I was just starting to pick the pace up in the fight, and then something like that happens. It sucks. I guess he sensed it too that I was coming forward, pushing the pace, kicking and throwing combos and stuff to just come in and shoot for the takedown.”

Lewis lost to Cormier via a second-round rear-naked choke, losing for just the second contest in his last 11 fights. Five months later, he is saddled with the task of getting back into title contention against the perennial contender dos Santos, who himself has had a career resurgence with two straight victories. What does he expect?

Saturday’s main event is billed as a fight between two brutal knockout artists, with the idea being that — though it’s scheduled for five rounds — the fight won’t last very long. Just in case, the 34-year-old Lewis says he’s been training for his bounce back fight as if it will go the distance.

“I know he’s going to have great cardio for this fight,” he said. “That’s one of the things we tried to prepare for the most, is lasting five rounds. Standing up for five rounds.

“I’m not scared to fight anyone, I’ll call anyone out.”

Lewis, who has earned a kind of cult following over the last couple of years via a series of comical post-fight interviews and dramatic come-from-behind knockouts, is looking to get expedite his return to contendership. In some ways, he’s looking to pick up where he left off before Cormier. He was coming off a memorable knockout of Alexander Volkov at UFC 229 — a late third-round strike he deemed a million-dollar punch — and a victory over the now surging Francis Ngannou.

To best a former champion like dos Santos would put him back towards the top, perhaps even at the doorstep of Stipe Miocic for a title eliminator. That part, he says, can wait to play itself out. For now he’s stoked to be fighting on ESPN — or in this case, ESPN+ — for the very first time.

“It’s pretty cool because, before everyone you saw would ask, ‘when’s the fight going to be on, is it going to be on ESPN?’ and I was like, ‘nah, it’s on FOX Sports.’ People didn’t really know FOX Sports. So I had to really explain to them what FOX Sports is. Now I can just say ESPN. That’s one of the childhood dreams, too, being on ESPN. Back then it was football I thought I’d be on there for, though. It didn’t have anything to do with any fighting.”

With his new contract, Lewis — who has flirted with the idea of retirement in the past — says he’s going to be sticking around the UFC’s heavyweight division for a long time.

“My wife talked to me, and she let know that ‘your ass ain’t going to be doing nothing else,’” he said. “She let me know that ain’t no way I’m getting a regular job and making the same money I’m making now. And seeing them paychecks, I was like, yeah, you’re right.”

One of the things Lewis has done effectively since debuting against Jack May in 2014 is handle the spotlight with a quiet sense of humor. Not only has he shown the poise to come back in fights, but he has treated each situation along the way — from headlining his first Fight Night against Shamil Abdurakhimov to headlining MSG in his last fight — with equal aplomb.

In fact, he downplays the significance of his fights. Even that title bout with Cormier at MSG was just another fight in the lead-up.

“Really, honestly, I really don’t even feel like I fought for the title, I’m serious,” he said. “I had to remind myself whenever I was in the Octagon, whenever Bruce Buffer announced it, that’s when I was like, oh yeah, it’s for the title — but really I’d forgot all about it.”

He is downplaying the stakes for this fight with dos Santos, too, at least in the grand scheme of pecking orders and future title shots. Why? It’s so he doesn’t over-emphasize the moment. And it’s also defiance.

“At first, whenever I first got into the UFC, I was like, ‘oh my God, I’m in the UFC,’” he said. “When you come from where I came from, being in the UFC basically meant I was on top of the world. A lot of people said I would never make it, and this and that, I’d never be a top 10 fighter, that I’d never fight for a title. Just stuff like that. Achieving all those goals and being the person that I am, this is going against everything everyone said I couldn’t do.”

The one thing he hasn’t done that everyone expects him to? Pick up his lifetime membership card at Popeye’s, which is waiting for him when he’s ready to cash in.

“I still haven’t picked the card up,” he said. “I’m too embarrassed to go in there and be like, oh yeah, I need my card.”