NEW YORK -- Derrick Lewis probably shouldn't be here.
Lewis is a 265-pound brawler, with a sense of humor that can teeter between morbid and borderline offensive. He's a 33-year-old Texan, who claims he has only trained 30 minutes per day the majority of his career, and is quick to admit he's "not a martial artist."
Lewis (21-5) will challenge Daniel Cormier for the heavyweight championship at UFC 230 on Saturday inside Madison Square Garden. He is undeniably fun -- and his record is worthy of title contention -- but this is Madison Square Garden.
This is a building the UFC has only visited twice, with the likes of Georges St-Pierre, Michael Bisping, Eddie Alvarez and Conor McGregor. It's a building that's witnessed Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
Lewis shrugs at that laundry list of history -- and the championship belt for that matter. He has said a UFC title would mean nothing to him, and that he "[goes] into every fight with a bad back, overweight and damn-near diabetic."
That's Derrick Lewis.
"This whole thing is not just surreal, it's f---ing insane," said Carl Carillo, one of Lewis' friends since high school.
Bob Perez, Lewis' coach and friend, has already warned Lewis he will likely cry if they upset Cormier, who is currently a 7-1 betting favorite on Saturday.
"He told me, 'You a weak m-----f-----, coach,'" Perez said. "That was his reaction. I know the belt means more to me than it does to him, and that is odd."
Maybe. Or maybe not, once you hear Lewis' story. Maybe Lewis' approach to fighting, and his reasons for fighting, make perfect sense if the right dots are connected. That's something Lewis really doesn't like talking about, but it does explain why he's here -- and how far he has come.
"I just really want to put the past behind me, because it makes me angry thinking about it," Lewis said. "But it's also the reason I've made it this far in my career. It's like, built up in me. It's what I think about when I fight. My childhood.
"I look at all my opponents, and they could be something else. They could go out and get a normal, regular job. I look at myself and I can't do that. I have a strike on my back. I can't have a normal job. So, I've got to fight for everything I've got."
Lewis says he isn't a martial artist because he doesn't care about martial arts. He doesn't care about respect, or even about making history. That's not why he fights.
He fights for his family. His wife, April. Jazman, his 15-year-old stepdaughter, and his two boys, Rashaun, 7, and Braydan, 5.
April wants to go to nursing school in 2019. Jazman is a straight-A student, who is interested in studying science in college. Rashaun and Braydan refuse to go outside most days because it's "too hot," and fill the house with Lego creations.
"Oh no, not at all," says Lewis, when asked if he would still fight if he weren't a family man. "I probably wouldn't even be a free man right now. I would be locked up, for sure.
"I have a lot of anger built up in me from my childhood. My wife and kids are the only ones who give me peace in this world."
Lewis has not granted many interviews about his past. He told MMAFighting.com in 2014 he grew up with an abusive stepfather in Louisiana, before relocating to Houston before his high school years.
"I look at all my opponents, and they could be something else. They could go out and get a normal, regular job. I look at myself and I can't do that. I have a strike on my back. I can't have a normal job. So, I've got to fight for everything I've got." Derrick Lewis
When he was 19, he got into an altercation with an adult male. According to Lewis, the man reached for a weapon and a fight ensued. He was ultimately arrested and placed on probation. Lewis says he couldn't pay "fees and fines" related to the incident, which resulted in a violation two years later. He spent three years in prison.
"Derrick has never been the type to start s---, but he's never been the type to take any s--- either," said Carillo, who witnessed the incident. "He was protecting himself. It wasn't like Derrick was a troublemaker, but he could handle himself in a fight, and he just won that fight. He got a court-appointed lawyer, and we all know in the justice system, court-appointed lawyers don't really do s--- for you."
At the time Lewis violated his parole, he was attending Kilgore Community College in Texas -- playing defensive end for the football team. The prison term effectively ended his football career.
