By Schwan Humes
Sunday night we have a marquee matchup in the heavyweight division. In recent times the notoriously thin division has become littered with past their prime “name” fighters, numerous faceless journeyman, or unproven prospects. In the division of the “biggest and baddest” men in combat, more times than not we have been treated to less than stellar technique by less than stellar athletes. There have been a few diamonds in the rough of the HW division: Cain Velasquez, Andrei Arlovski, Junior Dos Santos, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, and Frank Mir. Recently we have been exposed to the newcomers, such as Francis Ngannou and the subject of this article, Derrick “The Black Beast” Lewis.
Lewis is at a precarious stage in his career -- clearly past the point of prospect, but nowhere near the title of veteran. He has shown athleticism, size, and power that are impressive even among this division of giants. Still there are as many questions as there are answers about Lewis. How good is he? How good can he be? Sunday night at UFC Fight Night 105 we get a better sense of that when he faces Travis Browne, a guy who a few years ago was everything that Lewis is being touted as. Browne is in a different space in his life, a different space in his career now. No longer thought of as future of the division, instead he is positioned as a gatekeeper, the final hurdle Lewis must cross to become a legitimate threat. But if Lewis isn’t everything we have been told he is, he becomes the gateway to redemption for Browne.
Unfortunately for Lewis, he fights at heavyweight, and as a result it’s hard to know what to make of him, in large part due to who he has faced. Like many prospects, “The Black Beast” has looked impressive, dominant, powerful, athletic, strong, and devastating against guys who lack the seasoning, physical gifts ,or technical refinement of “elite” (though aging) heavyweights. Jack May, Guto Inocente, Viktor Pesta, Damian Grabowski, and Ruan Potts are not exactly a murderers’ row of opposition, but Lewis did what you’re supposed to do against that level of opponent, he smashed them.
Gabriel Gonzaga and Roy Nelson, two fighters whose careers span thirteen and twelve years respectively. Against Gonzaga, Lewis still gained a knockout win after a few risky moments on the ground in the first round. Against “Big Country,” Lewis was unable to get the finish, in large part due to the fact that he was completely unable to defend takedowns or work his way back to his feet with any urgency or technical skill. The shots he did land, his aggression, and Nelson’s inability to consistently attack on the ground allowed him to eke out a win.
In Lewis’ most recent win, one of the most unspectacular knockout wins you will ever see, “The Black Beast” defeated Shamil Abdurakhimov, a guy who was brought in to lose on a showcase main event spot. Abdurakhimov held his own in spots with Lewis and managed to clinch and take down Lewis numerous times before being dismissed in the fourth round. These wins were important, as wins are what keep you moving up the ranks and developing your presence in the organization and with the fans. But the quality of the wins and the process leading up to them lead to some concerns about how good Lewis really is. A future champion, a top seven heavyweight is not supposed to be exposed in the manner Lewis was in those three fights -- his standup looked simplistic and his grappling looked functional at best and incompetent at worst. This level of skill made Lewis look more like an athlete than fighter, raising concerns about what he really has to offer long term.
Shawn Jordan beat Lewis into submission in two rounds, and Matt Mitrione starched Lewis with one clean shot in less than a full round. These two guys are very similar to the next test in the climb up the heavyweight ladder for Lewis, as Travis Browne is just as athletic as, if not more so than, the other two.
Browne has consistently fought and beaten a better level of competition than either Jordan or Mitrione. Though he has fallen on hard times, Browne hasn’t been losing to journeyman or no-hopers in the Octagon -- Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva, and Cain Velasquez are all former titleholders; most will go down as all-time greats in heavyweight mixed martial arts. Browne seems to possess the same combination of talent and skill that has continuously stymied Lewis during his time in the UFC and throughout the history of his career. As Lewis seems to be a guy who is defined by his physical tools much more than his technical skill, cage awareness, or ability to adjust, when that athletic advantage isn’t far and away superior to his opposition, Lewis’ performance falls off dramatically. Facing a long, durable, fast, hard-hitting heavyweight who has the ability to attack with a wide array of weapons and is very effective on the counter makes this fight risky for Lewis, even considering the fact that Browne has only won two out of his last six fights.
If Derrick Lewis wins, in theory we will get clarification, proof that Lewis can beat other top-end athletes in the division, as it’s something he has been unable to do in his last two attempts to do so. It is the hope of the organization that he shows a width and depth of skills that will present him as a legit title challenger to fans. That being said, Travis Browne has been woefully uneven in his fights, wins included, and a win over a guy on a losing streak doesn’t carry as much weight as it does a guy coming off of wins. For Browne, however, this is a fight that can reestablish him as a legitimate contender and breathe life into a career that for all intents and purposes is on life support. Because Browne is the type of guy Lewis hasn’t beaten, a win, in whatever form it comes, is a step in the right direction. It’s a risky fight for both fighters -- one on the edge of a title shot, the other on the edge of being cut. Sunday night at UFC Fight Night 105, it will be exciting and it will get real.