About 9 months ago, Derrick "The Beast" Lewis got the call that all mixed martial artists wait for. The UFC wanted him, and he was booked for a fight on August 28th against Nandor Guelmino, a Strikeforce holdover who had most recently fought former UFC Heavyweight Champion Josh Barnett. Derrick was 9-2, had just won and defended the Legacy Heavyweight title, and felt like he was ready to make the jump. That was, until he went down to Coconut Creek, Florida to prepare at American Top Team.
"It was embarrassing when I got to ATT. It felt like I didn't really know anything," Lewis said. "I never got the real training I should have gotten. I was never coached the way I should have been. The guys I was training with there, they were humbling me because I just didn't really know how it should be. All this time I had thought I was ready to be in the UFC, and I realized then that I really shouldn't even be there."
The eye opening trip to Florida ended badly for Lewis. During a takedown drill, he hit the back of his head on an exposed screw. The injury required 10 stitches in the back of his head, but that wasn't the worst of it. After a few days he started to experience headaches, which he refers to as brain freeze headaches. "It was like I was eating ice cream non-stop. I had a headache like that for 5 days, and finally went to the hospital to see what was happening."
The diagnosis was a blood clot in his sinuses, a trauma injury that often occurs with car accident victims. The worst case scenario was he would have to be on blood thinners for the rest of his life, which would mean he wouldn't be able to fight again. Luckily, after 4 months on blood thinners, the doctors said the clot was gone and he was at no risk of reoccurrence. Unfortunately, the time to fight had come and gone, and Lewis had been on the shelf for nearly 6 months.
"It was stressful, man. I was just sitting around waiting for a call. It was depressing. You are anxious every day, just waiting for the phone to ring. It seemed like it had taken forever to get to this point, now it was taking forever again just to get an opponent. I was bartending at Mo's Place in Katy on Fridays and Saturdays. My sponsors have helped a little. My fiancee has been great. If it wasn't for her I would be in a whole lotta debt."
The call finally came earlier this month, and the opponent is unbeaten Californian Jack May on April 19th. "I instantly said yes. I think I said yes before they told me the name. I didn't care who it was. I would've fought Cain Velasquez next month if they told me to. I just wanted to fight."
The time Lewis spent at ATT was life changing. Training 3 times a day, with former UFC Champion Tim Sylvia, Brett Rodgers, head coach Conan Silvera and Olympic wrestler Steve Mocco. "Once I got past the shock of realizing how far behind my game was, it gave me a lot of confidence to train with those guys. Everyone there was great at what they do. Olympic wrestlers. Top 10 Muay Thai fighters. Everyone there is top level. I realized it took way too long for me to start training like that."
Derrick has mixed feelings about the coaching he got early on in his career at Silverback Fight Club in Houston under Tony Orozco. "Tony taught me a lot, in all areas of my life. The problem was, there just wasn't enough coaching. I would go to the gym sometimes and there would be no one there to help me. It felt like a waste of time. I was there for 3 years. Silverback was like a family environment. I would go there and guys would joke around and maybe train a little. At IV Oz. Fight Club (Lewis' new gym in Houston) and ATT it is more like a business, and if there is any time left over after work we have some fun."
On top of the underwhelming training Lewis was receiving, his gym was hindering him from making the type of money he should have from sponsors. When sponsors would approach him, Orozco would pressure the sponsor to also sponsor the gym, driving the price up and driving the potential earnings for Lewis out the door. Lewis doesn't put all the blame on Orozco, though. "When I started, I just wanted to fight. I should have been more educated about the sport. I started talking to other coaches and managers and found out the percentages their fighters were paying them. They would say 10%, maybe 15%. I felt like Mike Tyson with Don King. I was giving him 30% of my purse. There was just a bunch of stuff that pushed me away from the gym and away from Tony."
Orozco had told Lewis early on that when the time came, he would send him off to a bigger gym. Meanwhile, local fighters, coaches and promoters were in Lewis' ear. Every week people were trying to convince him to go to a new gym, where his God-given skills could be nurtured. "Tony would just tell me that they wanted all the credit. When the time came that I had a chance to go to ATT, he acted like I was screwing him over. That frustrated me because I had stuck it out with him through some tough times, when I could have been advancing my career, so I didn't feel like I owed him anything."
"He wanted to say that he had put a guy in the UFC, and he didn't want to share the credit. He wanted all the credit," Lewis says in a tone that exudes more sadness than anger. "Really, it's embarrassing that he wanted that credit. If you watch my old fights, I am never the more skilled guy. I don't have better technique. I win those fights with heart and strength. It's very frustrating to go back and look at the old me, because I know if I had branched out sooner, I would be a lot further along than I am now. I hate watching those fights. I can't believe I won those fights. Against Jared Rosholt, I knocked him out, but when I watch it I don't feel good because the punches I used to beat him were horrible technique."
Lewis has let go of the ill will it seems. "I don't hold anything against Tony. Whenever I didn't have anyone else, Tony was there for me. I will always thank him for that."
Lewis knows more about forgiveness and second chances than most. He was sentenced to 3 and a half years in prison when he severely beat a Ku Klux Klan member armed with a shotgun in 2005. When in prison, he made a list of things he may want to do after his release. They included returning to college for a business management degree, driving a tow truck or becoming a boxer. "I always thought boxing was one of the only sports that would give a felon a chance to really turn his life around." He got out and worked for a towing company, and one day a call brought him to the part of town near Silverback Fight Club. He stopped by, met Tony Orozco and Dale Mitchell, and started his training.
While Lewis is a changed man, he looks at his past as fuel for his future. "The advantage I have over these guys is that a lot of them could go out and find a good job and have a good life. What I have gone through in my life is what pushes me. As a guy with a record coming out of prison, I don't fight because it's fun. I fight because it is probably my last chance to be successful and make some serious money."
As far as the future, Lewis feels he is more prepared now than he would have been had he gotten his original opponent in August of last year. "I don't respect any of these heavyweights in the UFC. I don't look up to any of them. These are just guys I have to beat now. As far as Jack May, he should be be mad at his management. He has fought cans his whole career. They didn't set him up where he will be prepared for this. He hasn't seen the type of competition I have. Every fight I ever had, I knew it wouldn't be easy. He is definitely going to regret taking this fight with me."
"The Beast" is hungry, and April 19th is feeding time.