Pre-Fight Thoughts: Daniel Cormier -vs- Derrick Lewis
Seemingly lost in the shuffle of Conor McGregor's return to the octagon at UFC 229 (link) and various other bits of inter-promotional drama, UFC 230 is now upon is and boasts a main event that was, to be mild, cobbled together at the very last minute. There were initial rumours that the plan was to go ahead and run the show with a main event of Valentina Shevchenko facing Sijara Eubanks, for the women's flyweight title. That proposal went over like a lead balloon, however. It wasn't until UFC 229 was in the books that the UFC opted to go in a completely different direction: Derrick Lewis, fresh off a mind-boggling, Hail Mary KO victory over Alexander Volkov, was granted a shot at Daniel Cormier for the heavyweight title just a month later.
While I can appreciate that this main event is unequivocally better than the proposed Shevchenko / Eubanks bout — especially given the fact that Eubanks, who remained on the UFC 230 fight card missed weight anyway (story). Still, the fact remains that the UFC put this main event together at the eleventh hour. Daniel Cormier has professed to not being 100% for this bout and Lewis is only 30 days removed from a fight that nearly went all 15 minutes — and in which he was losing almost every second of, prior to landing the fight-ending punch. If this were any division other than heavyweight, I don't think it's even remotely worthy of main event. But it is heavyweight, where the usual rules of meritocracy and logic — even in the context of the carnival sideshow that is MMA — don't apply the same as they do in other divisions. Scrapping an event in New York is not an option, due to the costs involved in booking venues and securing insurance for the event; the UFC did what they had to do to keep the pay-per-view together.
The last-minute nature of the bout notwithstanding, this match-up is a very interesting mismatch in almost every respect. Derrick Lewis is an enormous human being, sitting at the upper end of the 265 pound weight limit for the division. Daniel Cormier is a light heavyweight whose advanced age and decades of weight cutting have pretty much forced him to go back to heavyweight. Conversely, Cormier is the tenured and exceptionally accomplished veteran, having won UFC titles at both light heavyweight and heavyweight and holding them concurrently. Lewis, meanwhile, had a rough start to his UFC career and only recently turned things around and embarked on a seemingly improbable streak of winning 9 of his last 10 fights. Cormier has been intensely dedicated to the craft of MMA and the pursuit of the sport's top honours and titles. Derrick Lewis considers MMA to be nothing more than a job, and uses it to provide for his family. And they are both going to be battling for a UFC title and the honourific of being the Baddest Man On The Planet.
Under normal circumstances, this fight would be a complete mismatch in favour of Daniel Cormier. The champ's elite wrestling skills, combined with an ever-improving understanding and execution of boxing in the context of MMA, make for a terrible match-up against Lewis' unrefined, seemingly luck-based approach to winning fights. Under the scrutiny of technical analysis, the only thing Derrick Lewis does in a conventional manner is hit very hard and put people to sleep — and he manages this regardless of how exhausted he is at the time. Lewis' defence for strikes is to cover up and cringe away from his attacker. Instead of scrambling to his feet when taken down, Lewis appears to simply decide "to Hell with this" and opt to just stand up — like he finally got annoyed enough to act. It may sound like I am mocking Lewis but his fights are truly a sight to behold: the way he flies in the face of convention at every turn has made him an incredibly endearing fighter.
I consider myself a huge fan of Daniel Cormier, and I have been ever since the Heavyweight Grand Prix that Strikeforce ran until they were completed folded into the UFC after their purchase. Cormier is an exceptional talent, a phenomenally hard-working athlete and appears to be a genuinely good person in his day-to-day life. Derrick Lewis also manages to come off as an extremely funny, likeable human being. It's a weird thing in MMA to have two fighters so different in their approaches to the sport — in literally every respect — and yet I find myself utterly torn in who I would like to see win. Cormier has a very finite amount of time left in his MMA career — assuming he was sincere in his statements that he plans to retire by his birthday in 2019 — and the fanboy in me wants to see him win this and then fight Brock Lesnar in his retirement fight. On the other hand, Derrick Lewis winning isn't exactly something I would have a problem with either...
I don't remember exactly when I took a liking to Lewis, but his post-fight interviews and general demeanor have always resonated with me. Lewis is possessed of a zen-like calm, as if he understands that heavyweight MMA is a carnival of the absurd and manages to take it just seriously enough to show up on fight night. Whenever Lewis fights, he very quickly looks as though he would rather be anywhere else. And then he hits his opponent and instantly separates them from consciousness in shocking fashion — issuing a brutal reminder that, yes, he is playing to win. I have no interest in critiquing Lewis' lack of technical finesse, wrestling, or even cardio: he is an utterly improbable contender, and yet you cannot really argue that he doesn't deserve this title shot. The only thing I take issue with his the timing, personally.
As for how this fight pans out, I don't know. Cormier should be rightly favoured, given the wider array of skills in his arsenal, experience in title fights and just overall skill-level. Still, Lewis has defied the odds so many times as to make you wonder if they carry any merit whatsoever. If Derrick Lewis is standing, he is capable of knocking anyone out; even in terms of having the clichéd Puncher's Chance, Lewis' power easily adds a few percentage points to whatever you estimate that chance to be. Lewis' size could also pose some problems for Cormier, as I would expect Lewis to outweight the champ by 40-some pounds on fight night. While I don't doubt that Cormier could take Lewis down, one has to wonder how exhausting it will be — remember, both men are fighting with very little prep time.
All things considered, I think Cormier should only be a slight favourite to win this. The lack of prep time has to favour Lewis' nonchalant approach to the fight game, whereas Cormier's advantages are greatly improved with the ability to run a proper training camp, to truly hone his technical abilities and dial-in his cardio. I am expecting an interesting fight, and I don't think either man is going to steamroll the other. I'm expecting Cormier to try and impose his wrestling on Lewis, get him to the mat and win by submission — I think any striking-based plan is doomed to failure here. Lewis' best hope is to make Cormier carry every ounce of his frame whenever they are clinched and do his best to avoid takedowns and keep the fight at a range where he can land one of his trademark big punches. The longer the fight goes, I think it favours Lewis.
I'm picking Cormier to win, but I will say this: I've been trying to talk myself into picking Lewis all week. There's a real feeling of momentum behind Lewis; Cormier appears to be winding his career down; the possibility something as absurd as Derrick Lewis winning isn't that hard to fathom in the context of heavyweight MMA. In fact, Derrick Lewis defeating Daniel Cormier for the heavyweight title would easily one of the most heavyweight MMA things to happen. I'd love to see it, but I will go with my head over my heart on this one.
Published: November 3rd, 2018.