When Derrick Lewis takes on Ciryl Gane in the main event of UFC 265 with the interim UFC heavyweight title on the line, Lewis will find himself as a sizable underdog. On paper, that makes sense. Gane is an athletic specimen, undefeated in MMA, and has some of the smoothest and most technical kickboxing skill the heavyweight division has seen in recent years.
That said, Lewis shouldn’t be counted out. What Lewis does inside the cage isn’t the prettiest or the most nuanced, but it is an approach to MMA that perfectly suits his size and athletic abilities.
It’s no secret that Lewis is a knockout artist; 20 of his 25 wins have come by way of KO/TKO. How he earns those knockouts, often later in the fight, is by waiting for very specific opportunities to attack — we’ll call them windows of violence.
Because Lewis isn’t particularly fleet-footed or a technical master, even by heavyweight standards, he doesn’t typically force these windows through elaborate set-ups or expert footwork and cagecraft. Instead, he’s a home run hitter, plain and simple; he’s an expert at recognizing the opportunity to attack and taking full advantage of it.
Lewis finds these windows of violence both moving forward (on the front foot), or backing up (on the back foot). Importantly, Lewis’ game is perfectly suited to heavyweight MMA; it wouldn’t translate well to a lower weight class where he would be less powerful and his opponents more mobile.
Windows of violence on the front foot
Lewis creates windows of violence on the front foot by pressuring his opponent to the cage to limit his mobility, effectively forcing his opponent to stand, at least momentarily, directly in front of him.
Rather than using complex stance switches or relying on his mobility to cut off the cage, Lewis largely relies on the threat of his power to back opponents into the fence. Again, Lewis’ weight class is important here, because small, speedier, and more mobile fighters would be much more difficult to pressure, but Lewis often finds success against lumbering heavyweights that rightly respect Lewis’ thundering power.
Whether he’s fighting on the front or back foot, Lewis is very much right-hand dominant. That’s particularly true when he has an opponent hurt. One of Lewis’ favorite tactics when fighting on the front foot is to use his left hand to measure before unloading a bomb of a right hand. If he throws a jab, it’s meant only to gauge distance and offer a brief distraction before throwing the right hand. And even when Lewis doesn’t throw a jab, he often extends his left arm fully to feel where his opponent is to better target the right hand that is inevitably coming. This is Lewis’ favorite approach when he has a fighter hurt or backed into the fence.
Of course, any success that Lewis finds on the front foot comes from waiting for the perfect window of violence, and that window presents itself once his opponent is trapped against the fence. In other words, the barrier created by the fence ensures that Lewis’ opponent, even for just a moment, will be directly in front of him. Once his opponent sits still against the fence, Lewis sees his opportunity and pounces with home run shot after home run shot.
Another tactic that Lewis uses to find his window of violence is his surprising kicking game. For a full-size heavyweight, Lewis throws an incredible amount of head kicks and knees. But those lower body attacks serve a specific purpose: they create a window of violence. If he is kicking or kneeing in open space, Lewis will use them to back his opponent to the fence. And if he is kicking an opponent that is already against the fence, Lewis loves to use a head kick or knee to force his opponent to defend, lining up a follow-up right hand.
One of Lewis’ best and favorite combinations is a kick or knee immediately followed by a straight right hand. Again, the kick is a simple but effective set up to find that window of violence — the moment in which Lewis’ opponent is directly in front of him and stationary.
Importantly, this window of violence doesn’t typically present itself in open space. Because Lewis punches with such power, he often throws himself entirely out of position when he misses. In the middle of the cage, his opponent can evade a punch by moving back, allowing Lewis to punch himself out of position. But when his opponent is against the cage, his movement is limited, making Lewis’ whiffs less costly. The fence forces Lewis’ opponents into a window of violence.
