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Knockout Artist Derrick Lewis Seeks Elusive Championship at UFC 265

The Weekly Takedown: previewing the main event of UFC 265, what Conor McGregor’s next move should be and more.

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated’s newest look at MMA. Every Friday, this column will offer insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Derrick Lewis: “I’m dedicating this fight to my mother. I’m doing that to let her know I never gave up, and we’re finally living a happy life.”

A win in the Octagon on Saturday would elevate Derrick Lewis into a whole new tier of stardom.

Already possessing the most knockouts (12) in UFC heavyweight history, Lewis (25–7) seeks to KO the undefeated Ciryl Gane and capture the interim heavyweight title. That would represent his first UFC championship, a victory that would help redefine his entire legacy.

Lewis is focused on the challenges that Gane (9–0) presents, attempting to become the first to solve that puzzle. This will mark only the second UFC title fight for the 36-year-old Lewis. He last had a championship bout in November 2018, when he lost by submission to Daniel Cormier. It then appeared he would be forever removed from title consideration after getting knocked out by Junior dos Santos in his following fight in March 2019. But since then, Lewis has won his past four fights, with the most recent victory six months ago against Curtis Blaydes standing out as a thoroughly dominating performance. He thrust himself back into contention and now gets a crack at the interim title in his hometown of Houston—a chance to seize all that has eluded him in his career.

Despite the high stakes in this bout for both Lewis’s legacy and his immediate future, he is not allowing the moment to overwhelm him.

“What’s the number of the card I’m fighting on?” asks Lewis, who was informed it was UFC 265. “There’s been so much going on, I didn’t even know.”

Even if Lewis didn’t know the name of the card, he is well aware of his opponent. He has his hands full preparing for Gane, who is a stunning combination of power and agility. It is no surprise that, once again, Lewis enters a big fight as a sizable underdog.

“I’m cool with that,” Lewis says. “I’ve been the underdog all my life.”

The fact that this bout is not against UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou does not bother Lewis in the slightest. He is instead headlining a card for the interim belt, which he is happy to do, especially considering the amount of the paycheck involved.

“I’m getting the same amount of money that I’d be getting if I was fighting Francis,” Lewis says. “So I don’t care who it is or what’s on the line. It’s all good with me.”

Lewis’s approach works for him, and it has been extremely successful. His collection of knockouts has turned into works of art, masterpieces that will stand the test of time in the fight realm. And though he comes off as laidback and carefree in his interviews, there is a strength and resilience embedded in his message.

Forever impacted by his childhood, Lewis often thinks back to the way his mother was mistreated and abused when he was a child. Witnessing what she endured, and being unable at the time to stop it, continues to shape the man that Lewis has become as an adult.

“Unfortunately, like a lot of other Black families, I grew up without a father figure,” Lewis says. “My mom was there to take care of us. For her to go through all she went through, and then still love us and take care of us the way she did, all I’ve ever wanted to do is help her. I’m dedicating this fight to my mother. I’m doing that to let her know I never gave up, and we’re finally living a happy life.”

Lewis brings a unique perspective and life experience into his bout against Gane. Nearly 20 years ago, shortly after his high school graduation, he was charged with assault for beating up a member of the Ku Klux Klan. After violating his probation, he served three and a half years behind bars.

“At that point, I never thought I’d be where I am now,” Lewis says. “I didn’t even know what UFC was. I just wanted to go home. That’s the only place I wanted to go. I never thought I’d be here right now.”

Articulate, intelligent and funny, Lewis made the most of talent and pushed himself to a whole new level of success in his field. His ability to spread positivity is even more powerful than those right-handed punches he throws, and he credits that outlook with transforming his life.

“I am grateful for all the positive people in my life,” Lewis says. “When you grow up in the hood, all you hear is bad stuff. You see bad things and hear gunshots. No one wants to see you do better than they’re doing, so they pull you down. But when you’re around positive people, great things happen. I’ve learned that and I believe it.”

Entering UFC 265, overlook Lewis at your own peril. He is in position to win UFC gold, with only Gane standing in his way before he can carve his name in MMA history.

“You’ve got to put in the work to chase a dream, and that’s what I’m doing,” Lewis says. “Come Saturday, I want to give people watching at home their money’s worth. And I want to get the job done in my hometown.”

Conor McGregor’s future direction should be clear: return to taking big-money fights

Khabib Nurmagomedov had no shortage of opportunities for a second fight against Conor McGregor. Every time that bout presented itself, Nurmagomedov declined.

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McGregor’s onslaught of insults toward Nurmagomedov—most recently an insensitive crack on Twitter about Nurmagomedov’s late father—have not persuaded Nurmagomedov to re-enter the Octagon against McGregor. In fact, the opposite has occurred: The more hate McGregor spews, the more justified Nurmagomedov becomes in his decision to never again fight McGregor.

During an interview on Mike Tyson’s podcast, Nurmagomedov shared his take on McGregor’s now-deleted tweet about his father, which read, “COVID is good and father is evil?” (Nurmagomedov’s father, Abdulmanap, died of COVID-19 in July 2020.)

Speaking with Tyson, Nurmagomedov said, “When you have parents and you have kids, how can you show yourself like this? I don’t understand why his close people don’t tell him, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ”

If Nurmagomedov had ever accepted a second fight against McGregor, that would have been a victory in and of itself for McGregor. Nurmagomedov mauled McGregor in the first meeting, even in the stand-up. But McGregor is the best talker in the history of the sport. He would have capitalized upon the moment to seize the narrative, even if he lost the actual fight. The past McGregor-Poirier fight somehow feels like a McGregor victory, as the coverage has been focused on him even though Poirier controlled the first round before McGregor’s broken leg ended the fight. Nurmagomedov never gave McGregor the satisfaction of a second chance in the Octagon after their bout at UFC 229 in October 2018, which was more painful for McGregor than another loss.

It certainly appears Nurmagomedov will never come back for fight No. 30, especially with McGregor as his opponent. There was a possibility Nurmagomedov would come back for a fight against Georges St-Pierre, but that now seems far-fetched.

As for McGregor, he is quickly sliding into a category where he draws attention solely for his outrageous comments. Since he is not winning fights, perhaps he feels that persona is necessary to remain the focal point. Yet that setup offers diminishing returns, as eventually McGregor—like Tyson—will become more recognized for antics and drama instead of his brilliance as a competitor.

McGregor needs to settle into the role he once bragged about, which was being the man who put on the money fights. To accomplish that, he doesn’t need the lightweight championship. Or any belt for that matter, perhaps with the exception of the BMF title. McGregor taking on Jorge Masvidal would be an outstanding big-money fight. He has two more of those types of fights against Nate and Nick Diaz.

Those are the types of fights McGregor needs. He needs to move on from the title, Poirier and Nurmagomedov. Those are also bouts that will all be main events, and McGregor can continue to take satisfaction in knowing he can move the needle—and collect the biggest paycheck—as the most powerful singular entity in MMA.

The Pick ‘Em Section

Here are my UFC 265 picks:

Heavyweight: Derrick Lewis vs. Ciryl Gane

Pick: Lewis

Bantamweight: José Aldo vs. Pedro Munhoz

Pick: Munhoz

Welterweight: Michael Chiesa vs. Vicente Luque

Pick: Chiesa

Strawweight: Tecia Torres vs. Angela Hill

Pick: Hill

Bantamweight: Casey Kenney vs. Song Yadong

Pick: Kenney

Current record: 0–0

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.