Heavyweight sluggers Derrick Lewis and Serghei Spivac will throw down this Saturday (Feb. 4, 2023) at UFC Vegas 68 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Originally, this fight was supposed to take place back in Nov. 2022, but Lewis’ case of COVID-19 disrupted those plans. Fortunately, it found a new main event home on this weekend’s event, which was originally supposed to take place in South Korea (details here).
These big men enter the fight in differing circumstances. Lewis is the long established contender, but he’s lost two in a row, raising questions about his fighting future and longevity. Conversely, Spivac is just 28 years of age, a practical baby at Heavyweight. He’s coming into his own, and his recent wins are being appropriately rewarded with a great opportunity here.
Let’s take a closer look at the skill sets of each athlete:
Before ever stepping into the cage, Lewis trained to box. He may not have particularly deft footwork or a jab (at all, really), but “Black Beast” has hung onto something important from that training: the ability to load up and deliver power punches, occasionally in combination.
This deep in the game, Lewis has a well-established strategy (read: he’s done the same thing in every fight for years now). At first, Lewis generally remains on the outside until he’s ready to explode. From that range, Lewis waits for his moment, usually far enough away to avoid any big shots from his opponent. Suddenly, Lewis charges forward with surprising speed, usually with a charging high kick or jumping switch kick. When the 265+-pound “Black Beast” slams his whole leg into his opponent, it makes an impact. Plus, the result of that kick is that his opponent must plant his feet and block, which leaves them in range for the ensuing bombs. If the kick instead knocks him off-balance, his opponent is in poor position to trade shots with Lewis.
In another example, Lewis landed running step knees into the large gut of Roy Nelson. In the ultimate nothing fight between Lewis and Ngannou, Lewis’ random kicks won him the decision.
Credit to Lewis, he has proved in recent bouts that he’s willing to watch tape. Against Aleksei Oleinik, Lewis pretty much copied Walt Harris directly by opening the second round with a jump knee to the chest. As Oleinik stumbled backward, Lewis stepped into a big swing, knocking the Russian veteran down to the mat (.GIF).
Against Curtis Blaydes, Lewis sold out entirely on the idea of countering Blaydes’ takedown attempts. Seriously, he threw almost nothing as Blaydes landed hard straight punches and thudding low kicks nearly at will. It seemed like a disastrous decision until Lewis perfectly timed an uppercut on the shot (.GIF), becoming the first man to truly put Blaydes to sleep with strikes.
Outside of the sudden distance kicks, Lewis will burst forward in a good stance and can throw balanced punches and combinations. On the offensive, he’s able to string together powerful punches, which makes him rather dangerous in short bursts (.GIF).
Spivac is not blessed with gigantic punching power like Lewis. On the whole, his hands are surely on the weaker end of the UFC Heavyweight division, particularly at the ranked level. However, that does not at all mean his shots don’t hurt.
Spivac has rather smartly and in fairly quick fashion developed a nice jab to workaround his relative lack of stopping power. Just a few fights ago, he was lunging for the clinch with little setup. Now, “Polar Bear” is far more willing to establish his jab and use that blow to work into his wrestling setups. He can jab to raise the guard then step forward or continually hang back, waiting for his opponent to over-swing and try to wrap up an arm when that happens.
Why does Spivac find so much success with the jab? His grappling threat surely helps, but it comes down to good form and consistency more than anything else. There’s no better example than his ugly fight with Aleksei Oleinik, in which he repeatedly stuck the Russian’s nose while circling off from his massive overhand swings.
Spivac’s clinch wrestling really separates him from the Heavyweight pack.
Very few fighters are able to chain clinch trips and throws like Spivac, regardless of division. That’s an especially useful skill in a division where balance and flexibility are often subpar, while getting stuck beneath a sprawl can easily be a fight-ending error. Against the fence or in the open, Spivac plays the inside, outside hip position game really well. He’ll fight his hip inside and start working for an inside trip or bump, and it often works. If it doesn’t, expect Spivac to circle back around to the outside of the lead knee and attack with an outside trip.
Spivac has a really exceptional whizzer kick. When he steps across the body, he doesn’t overextend with his hips, which is how fighters find themselves getting reversed and taken backwards. He also makes it a point to block his opponent’s leg just above the knee, which is ideal for off-balancing (.GIF). Against Greg Hardy, Spivac scored his throw by first attempting an inside trip before then stepping all the way across as Hardy reset his stance, fully tossing the giant man (.GIF).
Spivac also does really well if able to secure the back clinch. He has a good diversity of techniques from that position, working to drag his opponent down with well-executed trips, suplexes, and simple mat returns (.GIF).
Despite his ferocious punching power, Lewis is definitely willing to look for takedowns of his own. They’re rarely all that technical, but Lewis is more than strong enough to finish a shot if he’s able to get into decent position.
Lewis gains top position in several situations. On occasion, he’ll look to catch a kick and throw his man off-balance. Alternatively, Lewis will change levels against the fence and look to lift his foe with a double-leg takedown. Against Tai Tuivasa, Lewis actually twice managed to score an inside trip takedown along the fence. It’s perhaps the first real technical development he’s shown in years!
Most commonly, Lewis reverses his opponent’s takedown attempts. Few men with wrestling backgrounds are willing to stand and trade with “Black Beast,” meaning they try to immediately drop for takedowns. As a result, their shots eventually get sloppy with fatigue, allowing Lewis to dig an underhook and force opponents to their back.
Once on top, Lewis is absolutely devastating. He dives into guard with huge punches, will stack his opponent to strike, and has passed into mount to finish as well. It’s the absolute worst position to be in opposite the Texan, whose size pins his opponent to the mat and leaves them unable to avoid his heavy hands. Scrambling out from underneath him seems nearly impossible and definitely exhausting, meaning his tired foe isn’t likely to escape the onslaught.
Spivac has finished six opponents via submission, including an arm triangle win over Tai Tuivasa inside the Octagon. In general, his jiu-jitsu is very fitting and safe for a top player in MMA. He flows really well from top position, smoothly transitioning around opponents as they work to scramble and stand. If the opportunity to attack the rear naked choke or arm triangle is there, he’ll take it. Otherwise, Spivac tends to focus more on ground strikes and control, which is where more of his stoppages have materialized.
Lewis doesn’t do jiu-jitsu … he just stands back up.
To stand back up, Lewis needs one of two things. First and foremost, if he’s able to gain an underhook, Lewis will bide his time before standing up and lifting his foe with the underhook. His opponent could conceivably attempt to snatch up his neck in the process or keep him pinned with a heavy overhook, but both are difficult against such a big man.
Alternatively, Lewis will look to stiff arm his opponent. If he can get a frame on his opponent’s arm pit, it’s easy for Lewis to create space and get his foe’s weight off him. Lastly, Lewis’ size and build helps quite a bit. He’s a broad man with something of a belly, meaning most Heavyweights aren’t able to find an easy position to balance in mount nor wrap up a tight body triangle.
Once again, Lewis is being pit against a younger, rising talent. It will serve as a test of each man, as we’ll learn whether or not Lewis can still compete with Top 15 talent in 2023, and we can also see if Spivac has developed enough to overcome one of his division’s heaviest hitters.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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