Hometown hero: Houston’s Lewis fights for interim UFC title

FILE – In this Nov. 2, 2019, file photo, Derrick Lewis, right, punches Bulgaria’s Blagoy Ivanov during the second round of a heavyweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 244 in New York. Lewis won the fight. Lewis is scheduled to fight for the interim UFC heavyweight title Saturday night at UFC 265. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

Derrick Lewis is among the few universally beloved figures across mixed martial arts. The veteran UFC heavyweight’s violent fighting style and likable, funny personality have made his bouts must-see events for several years.

Well, for everybody except his three kids.

They won’t even be at Toyota Center in Houston on Saturday night when Lewis (25-7) fights for the interim UFC heavyweight title in their hometown at UFC 265.

“My kids don’t give a damn if I’m fighting,” Lewis said with a grimace. “They don’t care about that. They don’t care. They always say, ‘Who cares?’ Even the neighbor kids that say, ‘Your dad is famous!’ They say, ‘We know. We don’t care.’ All they care about is playing video games on YouTube and stuff like that.”

His kids might not be in his corner, but the 36-year-old Lewis will have the backing of essentially everybody else in the building when he attempts to reach the pinnacle of his career against France’s Ciryl Gane (9-0), a muay thai champion who has rocketed to the top of MMA in just three years.

Lewis has been in the UFC for seven of his 11 years in the sport, but has never been a champion. He lost to Daniel Cormier in his only previous title shot three years ago, and he maturely realized he might have to settle for a well-paid career headlining secondary fight nights when the UFC needs a popular name to draw eyeballs.

The heavy-handed Lewis is on a four-fight winning streak, but he wasn’t chasing this title shot. In fact, he had to be reminded recently that his next bout could end with a strap around his waist.

“I’m still really not even thinking about that,” Lewis said. “My mind still isn’t really on the title, because I’m still getting paid. I had forgot all about it.”

That’s probably a good thing, because this interim belt has drawn much derision around the MMA world.

The UFC curiously decided to award an interim title only four months after Francis Ngannou captured the real heavyweight strap by beating Stipe Miocic in Las Vegas. The UFC had mildly bickered with Ngannou over the timing of his next title shot, but the promotion was clearly eager to promote UFC 265 with any sort of championship designation to the millions of casual fight fans who don’t understand the sketchiness of the whole affair.

If he claims the belt, Lewis will be more excited about a unifying rematch with Ngannou. Lewis infamously beat an inept version of Ngannou by decision at UFC 226 in July 2018, only to watch Ngannou resurrect his career with five straight wins and a belt.

Gane will fight for a title in just his seventh UFC bout, and he’s a bit more excited about the strap than Lewis. The Frenchman said it was “not possible for me to say no when the UFC called,” even though his wife is due to give birth to their second daughter Aug. 20.

Gane also isn’t worried about the likelihood he’ll be booed for every minute he’s on the arena floor at UFC 265 to take on Houston’s hometown hero.

“This is not a problem for me,” Gane said with a grin. “I’m comfortable with the situation. He has his fans. If it was going to be in Paris … well, these fans are going to make it a little more fun.”

UFC 265 also features former featherweight champion José Aldo in a bantamweight bout against fellow Brazilian Pedro Munhoz. Welterweight title contenders Michael Chiesa and Vicente Luque meet earlier on the pay-per-view portion of the show.

Lewis is usually the epitome of a fan-friendly fighter, and he is just one knockout away from taking the UFC’s career lead in such stoppages. Gane is nearly the opposite, with a muay thai-influenced style reliant on defense and careful striking volume — two things that aren’t usually appreciated by bloodthirsty cageside fans.

Gane feels prepared to handle Lewis after sparring with big, bulky training partners who were encouraged to throw massive right hands — Lewis’ speciality, of course.

“Everybody knows he has a bomb in his hand, so we worked on it,” Gane said.

Likewise, the normally pot-bellied Lewis says he did extensive running and cardiovascular training — but not to match Gane’s athleticism and stamina.

“It’s not really to have cardio for five rounds,” Lewis said. “Just be exciting for five rounds, because he is a boring fighter. He likes to sit back and do leg kicks, but I do want to have an exciting fight in my hometown. … I fight straight off emotion whenever I’m in there, so I believe it will help me out a lot.”

Lewis knows Gane could pick him apart with leg kicks and elusiveness, but he remains confident in the skills that got him here. He’ll conserve his energy and wait for the opportunity to throw the thunderous punches that have done in so many opponents before.

“He’s a real active striker, and I’m not with all that,” Lewis said. “I like to pick my shots and take my time. But if some opening is there, if he gets close enough, I’m going to show up.”

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