The unlikeliest heavyweight contender in a long time finally met a challenge he couldn’t gut through in Madison Square Garden. Derrick Lewis’ journey to the top contender slot was legitimately bizarre; two insane comebacks were sandwiched around the infamous Lewis vs. Ngannou fight (in which the former title contender looked far worse than he ever had, or has since), but the power and heart of Lewis wasn’t enough to overcome the wrestling of Daniel Cormier at UFC 230. Off that failed title bid, “The Black Beast” returns to action against Junior dos Santos in a fight to keep his spot (however tenuous, even with good wins) among the best.
Meanwhile, Junior dos Santos has been relegated to being something of a heavyweight-gatekeeper since his lopsided loss to Stipe Miocic in 2017, but he’s been twice successful in keeping that gate. Both the somewhat well-esteemed UFC debutant Blagoy Ivanov and the streaking Oceanian bruiser Tai Tuivasa fell to the stalwart contender, so dos Santos gets to be in the blue corner as a result. The last two to defeat dos Santos are still kicking at the top of the division, so his work is cut out for him in terms of getting back to the belt, but JDS has a chance to make a statement at a division in flux with an emphatic win over Derrick Lewis.
Derrick Lewis is the elite heavyweight who fights the most like the average heavyweight does; it isn’t really a compliment, considering that the best heavyweights (such as Stipe Miocic and Fedor Emelianenko) tend to fight like lighter men, but at a weight class marked by vulnerability at every step, it works for someone with the attributes that Lewis brings.
Lewis is a more powerful heavyweight than average, but his boxing is weak; he’s really more of a wild puncher than anything. For the most part, Lewis’ striking is “alternate swings every time he gets close to his opponent and throw flying knees sometimes,” and he doesn’t have the tools to do many other things at any other range. He doesn’t set his opponents up for many things, he isn’t crafty in any meaningful capacity, he doesn’t even throw a whole lot; Lewis’ success can be explained for the most part by thunderous power (to hurt his opponent as well as to deny their efforts to hold him down) and a headstrong nature that lets him push back after a lot of punishment.
This approach (if it can be called that) has led to Lewis finding himself in all sorts of adversity, but he’s won a lot despite his somewhat underdeveloped technical game. Lewis has never done anything particularly specific to take away his opponent’s best tools, he just somehow struggles through the storm and often comes out kicking on the other side. This happened against Travis Browne’s volume kicking that had Lewis gasping and dropping every time his body was touched, against Marcin Tybura trying to hold him down, and against Alexander Volkov ripping him apart on the outside; Lewis proved impossible to deny in those instances, as he eventually just marched into them and furiously punched them out.
On the other hand, a game so attribute-based (in the absence of technical savvy) can only go so far; Mark Hunt gassed Lewis out with pressure and work to the body to stop him, and Cormier just handily outwrestled him. Lewis is far from impossible to outstrike, he’s far from impossible to outwrestle, and his cardio is a gigantic flaw in a five-round fight; however, he’s very dangerous at every moment of separation. It’s a skill set that really only works at all at heavyweight, but it has worked shockingly well.
In contrast, Junior dos Santos isn’t quite as dangerous from moment-to-moment, so his moments of weakness tend to be relatively meaningful since he usually can’t randomly punch himself out of trouble, but his offensive game works a lot more cohesively (so his wins are far more consistent showings than those of Lewis). Dos Santos has one of the cleanest boxing skillsets at heavyweight (perhaps only behind Stipe Miocic in that regard), but his vulnerability under pressure has reared its head again and again.
In the open, dos Santos is a gorgeous boxer with a gift for setups that isn’t particularly common at the higher weight classes. He’s one of the rare good-jabbers at heavyweight who has a real love for the body jab/straight, and can use those to set up the overhand right if his opponent starts to drop their hands. Dos Santos can loop the lead hook around his opponent’s parry if they start biting on the jab too much, and he can use the slapping left hook to tee up the gigantic right uppercut (as he did to slump Fabricio Werdum). Dos Santos is tricky and deceptively powerful on the counter, as seen by the short left hook with which he dropped Miocic in their first fight, and he can go five rounds without dropping off as catastrophically as one would expect from someone 205+. In pure resume, dos Santos is an all-time great heavyweight; he has wins over Stipe Miocic, Cain Velasquez, and Fabricio Werdum (albeit two of those were erased in rematches), and his run to the title is one of the most dominant that the UFC has ever seen.
Where dos Santos has continually run into issues is against defined pressurers who can take advantage of his lack of defense and lateral movement on the back foot. The rematch against Miocic was one of the better examples of that; dos Santos didn’t get completely wrecked, as he landed a few leg kicks that hobbled the champion, but Miocic was still able to push dos Santos back and obliterate him moments afterward (standing him still with the left hook as dos Santos tried to circle out, and blasting him with the right hand up the center). Dos Santos’ worst showings came against Cain Velasquez, whose boxing defense was never good but who had the ability to force dos Santos back and clinch him (where he had the defined advantage) with ease. Even in his dominant fight against Ben Rothwell, dos Santos had moments where he was backed to the cage, and Tai Tuivasa had real success beating dos Santos up as he was squared up on the fence. The intention of pressure unravels dos Santos, and turns him from a uniquely potent boxer to a weak one.
Conclusions and Capping
It’s a relatively simple fight to break down; Lewis doesn’t pressure with any sort of consistency, he basically just floats around in the open where dos Santos doesn’t generally have trouble boxing his opponent up, and by the time Lewis usually decides to get going, dos Santos likely will have invested in the jab and body work to exhaust Lewis and set up crisper strikes to counter Lewis’ wider ones. Dos Santos is historically very resilient, having absolute wars with Miocic and Velasquez, but they were the sort of wars to take years off a chin; dos Santos reacted well to punishment at the hands of Tuivasa, but decline is something to watch for. That said, past the sort of heavyweight tomfoolery that seems to follow Lewis around, dos Santos should take this one handily.
Derrick Lewis vs. Junior Dos Santos prediction:
Junior dos Santos via TKO (Round 4). This writer caps dos Santos at -200.