Did Derrick Lewis just play himself?

Derrick Lewis had an opportunity to make a splash in free agency, but it looks like he's passed it by.

By: Zane Simon | 2 months ago

If there’s anything that’s become clear over the last couple decades of mixed martial arts, it’s that the allure of competing for the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a powerful force. Even among fighters who find great success and sizeable purses outside the Octagon, the lure of becoming a ‘UFC Fighter’ is hard to deny.

“I’m very thankful for my history in [Bellator],” Michael Chandler said in a 2022 interview with MMA Fighting, “but it’s really hard to get on a microphone and tell people I’m the most entertaining fighter in the world when I’m not fighting in the premier organization. We can all admit—and if you don’t admit, you’re either a hater or you don’t know the sport—that the UFC is the premier organization. The fighters in the UFC are the premier fighters on the planet.”

Derrick Lewis celebrates at UFC 291.
Derrick Lewis celebrates at UFC 291. IMAGO/USA TODAY Network

That’s a big reason that the UFC can pack seasons of their Contender Series reality show with young talent, despite only offering low level contracts to winners on the show; people want to be in the UFC. It’s also why it’s hard to be too surprised by the recent news from freshly minted heavyweight free agent Derrick Lewis.

Derrick Lewis signs new 8-fight UFC contract

Immediately following his electrifying win over Marcos Rogerio de Lima at UFC 291 Derrick Lewis made a surprise announcement. No, not that his balls were once again “hot.” But that he was, as of that victory, now a free agent. He also expressed his interest in staying with the world’s largest MMA promotion.

“F—k, we’ll see,” Lewis stated when asked what was next for him after his win. “I’m a free agent now, so hopefully I can get another contract with the UFC. If not? F—k it, it is what it is.”

Even with his self stated desire to stick with the Endeavor-owned promotion, fans and pundits couldn’t help wondering if Lewis didn’t have another move in mind. Namely, a chance to rematch former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou over in the PFL. As part of his monumental signing with the tournament-based promotion, Ngannou reportedly had it written into his contract that his opponents would be guaranteed a base pay of $2 million just for stepping into the cage against him.

The only problem for Ngannou was, just who could the PFL find that was worth that kind of payday? What free agent heavyweights were on the market that could be a potential PPV draw as the company ventures into the land of marquee combat sports events? Derrick Lewis looked like he was in just the right place, at just the right time.

That no longer appears to be the case.

“Listen, I love Derrick. Personally and professionally love the guy,” White explained when asked about Lewis’ relationship with the UFC. “So, yes,” he added, when pressed if Lewis’ new contract with the UFC had been finalized.

MMA Fighting has since confirmed that Lewis has inked a new 8-fight deal with the promotion. One that will likely keep the 38-year-old fighting inside the Octagon for the remainder of his career as an elite competitor. Or, if recent history is any judge, for the next 3+ years at least.

A stark reminder of the playing field

For other MMA organizations looking to get ahead in the combat sports world, a moment like this should be one for sharp reflection. It seems seriously unlikely that Dana White & Co. offered Lewis anything like $2 million per fight, guaranteed. But, they didn’t have to.

For one thing, if the new court proceedings in the UFC class action lawsuit have shown us anything it’s that the UFC is absolutely the dominant force in the MMA market. Expert testimony estimates that the promotion is responsible for 90% of all revenue generated by MMA in the North American markets. Lewis may not get paid as much for sticking with the UFC, but he does know that they’ll be good for every penny of his deal. In a world where new businesses can seemingly rise and collapse over night, the UFC has built their reputation on consistency.

The other truth, as stated by Michael Chandler up above, is that prestige still means a lot. Speaking to press after his PPV victory, Lewis made it clear that he still has his sights set on winning a UFC title. It’s the biggest, most prestigious award in MMA. A true legacy definer for most fighters. Leaving the promotion, even for just one fight, might mean that that goal is gone forever.

“I believe I do,” Lewis said, when asked if he felt he had another title run left in him. “It was just so crazy and frustrating, me losing to the guys that I lost to. There’s no way in hell I should have lost to those guys. So that was another reason why I wanted to train my ass off for this fight. Because now I’ve got a lot of guys calling me out now.”

Of course, it also can’t be dismissed that the UFC may have also been able to completely shut down any fighting opportunity for Lewis outside the promotion for the foreseeable future, even if he didn’t have any other fights left on his deal. For starters, most of the promotion’s contracts come with a 90-day exclusive negotiation period. If Lewis wanted to get into talks with the PFL, he’d have had to wait until November to even get started.

That probably wouldn’t have been a major limiting factor, but the UFC also carries a 1-year ‘right to match’ period as well. Meaning that there’s every possibility the UFC could have potentially pushed any negotiations for Lewis to step in the cage out for months into the future. Sure, he’d still be guaranteed a big payday at the end of it, but if Ngannou wants to make his return to MMA in early 2024, there’s no certainty that Lewis would be in position to make that happen.

No matter how it’s sliced, however, it still feels like an opportunity has been missed. Another chance to test an increasingly competitive market for name action fighters. After all, if the PFL were willing to offer Shane Burgos “a stupid amount of money” to leave the UFC last year, it’s hard not to think they’d have backed up the truck for Lewis as well. Looks like we’ll never know.

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About the author
Zane Simon
Zane Simon

Zane Simon is a senior editor, writer, and podcaster for Bloody Elbow. He has worked with the website since 2013, taking on a wide variety of roles. A lifelong combat sports fan, Zane has trained off & on in both boxing and Muay Thai. He currently hosts the long-running MMA Vivisection podcast, which he took over from Nate Wilcox & Dallas Winston in 2015, as well as the 6th Round podcast, started in 2014. Zane is also responsible for developing and maintaining the ‘List of current UFC fighters’ on Bloody Elbow, a resource he originally developed for Wikipedia in 2010.

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