"That's one of the reasons I have so much anger built up, in myself," Lewis says. "I'm angry that I put myself in that situation. I was 22, a college freshman starting over a sophomore. We were champions my freshman year, and then that summer is when I got locked up."
When he left prison, Lewis found a job driving tow trucks at AAA and was content doing it. He was happy in a one-bedroom apartment, living a normal life. But Carillo, who played behind Lewis on the football field as a linebacker, encouraged him to give his athletic career one more shot.
"I told him towing trucks was a s---ty way to live," Carillo said. "People who went to prison, it's not easy to get a job. It took me months of bugging him every week, every time I talked to him on the phone, 'Let's go to a gym. Let's get an amateur fight.' I knew he could fight. I finally got him to a small gym, and it took off from there."
It was a good time for him to delve into the sport. Houston had a vibrant MMA scene. Within four years of his pro debut, Lewis signed with the UFC.
"If you put a camera or microphone in front of Derrick, God help you."
That's what Bob Perez, Lewis' coach, said. Perez was next to Lewis at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, when he took his shorts off on a live broadcast and proclaimed his groin was overheating.
"He started taking them off and I said, 'What the f--- are you doing?'" Perez said. "He said, 'I'm going to throw them to the crowd.' I was like, 'No one wants that s---.' Sure enough, he did it."
Perez laughs at Lewis' postfight antics, but he has been genuinely frustrated when Lewis has suggested he's not in shape or claimed he's undeserving of a title shot.
The cardio question, specifically, irks Perez -- probably because he sees so much of it. The general consensus on Lewis is that he's in poor shape, and can't fight 15 minutes, let alone the potential 25 he's facing Saturday.
"Derrick will fight for two hours, nonstop," Perez said. "This is the thing, I want you to really look at him between rounds and look at his breathing. Derrick kind of moves lethargically -- slowly -- and people misconstrue that into him being tired. Think of an alligator or crocodile. They'll move slow and they'll conserve, and they'll snap. That's exactly what Derrick does. He's smart about the way he conserves. He's not a dumb fighter."
Doubt has surrounded Lewis in the biggest fights of his career. This will be his fourth consecutive fight as an underdog. The doubters on social media grew so loud earlier this year, Lewis put out an open invitation to anyone in the world to come to his gym and fight him -- and someone actually took him up on it.
"It was crazy," Lewis laughed. "This guy showed up with his wife and his daughter, saying it was his birthday. I said, 'Bob, make sure he signs the waiver.' We went upstairs and bounced around for about 30 seconds. He was throwing some spinning kicks and stuff like that.
"I head-kicked him and knocked him out. He woke up a couple seconds later talking about, 'What happened?' His wife told him, and he said, 'Man, I didn't know you were gonna kick.' I was like, 'You was trying to kick me!' That was one week before I fought Marcin Tybura."
Lewis is 9-1 in his last 10 fights, including victories over Alexander Volkov, Francis Ngannou, Tybura, Travis Browne and Roy Nelson. There's no question he's facing a historic challenge in Cormier (21-1), a two-weight champion who has only ever lost to Jon Jones and is considered one of the best fighters ever.
But if anything, the magnitude of the opponent and venue have had a calming effect on the camp.
"Every fight, I dry heave in the back -- but this fight, I don't think I'm going to be nervous," Perez said. "When we first got the call, I had that feeling of holy s---, we're fighting DC. And then literally the next day, I was like, 'Derrick is going to win this fight. All the pressure is on DC, not us.' I just want Derrick to go out and have fun."
Win or lose, Lewis has said his recent victory over Volkov (the one that earned him this opportunity) will end up being worth around $1 million. That's $1 million to take home to his family -- the reason he got into the sport to begin with, and why he's still doing it today.
The heavyweight title and historic venue -- that's for everyone else to talk about.
"Somewhere in his heart, Derrick is going to be on cloud nine that night," Perez said. "He's just probably not gonna let us know about it."