Even before his championship fight, MMA heavyweight Derrick Lewis feels like he’s won

After a street fight sent him to prison, he’s not worried about stereotypes like the ‘Black Beast’

His fans know him as the “Black Beast,” but Derrick Lewis is the picture of civility as he wields a tiny fork to pluck some stubborn flesh out of a stone crab in a corner booth of a posh Beverly Hills, California, restaurant.

Fans love him for his big punches in the Octagon and his big personality outside of it. But it’s also true that combat sports such as mixed martial arts frequently sell fights with marketing tropes that would be condemned as racist or sexist in almost any other context. Scantily clad “Octagon girls” are popular accoutrements at nearly every UFC event. Combatants often pump up fan interest by hurling racial, religious or xenophobic insults at one another.

In the case of the 6-foot-3, 265-pound Lewis, who fights for the UFC heavyweight championship on Nov. 3 at Madison Square Garden, the shtick is for him to be the big, scary black dude, the “Black Beast,” who throws lethal haymakers in the cage. He triumphantly beats his chest when he knocks out an opponent, as he often does. His winning personality is just icing on the cake.

The 33-year-old Lewis shook his head when asked whether he worries that his routine plays into racial stereotypes. “Not at all,” he responded. “I used to train at a gym called the Silverback, and basically that is the way I fight. I fight like a gorilla.”

He paused a moment before adding jokingly, or maybe not: “If anything, I am probably just talking down on myself, saying I’m a gorilla. But it is one of my favorite animals anyway. That’s why I don’t mind.”

Lewis’ disregard for stereotype might leave Megyn Kelly with a severe case of whiplash, but he is just being himself — irreverent, and self-directed. It is also evident that Lewis knows where he has been and who he has become: a family man who overcame a turbulent childhood, an angry adolescence and a stint in prison to earn big paydays in the Octagon and find peace in his personal life.

“Derrick is a big star. He is always one punch away from winning a fight or turning a fight around,” UFC president Dana White told me. “If you’ve got a guy who is fun and exciting to watch fight and they have a personality, it is a home run, man.”

Clearly, Lewis has what it takes to thrive in the few-holds-barred UFC world. His social media game is top-notch. On Instagram, his 1.4 million followers are treated to a mix of zany photos and videos. There is a slick-dancing rodeo cowboy doing his thing to a bawdy country tune. Another video features a buxom young woman in a midriff-baring sweater bouncing her stuff to a hip-hop beat. Still another features Lewis at his Houston home playfully working himself (all) over with a massage ball.

There are also, of course, shots of Lewis in the cage, doing what he does to pay the bills: brutally beating down opponents. “To me, MMA is just like street fighting, without the hitting in the nuts and eye-gouging,” he said.

Some fans compare Lewis’ technique to that of the late mixed martial arts legend Kimbo Slice, who also got his start fighting in the street. It is a comparison that Lewis has heard many times, but he finds it to be a bit off. “I’m a little more technical,” he said with a smile.

Derrick Lewis (right) punches Alexander Volkov during a heavyweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 229 in Las Vegas on Oct. 6. Lewis won by knockout in the third round.

AP Photo/John Locher

If UFC offers its followers an escape to a world where outrageous behavior is encouraged and rewarded, then Lewis is the epitome of UFC. He freely acknowledges that he says whatever comes to mind in interviews just to break the tedium. And his fans seem to love it.

After his stunning come-from-behind knockout over Russian Alexander Volkov on Oct. 6, Lewis removed his trunks, threw them over his shoulder and stood in the Octagon in black boxers for his postfight interview.

Asked why he took his shorts off, Lewis deadpanned: “My balls was hot.” He then put his shorts back on and said that President Donald Trump had called him a few hours before the fight and told him to “knock this Russian [expletive] out because they’re making him look bad on the news.” (While that last part sounds conceivable coming from a president who praises body-slamming, Lewis just made it up.)

With that out of the way, the interviewer raised the prospect of a title bout in the near future. Lewis, who was winded and had struggled throughout the fight, was still all jokes. “I need to sit my black a– down and do some more cardio,” he said. “… I ain’t trying to fight for no title right now. Not with no gas tank like that. ”

The crowd at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas went wild, as did mixed martial arts followers around the globe. White said Lewis gained upward of 1 million social media followers after that fight. Sensing a moment, UFC moved quickly to arrange the title bout against heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. Lewis has said the fight could pay him about $1 million.

