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Derrick Lewis celebrates his victory over Marcos Rogerio de Lima of Brazil in a heavyweight fight during the UFC 291 event at Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
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DERRICK LEWIS: THE RELUCTANT STAR RETURNS

Heavyweight Knockout Artist Lets Down His Guard, Reflects On Lengthy Career Ahead Of 2024 Debut In St. Louis

Towards the end of Saturday night’s fight card at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, the lights will drop, the crowd will fall silent and the opening chords of Fat Pat’s “Tops Drop” will start to echo through the venue, signaling the arrival of one of the sport’s most beloved personalities and the UFC’s most prominent knockout artist, Derrick Lewis.

“It’s crazy because Fat Pat passed away way before his time; he was just starting to blow up around that time,” Lewis began, speaking about his signature walkout track and its anthem status within the MMA community ahead of his headlining clash with Rodrigo Nascimento this weekend. “For me to play his music in the arena and stuff like that, I’m pretty sure his family is proud of that going on, that I chose his music.

FREE FIGHT: Derrick Lewis vs Travis Browne

“That song came out when I first moved to Houston, so it means a lot for me on that side of things also,” added Lewis, who moved to Texas’ most populous city from New Orleans in his teenage years. “It had just come out when I first moved to Houston in ’98, and that was one of my favorite songs.”

Over the last decade, it has become a playlist staple for those that follow the UFC, introduced to legions of fans that likely never would have discovered a bouncy, synth-fueled track from a slain Southern rapper if not for the emergence of a shy competitor with heavy hands and an outsized personality.

Derrick Lewis celebrates his TKO victory over Marcos Rogerio de Lima of Brazil in a heavyweight fight during the UFC 291 event at Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Derrick Lewis celebrates his TKO victory over Marcos Rogerio de Lima of Brazil in a heavyweight fight during the UFC 291 event at Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

“Tops Drop” wasn’t supposed to become an anthem for this entirely new collection of fans the same way Lewis wasn’t supposed to become one of the most active and successful heavyweights of his era, but here we are, more than a decade in, with “The Black Beast” set to make the walk to the Octagon for the 29th time this weekend.

“29?” Lewis asked, genuinely surprised that he’d made that many trips into the UFC cage already. “I didn’t know it was that many fights.”

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At present, he has the second most appearances by any heavyweight, trailing only Andrei Arlovski, the 45-year-old former champion who made his promotional debut in June 2001, nearly 13 years before Lewis stepped into the Octagon for the first time.

“That’s crazy; I never knew that’s how many fights I had,” added the affable headliner, who debuted in April 2014 with a win over Jack May and currently holds the record for the most knockout wins in UFC history.

Lewis has always been a reluctant star; uncomfortable as the center of attention, hesitant to talk about his past, and quick to try and blow off probing questions with his sardonic wit and big smile rather than share personal feelings and expose his softer side.

Derrick Lewis | The Run Starts Here
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Derrick Lewis | The Run Starts Here
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He rarely addresses the life that preceded his time in mixed martial arts — his impoverished upbringing and the domestic violence that prompted his mother to move to the family to Houston, the assault and parole violation that landed him in prison, or his time behind bars, all of which is understandable.

But those things left Lewis in a position where this wasn’t supposed to be how the rest of his life played out, and even in the early days of his MMA career, his becoming a main event staple and two-time title challenger in the UFC was never something he envisioned or chased.

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This was always about providing for his family, and he’s successfully done that while crafting an unexpected, unconventional fairytale with him at the center of things.

And whether it’s age or simply the fact that we’ve spoken dozens of times throughout his career, the 39-year-old heavyweight broke from his usual interview character on Tuesday morning, offering some sincere thoughts about what all of this means to him.

Derrick Lewis | Greatest Hits
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Derrick Lewis | Greatest Hits
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“I guess it’s awesome because the way the economy is right now, everyone is struggling and I’m glad I’m able to do something like this and make a pretty decent amount of money now, provide for my family,” he said, chasing his words with his trademark baritone chuckle. “I thank God for that. It’s a blessing to still be doing it at this age and at this time in the world.

