If Derrick Lewis beats Ciryl Gane in the UFC 265 main event Saturday night in Houston to capture the interim heavyweight title, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him scan the crowd for a familiar face.
And he wouldn’t necessarily be searching for heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou, who would likely be his next opponent in a unification bout. Instead, Lewis might look for a different heavyweight. George Foreman lives in the Houston area, and the boxing Hall of Famer has more than a casual interest in Lewis’ career.
It was Foreman who saw Lewis’ devastating punching power over a decade ago as Lewis was sparring in Foreman’s gym. Lewis had just been released from prison after serving time for aggravated assault with serious bodily injury. In a 2018 ESPN interview, Lewis said he was 19 when a man reached for a weapon and a fight ensued. Lewis was arrested and placed on probation, but he said he couldn’t pay “fees and fines” related to the incident, and that resulted in a violation and a three-year prison term.
Foreman was hoping Lewis would follow in his footsteps as a professional boxer. Lewis was interested in boxing, but he wanted to give MMA a shot first. So on April 9, 2010, Lewis made his MMA debut in Pasadena, Texas. He scored a second-round TKO of Nick Mitchell, and his MMA career path was set. Over 11 years later, he owns the UFC heavyweight record with 12 knockouts.
“He made that move [to MMA], and it was a wise move,” Foreman, 72, told ESPN last week, “but it was a heartbreaking move for me because he could have been a great boxer.”
Lewis recalled when Foreman tried to assess whether Lewis would be a good opponent for one of Foreman’s sons, who was a boxer. So Foreman watched one of Lewis’ sparring sessions.
“I was tearing him up real bad in front of George,” Lewis told ESPN last week. “Because George was there, I had to make myself look good. The guy wouldn’t fall, though. He was all over the ring, but he wouldn’t fall.”
But after seeing Lewis’ skill, the plan changed. “A machine of destruction,” Foreman said when asked what he remembered of the young Lewis.
“I ended up being too good,” Lewis said. “They didn’t want me to fight him in a real boxing match. They wanted to take me up under their wing and train me and take me out to Vegas to train at [Floyd] Mayweather’s gym, and try to help me out in my boxing career.
“He was going to put me in an apartment, he gave me a car. I told him, ‘I’m just going to wait and see how my first MMA match goes.’ And they really didn’t want to hear it … I ended up fighting my first MMA match. I won, and I told them I’m not going to do any boxing. I’m gonna stick to MMA. So, they took the car from me and they said they ain’t getting no apartment and ‘we’ll holla at you.'”
There were no hard feelings from Lewis, who said Foreman reminded him of his grandfather.
“It was a cool vibe,” Lewis said. “He was a good guy. A good church guy.
“I haven’t seen him since.”
It’s possible Lewis, 36, will see Foreman in the crowd Saturday, although Foreman wouldn’t commit.
“That would be awesome,” Lewis said. “He never makes public appearances. It’d be cool if he was in the building.”
Either way, Foreman is still in Lewis’ corner. He called Lewis an inspiration, that he’s been able to “show the world that serving time in jail means nothing. All you have to do is do your penance and don’t look back.”
Foreman also said he would help Lewis if he finally decided to give pro boxing a try.
“If he’s given the right heavyweight match, he could do well. I would help him,” Foreman said. ” … With his experience and extra skill he can become a great boxer and make a lot of money.”
Lewis said if he could land the type of money generated by novelty boxers such as Jake and Logan Paul, he would be all in.
“He made that move [to MMA], and it was a wise move, but it was a heartbreaking move for me because he could have been a great boxer.”
In the meantime, Lewis was touched by the fact Foreman remembers his journey so many years after such a brief time together. And he agreed with the notion that he is an inspiration to others who have spent time in prison.
It’s not lost on Lewis that he could finally taste UFC gold — even if just as an interim champ — so close to the anniversary of the day he left prison on Aug. 8, 2008.
“If I can win the title Aug. 7, 2021, it would be like a real special day for me,” Lewis said. “Being an interim champion –nah, f— all that, heavyweight champion of the world, and almost the same day that I got out from one of the worst times of my life.
“It would be one of the best times of my life. It would be crazy if that happened. That’s what I’m working to accomplish.”