New York City’s iconic Madison Square Garden plays host to the latest UFC pay-per-view event as UFC 230 takes place in The Big Apple at the weekend.
The biggest prize in the sport is on the line in the main event as hard-hitting heavyweight challenger “The Black Beast” Derrick Lewis steps up to take on two-division world champion Daniel Cormier for the heavyweight championship of the world.
And the eyes of the MMA world will be watching as they tune in to see if the challenger’s formidable punch power can spring a shock and dethrone one of the sport’s all-time greats.
Lewis’s fighting style is a throwback to the early days of the UFC. He describes himself not as a mixed martial artist, but as a brawler. His approach is predictable and simple: he steps into the octagon and tries to knock your head off.
It’s a hugely successful approach that has seen Lewis knock out 10 opponents in the UFC’s heavyweight division – a UFC record.
And with nine wins from his last 10 fights, Lewis is in red-hot form heading into this weekend’s title fight with Cormier. Too hot, perhaps, as he explained immediately after his dramatic comeback win over Russian contender Alexander Volkov at UFC 229 earlier in October.
That humour is part and parcel of Derrick’s character. I first met him in Zagreb back in 2016 while covering his fight against former title challenger Gabriel Gonzaga, and quickly discovered his mischievous sense of humour.
But for all of the witty soundbytes and laughs outside of the cage, his intensity and power inside it make him one of the most genuinely scary fighters on the UFC roster – possibly the scariest. UFC play-by-play commentator Jon Anik described it best: “He has that break-your-face-open type of power.”
And that combination of terrifying punch power and rib-tickling humour has made him a firm favourite with MMA fans.
But can “The Black Beast” dethrone “DC” in NYC?
Cormier is a two-time Olympian, a Strikeforce Heavyweight Tournament winner and the current UFC light-heavyweight and heavyweight world champion. He’s never lost a fight as a heavyweight and in his last contest dethroned record-breaking UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Mioic by stunning first-round KO. He’s one of the sport’s all-time greats, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down at the age of 39.
The reigning champion now has his sights set on a huge money fight with former UFC heavyweight champ – and current WWE superstar – Brock Lesnar, who is due to return to the octagon in 2019.
But first, “DC” has to get past Lewis, who is looking to spring a huge upset by toppling the pound-for-pound great at the historic Madison Square Garden this weekend.
On paper, it’s Cormier’s fight to lose. He has key advantages in experience, level of opposition, cardio and his all-round MMA skillset. But all of those advantages can be wiped out with one well-timed swing of Lewis’s sledgehammer right hand. “The Black Beast” has the power to turn any fight on its head.
Even Cormier acknowledges the intrigue heading into the bout.
“I think people are excited to see if Derrick Lewis can pull off the Hail Mary,” said the defending champion.
“People want to see the underdog knock off the champion. It’s what sport’s made of, and Derrick Lewis has that Cinderella opportunity. Can he turn that night into a title? I don’t anticipate it.”
It’s a matchup that has the MMA world largely united on the likely result, but also has those same people asking one question: “What if…?”
And at UFC Moncton last weekend UFC analyst Dan Hardy referred to Lewis’s right hand as “The ‘If’ Bomb”. That’s because “if” it lands, everything will change in a heartbeat.