Derrick Lewis has made a career out of defending his turf. But the fortifications are starting to crumble.
Counting out “The Black Beast” is never wise, but the reality is that Lewis has been on a sustained slump and the competition is starting to catch up to him. Lewis turns 38 in February and all of the swangin’ and bangin’ in the world can’t overcome Father Time (even in the glacial heavyweight division).
The next man to take a swipe at Lewis’ spot — currently No. 7 at heavyweight in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings — is Serghei Spivac, a Russian fight finisher on a 5-1 run. On paper, Spivac is exactly the kind of up-and-comer that Lewis would foil in the past, so the result of Saturday’s UFC Vegas 65 main event will tell us a lot about how much longer Lewis can hang with the best of the UFC’s big boy division.
In other main card action, Ion Cutelaba fights Kennedy Nzechukwu in a light heavyweight co-main event that guarantees either a finish or some classic MMA weirdness, heavyweight veteran Chase Sherman takes on the undefeated Waldo Cortes-Acosta, and welterweight strikers lead the card as Andre Fialho fights Muslim Salikhov and Jack Della Maddalena fights Danny Roberts.
What: UFC Vegas 65
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Derrick Lewis (7) vs. Serghei Spivac
True, Derrick Lewis’ record has seen better days, but let’s consider the type of fighters you have to be to beat Lewis:
- if you have a significant size and athleticism advantage (Sergei Pavlovich, Ciryl Gane)
- if you also happen to be an accredited practitioner of swangin’ and bangin’ (Tai Tuivasa)
- if you’re a technically superior to striker (Gane, Junior dos Santos)
- if you’re Daniel Cormier (Daniel Cormier)
That’s the summation of Lewis’ past five losses. I can comfortably state that Spivac doesn’t fall into any of those categories (actually, he might be Daniel Cormier in disguise, can’t rule that one out).
What Spivac is is a good wrestler with great technical skills on the ground. He knows how to take the fight there, work for advantageous positions, and do damage. He should have interest in playing around on the feet, his only goal should be to take Lewis down as soon as possible and go to work.
But one thing Lewis excels at is getting up. He doesn’t care about your fancy level changes and double legs, he doesn’t care about your meager ground-and-pound, and he definitely doesn’t care about your jiu-jitsu. In his mind, escaping a precarious grappling situation is as simple as hauling his 260-pound-plus frame off of the canvas.
Unless Spivac has another path to victory I’m unaware of, he’s eventually going to run out of options, especially in five-round fight, and he’ll have to spend some time with Lewis on the feet. Once that happens, it’s lights out for Spivac.
Kennedy Nzechukwu vs. Ion Cutelaba
We saw a kinder, gentler Ion Cutelaba at Friday’s staredowns and I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps this more positive approach will unlock a more cerebral side of Cutelaba and allow him to level up his game? Or maybe he’s just playing possum, charming Kennedy Nzechukwu before harming him in the cage? And maybe it doesn’t matter because Nzechukwu has the skills to beat him.
Predicting Cutelaba fights is never easy. In his past two fights, he’s done the right thing and gone to his wrestling when he has needed it, but in both instances he ended up getting submitted. That said, Nzechukwu is yet to show that he has much of a submission game, so perhaps Cutelaba can go to his best skill with confidence here.
Cutelaba could also just throw caution to the wind and trade shots with Nzechukwu, but he’ll have to be wary of Nzechukwu’s own offensive wrestling prowess. As I said, this is a tricky one to call. When that’s the case, I’m picking chaos every time, and when it comes to chaos, few in the 205-pound division can manufacture it like Cutelaba.
Chase Sherman vs. Waldo Cortes-Acosta
Waldo Cortes-Acosta didn’t deliver a finish in his UFC debut, but he’s getting another main card opportunity for his second UFC appearance and this time I expect him to get the job done. What we did see in the Dominican’s UFC debut was the aggressive, high-output style that he’s utilized to put together an 8-0 start to his career.
Chase Sherman can be a wild card, so he’s definitely a threat to catch an unsuspecting Cortes-Acosta during a brawl. He could lure Cortes-Acosta into a brawl too if the lesser experienced fighter is too eager to land a knockout blow. Cortes-Acosta only has one mode so far and that’s forward, forward, forward, so Sherman could surprise him with a counter.
Overall though, I like what Cortes-Acosta brings to the UFC’s heavyweight division and until he runs into a fighter with better technical striking skills than Sherman and his previous opponent Jared Vanderaa, I give him a leg up on the opposition.
Andre Fialho vs. Muslim Salikhov
Muslim Salikhov’s striking is a pleasure to watch when he finds the range, but I have serious questions about how he’s going to handle Andre Fialho’s pressure game. The former PFL fighter has established himself as one of the welterweight division’s busiest and most aggressive strikers in his four UFC appearances this year, an approach that could give Salikhov fits.
Ideally, Salikhov takes advantage of Fialho’s aggression and picks him apart for three rounds, a formula that has brought him plenty of success in his career. The 38-year-old also loves to throw spinning strikes and a few good kicks to the body could go a long way towards deterring Fialho’s advances. That said, you have to be note perfect to fight the way Salikhov does and he looked a step slower in his recent loss to Li Jingliang. You can’t overlook the fact that Salikhov is stepping into the octagon Saturday with an opponent 10 years his junior.
Experience is always a plus, but Fialho has both experience and youth on his side, so I favor him to bounce back from a slow start, outlast Salikhov, and finish him in the final round.
Jack Della Maddalena vs. Danny Roberts
This is quality matchmaking if the UFC is invested in Jack Della Maddalena. Danny Roberts is a veteran opponent who can take a punch, while also presenting plenty of problems of his own on the feet. This is the right step up for Della Maddalena after making short of his first two UFC opponents.
It’s hard to deny Della Maddalena’s power. Beyond just technique, the Australian has power in his fists that can’t be taught and if he isn’t already one of the most feared finishers in the welterweight division, he should be. Roberts is a good defensive fighter, but he’s found himself on the wrong end of a viral clip on more than one occasion. It will be fascinating to see if Della Maddalena can cut off the cage and find a home for his bomb left, while Roberts works to counter and pick him apart with solid movement.
Win or lose, we’ll get a better gauge of where Della Maddalena stands as a prospect because Roberts won’t go down easy. However, when he does, it will be the result of Della Maddalena cracking him with a hard shot and putting him down for the count.
Pick: Della Maddalena