Derrick Lewis and Francis Ngannou may not be vying for a title at UFC 226, but their long-awaited grudge match is still one of the most anticipated fights of the summer.
Lewis meets Ngannou on July 7 in Las Vegas in a marquee showdown between heavyweight sluggers as part of the UFC’s annual International Fight Week — and it’s no secret what the two rivals bring to the cage. Over the years, Lewis and Ngannou have combined to score violent, often highlight-reel knockouts in 14 of their 16 total Octagon victories. That penchant for flat-lining foes is the biggest reason why a matchup between Lewis and Ngannou has long been coveted among MMA circles. And now that it’s finally here, Lewis can already feel the excitement surrounding his summer dance date.
“It is crazy. I felt the same way when I fought ‘Big Country’ [Roy Nelson], because seeing ‘Big Country’ fight everybody, knock everybody out — then it’s like a dream come true whenever I finally fought him,” Lewis said Monday on The MMA Hour. “It’s going to feel almost the same way fighting Francis. A guy like him beating everybody, knocking everybody out, then finally facing him — I just live for that type of rush, that thrill, because I don’t call anybody out that I know I could easily beat.
“I like to fight tough fights. I believe the tough fights bring out the better fighter in myself.”
There is no doubt that Lewis, 33, and Ngannou are two of the most feared punchers in the sport. Both men own a lengthy highlight reel of concussions caused by their handiwork.
Although Lewis has a more accomplished Octagon record — 10-3 compared to his foe’s 6-1 UFC run — Ngannou has done more with less, having already challenged unsuccessfully for the title in a grueling effort against Stipe Miocic earlier this year at UFC 220.
Ngannou’s road to the top was expedited by big wins over aging names Alistair Overeem and Andrei Arlovski, both of whom are world-class heavyweights whose best days are likely behind them. Because of that, Lewis still holds firm to the idea that Ngannou’s hype train surpasses his skills at this point in his young MMA career.
“Beating on Francis is really not going to really do too much for me anyway, because the guy got to where he’s at right now on luck,” Lewis said. “He fought Overeem — Overeem doesn’t have a chin. He fought Arlovski — Arlovski doesn’t have a chin. Fight somebody that’s tough. Fight a Mark Hunt, somebody like that who’s real tough. Don’t fight these old guys who are already on the downside of their career.”
Those kind of jabs are nothing new between Lewis and Ngannou. The two have seemingly been on a collision course since Ngannou emerged as a potential UFC heavyweight contender in 2016 with a string of knockout wins.
For a time, the two sniped at one another from afar, with Lewis railing against Ngannou for being “overhyped” and Ngannou jabbing Lewis for getting beaten “like a baby” against Mark Hunt last June, among other shots. But the rivalry between the two escalated earlier this year when Lewis made it clear that he planned to call out Ngannou after his UFC Austin fight against Marcin Tybura, which Lewis won via third-round knockout.
Lewis fulfilled his end of the bargain and called out Ngannou. According to “The Black Beast,” the UFC sent him a contract for the matchup in February, a week after UFC Austin, however the offer languished without an answer from Ngannou for long enough that Lewis was almost ready to move on to his next option.
“I already told them don’t even worry about it then, give me Fabricio (Werdum), since I owe Fabricio an ass-whooping anyway,” Lewis said.
“This is way better.”
Lewis said the UFC explained the delay by claiming that Ngannou was “out of town” and did not see the contract.
Nonetheless, “The Black Beast” has his own theory as to why it took so long for Ngannou and the UFC to finalize the deal.
“Even though we’re going to sell pay-per-views, we’re not going to get a piece of the pie at all, so that’s what I don’t like about it,” Lewis said.
“I think they’re giving Francis a piece of the pie. I believe so, because there’s got to be a negotiation reason why he didn’t respond to the contract that they tried to give him to fight me. I’m guessing that’s what they were going back-and-forth, and I guess he got what he wanted. I’m sure that’s what it is. If I was in his position, the No. 1 [ranked] fighter — I don’t got nothing lose — fighting a guy who’s ranked No. 6, [if I was Ngannou] I could really just sit back and wait for the heavyweight title. But I’m sure he feels like he’s got them where he wanted and he could ask them for anything right now. He’s the No. 1 guy in the world.”
Moving forward, Lewis said he’s healed up nicely from the Tybura fight. The hand injury he dealt with in the bout’s aftermath is in good shape, and he expects to be cleared by doctors next week. He’s also under no illusions of what his battle against Ngannou will be.
A puncher’s delight with scant takedowns and a quick, decisive finish.
“[It’ll end in] probably a round-and-a-half,” Lewis predicted. “Most likely, yeah. The two-minute mark of the second round, tops.
“You never know, but there’s 100 percent no chance that I’m gonna try to shoot on him.”
With Miocic set to defend his heavyweight title against UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier in UFC 226’s main event, the timing of Lewis vs. Ngannou could put “The Black Beast” in an ideal spot moving forward.
A victory would push Lewis’ record to 8-1 over his last nine fights, and considering the lack of depth in the division, he could be approaching his ever-elusive first title shot.
“I believe so. It makes the most sense,” Lewis said. “Really, Stipe already beat just about everybody in the top five anyway, so it wouldn’t really make sense for them to get the next shot, besides me or Francis, because he’s the No. 1 contender, but everyone else is really not even worthy enough to fight Stipe again.”