How can I explain why I recently spent a rainy Saturday in Houston with UFC heavyweight Derrick Lewis, his coach, Bob Perez, his mountainous strength coach, Jimmy Gerland, and a Michael Myers Halloween costume?
We'll come back to that later. Promise.
The point is, if I had to give an explanation, I guess I would say: Lewis is tired of answering stupid questions.
He's faced a lot of stupid questions since the world found out he's fighting Daniel Cormier for the heavyweight title on Saturday, November 3 at UFC 230 in New York. His team and the UFC have been inundated by demand for a few minutes of Lewis' time since he beat Alexander Volkov on October 6 to punch his ticket to the Cormier bout. The media swarmed Lewis after the fight, but not to discuss the matchup itself.
Oh, they pretended they wanted to know more about his win over Volkov and the way Lewis rallied from near-certain defeat, because it was awesome. But most of them viewed questions about the fight as a conduit to the thing they really wanted to talk about.
What they really wanted to talk about was Lewis' balls.
So here's the scene: Lewis is waiting for Joe Rogan to interview him. He's just pulled an improbable comeback and beaten Volkov for the biggest win of his career. We're talking the stuff of legend. It had been the kind of fight where you sat on your couch at home and begged the referee to stop it because it had gone on too long. Lewis is done, done, done—right up until he isn't.
It's kind of Lewis' thing. He's made a career of it, and he does it once more against Volkov and shrugs it off like it is something any other person could do. It is surprising, but not really. There is a thing that's surprising, however: Lewis' shorts are gone.
Somehow, in the minute or two that passed since the end of the bout, he's relieved himself of his fight shorts. He's wearing his underwear and nothing else, right there in front of God and everybody.
Rogan walks over to discuss Lewis' incredible comeback win but hits the most important topic right away. He asks Lewis about his shorts and where they ran off to, and Lewis, sweating profusely and gasping for air, looks at Rogan and gives him what might be the best one-line response in UFC post-fight interview history.
"My balls was hot."
It's the way Lewis says the line that makes it land.
He has the best deadpan voice and facial expression. The best. He can say something absurd and hilarious with the straightest of faces. It is a talent few possess. Rogan takes the answer in stride. "I understand," the comedian says. I'm still not sure how he kept a straight face.
Oh, and this sort of thing happens all the time with Lewis. When you ask a question, he'll give you an answer. He's not a liar. Not even a little bit. And he doesn't do fake promotional hype or anything like that. It's just that, well, he's tired of answering the same questions from one reporter after another. It's boring. And when he's bored, things happen. Things like the bit I mentioned at the top, with the Michael Myers mask.
We'll get to that part. I promise.
There are plenty of things Lewis says that can't be included in this story, at least not without someone (me) getting fired. But even when he's not forcing the UFC's media department to work overtime to censor his language, Lewis keeps the media on its toes by answering questions with outrageous stories the interviewer knows are false. And even when the person knows he's fibbing, Lewis sells it so well that doubt starts creeping in.
"Derrick, I saw you on TV a couple of nights ago at the basketball game. Was that fun?"
"Nah, I wasn't at a basketball game. I was in Thailand training with monkeys and s--t."
When Lewis started fighting in the UFC, the only thing the media wanted to talk about was his time in jail. He told MMA Fighting's Chuck Mindenhall in 2014 that he was partying one night in high school when he ran into the ex-husband of a woman he had been romantic with. Things went south, and Lewis beat the guy, who had a shotgun, senseless. It was bad, and Lewis was charged with aggravated assault.
He got two years' probation but then violated its terms and was sentenced to five years in prison. He served three-and-a half years. It was a hot topic for a while. He answered a lot of questions about it back then, and he doesn't have anything new to add.
After the part about the balls, Rogan asks if Lewis wants a title shot.
It makes sense. He just scored a high-profile win and then followed it with a classic line, sending his marketability through the roof.
But Lewis shoots it down, saying he needs to work on his cardio.
"F--k what you talking about right now," Lewis says. "I ain't trying to fight for no title."
And, look. He is telling the truth. He does want to take some time off. He wants to heal his body. He wants to drive his new Mercedes-AMG GT R, an expensive, monstrous car that can make a passenger regret asking for a ride. He is building a new house, too, not too far from his current one. He opened a beauty shop a few years back, and it was successful enough that he's planning a second location. He's expanding his business empire, brick by brick.