“It is a different kind of adrenaline to fight professionally than to fight someone in the street.”

That Lewis would ever see such a payday was unthinkable when he was growing up in New Orleans. He had six siblings, and money was always an issue for the family. His mother had a decent job at a shipyard, but his stepfather was abusive. Lewis said his mother and stepfather would go at it all the time, the yelling and screaming at times escalating into full-blown fistfights. Often, his stepfather would get kicked out of the house, only to talk his way back in.

“I couldn’t ever really leave the house to go out and play, thinking that they were going to fight whenever we were not there,” Lewis said. “I was always peeking through the blinds to see if they were arguing. It was real bad.”

His mother eventually fled with the children to Houston when Lewis was a teenager. He says his mother tells him that if she had stayed, Lewis would have killed her husband. He doesn’t disagree.

By the time the family split, Lewis had absorbed the anger and chaos that he had experienced at home. He fought in the street all the time. “I was almost doing it as a hobby,” he said. “I would put myself in situations where I knew trouble could pop off at any given moment.”

Still, Lewis dreamed of playing professional football, and he was a good enough defensive end to earn a scholarship to a junior college about 200 miles from Houston. But before he graduated from high school, he got into a fight with a man he said was verbally harassing him. “I punched him in the face a couple times,” Lewis said.

Lewis was convicted of aggravated assault. He got lucky when the judge put him on probation, which allowed him to go off to school. But before long he violated probation, and he was imprisoned for 3½ years.

In retrospect, Lewis says prison did him some good. He got into his share of fights, but he also found time to settle his mind, mature and move past much of his anger.

After his release, he found work as a tow truck driver. He also began to train seriously as a boxer, at one point working with former heavyweight champion George Foreman. But he saw a long road ahead before he could make any real money boxing, so he decided to try mixed martial arts.

He turned out to be a natural. He won his first professional fight in 2010, but mixed martial arts was just his side hustle for years, allowing him to pick up a few hundred dollars here and there. “I remember in the early days, he was just trying to make ends meet,” said Lewis’ trainer, James Gerland. “He would get a call and leave straight from work and go fight.”

Derrick Lewis (left) fights against Mark Hunt during UFC Fight Night in Auckland, New Zealand, on June 11, 2017.

Simon Watts-USA TODAY Sports

Slowly but surely, Lewis made his way up the rankings and into the imagination of mixed martial arts fans. He has won 21 times against five losses, and he has knocked out 18 of his opponents. As his success has grown, the man who calls himself the Black Beast senses that his anger has cooled.

Lewis says he is more forgiving than ever and now looks for ways to help people, not hurt them. After Hurricane Harvey left Houston drowning under some 40 inches of rain last year, Lewis transported an estimated 100 people from floodwaters to safety in his lifted pickup truck.

These days, Lewis says he struggles to work himself up to do battle in the Octagon. “It is a different kind of adrenaline to fight professionally than to fight someone in the street,” he said. “It is real hard to get myself in a mood to fight somebody who hasn’t done anything to me.”

His biggest motivation is earning money to support his wife and three children. “That’s what I think about, the money. My family depends on me for taking care of them with the bills and all that,” he said. “I am in it for them, to make sure they have a better life than I had.”

Lewis says he will fight as long as his body holds up. There is no telling how long that will be. Already, he has back problems. Also, his stamina is an issue, which Gerland, his trainer, attributes to a hormone imbalance.

Lewis is an overwhelming underdog in his upcoming battle against Cormier, a 5-foot-11, 235-pound former Olympic wrestler who has only one loss in the Octagon and 21 wins. But Lewis said he is not worried. He says he won as soon as he learned that his full purse for the fight is guaranteed.

“This is one of the fights when I am 100 percent not worried. Usually, I’m worried that I am going to lose, because that means I am going to lose 50 percent of the check,” he said. “This time, I’m getting paid a flat fee no matter if I win or lose. So I’m good.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.