Windows of violence on the back foot
Lewis will also find windows of violence by drawing his opponent in. Standing tall (and therefore appearing unthreatening), Lewis will allow himself to be backed into the cage. From there, his large frame and lumbering movement makes Lewis an enticing target. Then, he simply waits with his right hand on a hair trigger, ready to fire off a knockout blow the moment his opponent commits to a forward attack.
Although Lewis isn’t proactively setting up an attack, he is creating the conditions in which a window of violence presents itself. By backing himself to the cage, standing tall and appearing so hittable, Lewis is luring his opponent into that window of violence, that moment in which Lewis is ready to launch his offense.
Lewis’ counter-striking game is rudimentary but effective, particularly against slower or less skilled heavyweights. For the most part, Lewis throws one of two punches on the counter: the straight right or the right uppercut. Both punches are typically paired with a slip of the head to avoid whatever attack Lewis’ opponent started his approach with.
Importantly, Lewis throws these counter punches just like he does other punches: with fully committed power. This has two effects. First, if and when Lewis misses, he will often find himself thrown out of position by the haymaker he just threw, leaving him open to takedowns or counter-counter-punches. This is why, while he can and will counter-strike in open space, it’s safer for Lewis to counter against the fence, where his opponent is more likely to crash forward into him rather than maintaining distance. Second, because he throws so hard, and his opponents know this, Lewis can make his opponents more tentative to attack, knowing the fight-ending consequences of a single Lewis counter.
How can Derrick Lewis beat Ciryl Gane?
Against Gane, Lewis will have an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of winning. Lewis will need to find and take advantage of as many windows of violence as possible; the problem is that Gane has shown to be an incredibly patient and methodical fighter, so those windows will be few and far between.
Because Gane is so mobile, especially by heavyweight standards, Lewis likely won’t be able to consistently pressure Gane. Instead, Lewis would be wise to back himself to the fence where footspeed and mobility matter much less. It’s there — with Lewis’ back to the cage — that much of this fight will probably take place.
Assuming Lewis approaches this fight planning to counter, he’ll have to take advantage of the few opportunities Gane gives him. On the outside, Lewis will have to deal with Gane’s superb and varied kicking game. The worst case scenario for Lewis (and fans) would be Gane simply standing at range and picking apart Lewis with kicks to the legs and body. If Gane becomes reckless or predictable with those kicks, that will be Lewis’ best window of violence, as he has shown an aptitude for moving inside lazily-thrown kicks with counter punches.
Lewis is, above all else, an economical fighter. He has a number of late-round knockouts not because he has incredible cardio, but because he is able to watch his opponents drain their energy meter while his stays high. Lewis is huge and durable, so fighting him — even when winning — is an exhausting endeavor. It’s later in the fight, when his opponent becomes tired, slower, and more willing to pause directly in front of Lewis, that Lewis typically finds his windows of violence.
Lewis’ best chance of defeating Gane will come late in the fight. Early on, Lewis simply cannot compete with Gane in terms of athleticism and overall technical ability. Instead, he should use the first two or even three rounds of the fight to take as little damage as possible and conserve as much energy as possible. Gane has shown in back-to-back five-rounders that he’s capable of fighting for a full 25 minutes, but that doesn’t mean he won’t slow down or tire. If Gane relies on his kicking game to avoid exchanging punches with Lewis, he may tire even faster and slow just enough to give Lewis the opening he needs.
This analysis doesn’t even consider the elements of grappling, which could play an important factor in the fight. But that factor fits into the overall dynamics of the fight; Gane certainly has the athleticism and ability to bring the fight to the mat, but once it’s there, Lewis will fight economically and conserve his energy. Lewis doesn’t mind losing individual grappling exchanges so long as they force his opponent to expend energy while he is able to save his.
Ultimately, Lewis will have to look for and take advantage of every single window of violence he sees. Gane is a methodical and technical fighter, so those windows will be few and far between. However, if Lewis is able to survive to the later rounds, those windows will present themselves more often as Gane tires. If Gane enters an exchange lazily, particularly with a kick, look for Lewis to throw a home run right hand on a hair trigger.
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