So there are a lot of things Lewis could be doing instead of preparing for a fight. But what usually happens after Lewis says he wants time off is the UFC will call him a week or two later, and suddenly, he'll find himself getting ready for a short-notice bout, which is not the same thing as relaxing and healing his body.
But a new fight means a new chance to make money. Now that he's on a guaranteed flat-rate contract and not his old win/show deal, it's even easier to cut short his vacation. Winning is still important, but not having to worry about getting his pay halved if he loses lessens the pressure.
About a week after Lewis said he wasn't ready for a title fight, UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard—who has known Lewis for years and has helped shepherd the fighter's career while promoting bouts in Houston and with the UFC—calls Perez, who has a feeling he knows what Maynard wants when he sees the call come in.
Maynard asks if Lewis can be ready for a fight on November 3, the UFC's Madison Square Garden show. He's intrigued, but Perez replies that they aren't interested unless it is for the title. Maynard can't (or more likely, won't) confirm if it is a title fight against Cormier. Instead, he repeats the question: Can Derek be ready for November 3? Perez gets the hint.
And, well, that changes things. Vacation can wait.
The UFC doesn't try to lure Lewis into taking the fight by giving him a huge boost in pay. The promotion doesn't need to. He's not receiving pay-per-view points—the system whereby UFC champions and others (Conor McGregor) get a portion of the UFC's profits from a show they headline—so a big buyrate won't pad his bank account in the way it does for other main event stars, or in the way it will pad Cormier's coffers.
For Lewis, what this fight represents—and the reason he accepted it with zero hesitation—is opportunity.
If he beats Cormier, he'll be the heavyweight champion. That's a cool thing, but it's not something Lewis cares about. The real opportunities are the money and visibility that come with being the heavyweight champion. As the titleholder, he'll receive pay-per-view points, and he might get to step into Cormier's expected fight against Brock Lesnar next year.
And if Lewis beats Cormier and then headlines a pay-per-view against Lesnar?
Oh, man. Hoo, boy. At that point, he's pulling in forever money, which means the rest of us should enjoy him while we can. Because once Lewis has enough money to consider himself financially secure, he's done with fighting. It's a dangerous way to make a living.
"Once I know I'm set for life, I'm done," he says.
It's a Saturday morning in Houston when I walk into the gym Perez owns with former boxer Lou Savarese.
The gym is just a few blocks from the Toyota Center and looks like the sort of place that's well-suited to defend itself against the hipster foodie spots and craft beer bars that started taking over the city a decade ago. It's a real gym, the kind of place where pugilists have earned their spots. It has that smell you look for in a real gym: sweat mixed with an unidentifiable something else, all partially masked by the lemon cleaning product used more for killing germs than tidying up.
Perez greets me at the door and lets me know Lewis is running late, which does not surprise me; in my experience, no fighter in history has mastered the concept of time. But he also tells me Lewis is tired and a little worn down, and that today would be an easy day. Some cardio. Some stretching. Which is both fine by me and understandable. Cramming an eight-week fight camp into three weeks is not a good idea.
I already know he's sick and tired of answering questions, I tell Perez, which works out great because I have no questions for him. Perez raises his eyebrows in suspicion. Seriously, I tell him. I don't want to sit down and turn on a recorder and interview Derrick. I don't want to ask him about his fight camp, because that's boring, but also because it's less than a month in duration.
I just want to hang out, be a fly on the wall, observe and hopefully do all of that in a way that is not weird or off-putting.
A few minutes later, Lewis walks through the front door. Perez introduces us even though we've met at least 30 times (this is great for self-esteem, by the way) and then relays what I told him about not wanting a typical interview and how I just want to hang out and watch.
Lewis raises his eyebrows in suspicion. I assure him I have no ulterior motive. I can tell he does not believe me.
Gerland leads Lewis through some easy stretching before giving him a massage. The previous day, Lewis had gone through four hours of hard training, which is not a thing the human body enjoys. He looks worn but OK. He also looked worn (or almost dead?) against Volkov, and we saw how that turned out.
Regardless, today is a light day, so we all hop into Gerland's truck and head toward the skate park where Lewis likes to do his cardio.
"It's where he prefers to do his cardio, not likes to do it," Perez says. The implication is that Lewis, like many people, merely tolerates cardio.