“It means a lot. It’s pretty cool,” he added when asked about having achieved success beyond his wildest dreams and done it while starting from a disadvantaged position. “I didn’t have no role models — I really had to learn on my own — so for me to be where I’m at now is a blessing from God.

“I thank God for everything. He sat me down and really humbled me in a lot of areas in order for me to be the man I am today.”

MORE ST. LOUIS: Buckley Comes Home | Hooper Interview | Baby Shark Interview | Tecia Pennington Interview

The thing that often gets missed amidst Lewis’ joking answers is that he’s actually giving you a real glimpse into who he is as a person and his honest thoughts on the opponent in front of him or the situation he finds himself in at present.

Sure, he’s always going to play for a laugh, but even in the comedic nature of his answers, the heavyweight finisher is answering honestly.

Derrick Lewis celebrates his TKO victory over Marcos Rogerio de Lima of Brazil in a heavyweight fight during the UFC 291 event at Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Derrick Lewis celebrates his TKO victory over Marcos Rogerio de Lima of Brazil in a heavyweight fight during the UFC 291 event at Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Take this weekend’s fight against Nascimento.

While some will suggest that Lewis is only playing around when he says that he’s much happier that the contest is taking place in St. Louis and not part of a big card, that’s honestly the case, as smaller events where the spotlight isn’t so bright are preferable to him than being stationed on a massive pay-per-view event.

RELATED: Derrick Lewis Fight Week Interview | Rodrigo Nascimento Interview

“100 percent,” he said, affirming that being positioned on this weekend’s fight night event is much more his speed and closer to his comfort zone. “I’m glad this is not UFC 300 or nothing like that, so I’m happy. I don’t like fighting in main events, but I’m still happy for the opportunity.

“It’s a lot of pressure off, so you might see another flying knee,” continued Lewis, referencing his rapid first-round stoppage win over Marcos Rogerio de Lima two fights back at UFC 291. “I felt all the pressure was off of me and I threw a flying knee right off the bat, so you might see something crazy straight off the bat this fight here because I don’t feel no pressure.”

Part of the reason there is an absence of pressure is because this is a fight night event and not a pay-per-view, but it’s also because he’s been in this position many times over.

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Saturday night, Lewis is once again stationed as the veteran test for an ascending heavyweight, welcoming Nascimento into his first main event assignment as the Brazilian seeks out his fourth straight victory and initial win over a ranked opponent.

“Yeah, I do (like being in this position),” he said of serving as the established side in these “veteran versus prospect” type battles. “I fought everyone, so it doesn’t matter, and a position like this is gonna come sooner or later.

“I appreciate them giving me an opportunity to fight a guy, humble a guy like this right here.”

Derrick Lewis | Earned, Not Given
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Unlock MORE of your inner combat sports fan with UFC Fight Pass! Fighting is what we live for. And no one brings you MORE live fights, new shows, and events across multiple combat sports from around the world. With a never-ending supply of fighting in every discipline, there’s always something new to watch. Leave it to the world’s authority in MMA to bring you the Ultimate 24/7 platform for MORE combat sports, UFC Fight Pass!

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Derrick Lewis | Earned, Not Given
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And after a frustrating trip to Sao Paulo last November and getting stem cell treatments on both of his shoulders, Lewis is eager to finally get his 2024 campaign underway, suggesting that he’s feeling better than he ever has before.

“I’m feeling good; I feel like this is my prime,” he said. “This is the best I’ve felt mentally, physically; I believe my conditioning is outstanding. My conditioning is probably the best it’s ever been.”

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I mentioned that he looks in good shape, tucked up and in great spirits, asking if he’s been staying away from the root beer that he loves so much.

“It’s a black shirt, so it’s gonna look like I’m small right now,” he responded, grinning. “Buy yeah, I’ve been staying off all that. I’m drinking a lot of sparkling water.”

That’s not a sentence many ever would have expected to hear from Derrick Lewis, but then again, everything about this man’s career has been wholly unexpected.

UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs Nascimento took place live from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Missouri on May 11, 2024. See the final Prelim and Main Card results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass