LAS VEGAS — Listen to any high-level mixed martial arts fighter talk for any length of time, or follow him or her on social media, and a theme will quickly develop: hours upon hours per day in the gym.
The sport requires varied training and it’s not unusual for fighters to put in three multi-hour sessions a day, five or six days a week.
Derrick Lewis positioned himself to be one of the best heavyweights in the world essentially by doing the opposite.
Lewis, the UFC’s fourth-ranked heavyweight who on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at Apex will meet Aleksei Oleinik in the main event of a Fight Night card, has for much of his career been limited by knee and back injuries to training just 30 minutes once a day.
Yet, Lewis has fought an impressive slate of heavyweights while compiling a 23-7 record, including 14-5 in the UFC, and going against the grain.
His body wouldn’t cooperate, but he still managed to make himself one of the best in the world. But since Lewis had knee surgery last year, he feels he’s a completely different fighter. For the first time, he believes he can make a legitimate run at the heavyweight title and be successful.
Now that he’s healthy, he realizes what he’s capable of accomplishing and so he’s not only getting into better shape, he’s working on developing his skills.
“For sure it was [frustrating to lose fights I was capable of winning] and I look back at a lot of those fights and it bothers me,” he said. “It all boils down to my training. I used to train only 30 minutes a day. Since I fought D.C. [then-UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier], I have started training a lot more. You might start seeing a slimmer version of me. I’ve been training more instead of just 30 minutes a day.
“Before, I didn’t have the cardio to go like I needed to. I wasn’t developing my game. I was just really relying on my power and not taking anything that seriously.”
Lewis lost the championship bout versus Cormier on Nov. 3, 2018, but it was an eye-opener for him. He trained harder for that fight than he had done previously, and as he mulled over what he’d done, he began to believe he’d let himself down.
He lost to Cormier and then another former champion, Junior dos Santos, and decided to have the surgery. He had a new attitude about his job, but needed to repair his body so he could follow through.
He’s subsequently won fights against Blagoy Ivanov and Ilir Latifi and thinks he’s continuing to get better.
“I got all the way to a championship fight and I started realizing that I hadn’t really been training,” Lewis said. “Imagine if I would have been training more and taking everything seriously. I’d be champ by now. So that’s what I’ve been doing lately. I’m healthy and I’ve made the commitment to put in the work to make myself the best I can be.”
He said he’ll probably weigh in Friday between 260 and 265 pounds, which is the range he’s been in for many of his fights, but he said the weight will be distributed differently. His body fat has decreased and his lean muscle mass has increased.
He feels he has the cardio to go five hard rounds, if need be, though he’s not looking to prove anything.
“The thing about the cardio is that it’s like peace of mind for yourself, because you know that if, somehow, he manages to take all this stuff and we’re there in the late third round, fourth round, even the fifth round, I have enough left in the tank that I can dig down and do what I need to do,” he said. “But make no mistake: I want to get him out of there.
“He’s a veteran who has been around a long time and can be dangerous with all of those submissions he has. I’m prepared for that. I’ve taken this fight very seriously. But if I have the opportunity to finish him, you know that I’m going to go for it.”
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