For the first half-hour, Gerland drives us around and pretends he knows where he is and where we're going. I am certain we are lost. We finally make it to the park. But this is Houston, and it is still raining. It's been raining for seven days, and Lewis is apprehensive about running on wet stairs. "I'll slip and fall," he says.
We sit in the truck for another half-hour and watch the rain. There will be no running today.
But then I discover a lifelike Michael Myers mask on the floorboard of the truck, and the overalls to go with it.
And there are a lot of people milling around at the park for a food truck festival. A lot of unsuspecting people. Strolling through a wooded park. On a rainy day.
This is how bad ideas become reality.
So, that's how I find myself at a Houston park on a rainy Saturday, watching and crying from laughter while a giant Michael Myers lumbers around and startles people who do not deserve it.
It starts with Gerland, who's wearing the mask in the truck and staring at the people walking by. He cranks up the soundtrack from Halloween and just stares and stares, waiting for people to react. But they don't because they are doing what humans do, which is do everything in our power to not see or interact with strangers.
Lewis is filming everything with his phone because he is an Instagram master and you just never know when you might need a certain kind of footage (seriously, if you don't follow him, I don't know what to say to you). But he is hunkered down in the seat to avoid being recognized; people recognize him a lot these days, and it's a hassle.
"You ain't gonna see me coming up out of this truck," Lewis says with a shake of his head. "Nope."
We decide to drive around downtown Houston to see if we can get reactions that way. The idea is Gerland will wear the mask and stare at the cars next to us when we pull up to the stoplights. I tell the guys I'm feeling a little bit of regret about my decision to join them on this excursion, and they laugh. I wasn't trying to be funny.
We don't get any reactions from other drivers, thank the Lord, so we go back to another part of the park where crowds of Houstonians old and young are ambling to the food truck festival.
Gerland waits until the coast is clear and then gets out of the truck and dons the full Michael Myers costume. Lewis turns the truck stereo to its highest setting. Gerland starts slowly, so very slowly, walking over to a group that's heading up the hill toward us.
The first woman who spots him does almost a physical manifestation of someone saying nope before pulling a 180-degree turn and vanishing back from whence she came. I can't blame her a bit. I know the guy under the mask, and I'm still ready to bolt if he heads my way.
"Oh no, you don't," a man at the front of the group says to Gerland, who has the look, size and beard of WWE's Braun Strowman. "Come over here. I dare you. I got something for your ass."
Here's a confession.
In the time I spent with him, Lewis didn't train a bit. Not once. He didn't break a sweat, but what he did was laugh. A lot. Huge, booming laughs.
We all did. We filmed a lot of it on our phones, except for the bits where we were hiding because we thought someone would see us cackling at their misfortune. It felt like we laughed for hours until tears streamed down our faces.
And it was important. Just as important as the training. "Days like this are good for Derrick. They heal his soul," Perez said when we got back to the gym. Lewis sat next to me, nodding slowly. "They heal his soul, and that's just as important as days like yesterday, when he puts in hours of training. It's about balance."
He's right. Because what can you really do to prepare for a fight like this, against a fighter like Cormier? In three weeks? You can't do much of anything. He's one of the greatest fighters ever. There won't be a big "aha" moment where you make a breakthrough in training and figure out a surefire way to win or to make an aspect of your game that much better.
All you can do is go through the motions that remind your mind and body of the stuff you've learned and then go in and take your shot.
Perez says—no, Perez guarantees—that Lewis will knock out Cormier. He says Cormier doesn't have a chin, which I'm skeptical of, and that he has never been hit by anyone like Lewis, which I am sure of.
But Perez is oozing confidence, as though this outcome has already happened and we're just playing a part in it. He is blissfully unaware, or just doesn't care, that the rest of the world thinks Cormier will walk right through Lewis. He's behind his guy in the way all great coaches are. He's Derrick's guy and has been from day one. He gets passionate when he's talking about Derrick, about where they've come from and where Perez is sure they're going.
Lewis? He's sitting next to me, thumbing through funny videos on his phone. He's trying to find his next Instagram post. When he chimes in, after what seems like an eternity of silence, it's not the usual kind of confident, brash boast you hear from a fighter who is sure he'll decimate his opponent.
"Win or lose, it's a big opportunity," Lewis says. "Win or lose."
That's Derrick Lewis. Calling it like he sees it, the same way he always does.