Tavae Lewis: ‘southern Illinois’ Golden Boy’


Tavae Lewis, a senior from Carbondale studying exercise science, poses for a photograph Monday, Dec. 5, 2017, outside of the Communications Building. The “Southern Illinois Golden Boy” made his professional MMA boxing debut in the welterweight class last weekend. (Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz)

By Ryan Demer

As “Southern Illinois’ Golden Boy” and a Saluki on campus, local MMA fighter Tavae Lewis represents Carbondale each time he steps in the cage, as he fights for all of those like him that never received a chance in life.

“I want to put southern Illinois on the map,” Lewis said. “The goal is for people to see you don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest to compete with the best.”

Lewis did not have any prior fighting experience before he started training for the sport. The only experience he can relate to it would be playing football.

“I consider myself the Happy Gilmore of fighting,” Lewis joked. “No one’s improving as fast as I am in this sport. I was never the chosen one or anything.”

However, he first learned wrestling from his good friend who was an all-American wrestler and had plenty of other friends who are wrestling on the Olympic team and for Division I colleges.

Besides wrestling, Lewis does a lot of boxing as well as Muay Thai training to be considered an all-around fighter.

“I really love boxing as a whole,” Lewis said. “The footwork, slipperiness and everything really complements my wrestling game.”

Lewis stands at 5-foot-10 and has fought at the 170-pound welterweight and 185-pound middleweight classes. The difference in 15 pounds for a fighter is tremendous in terms of weight cuts, and Lewis must keep that in mind each time he steps in the cage at a different weight class.

“I’m very quick with my wrestling and have more power in my boxing at 170,” the fighter said. “At 185 I feel stronger and faster than the guys in my weight class and can use my speed against them.”

The life of an MMA fighter is much different than any other sport. When entering the cage, the body engages a roller-coaster set of emotions he says is like no other feeling in the world.

“You feel angry, happy, upset and anxious at the same time,” Lewis said. “It’s the only time I actually feel like you have 100% control over what happens in your life at that moment.”

In his stint as an amateur fighter starting in 2014, he amassed an 8-3 record before deciding to go professional.

In his professional debut in Rosemont, a Chicago suburb, Lewis lost via split decision to Chicagoland native Miguel Luis.

“I felt it was a hometown decision, but it’s a decision I should’ve known,” Lewis said. “There was room for improvement everywhere, and I should have equipped myself better to finish the fight and eliminate the chance for a decision.”


Lewis bases most of his training in Carbondale where he has two primary coaches that he feels very equally about.

Eean Chapelle, his boxing coach who was a professional fighter in his own right with Shamrock FC, has been with him ever since he started fighting at the amateur level where he went on a tear with six titles.

He works with Lewis on his footwork so that he can transition amongst all the facets of mixed martial arts. Andy Sabens, his head coach, works with him on his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and his Muay Thai.

“Those two are probably the two most influential on my career,” Lewis said. “It’s crazy how we have these guys here in southern Illinois and people don’t know about them, but they could really help a lot.”

His training is not excluded to the region, however. Lewis has traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico to train at Jackson Wink gym, which is widely considered to be one of the top MMA training centers in the world.

There, Lewis got the chance to talk and train with his all-time favorite fighter, and arguably the best fighter of all-time in former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones.

Lewis also trains out of St. Louis, going to several gyms around the area. However, during the school year, the bulk of the work is done in Carbondale.

“When we’re in school, I work around my classes for training,” Lewis said. “I’ll run on the treadmill in the morning, box with Eean and then go right to Jiu-Jitsu.”

With such a busy schedule, Lewis spends the little free time that he has with his growing family. He loves hanging out with his 3-year-old son, his mother and his little brother who he said are “his world.”

“I consider myself like Will Smith from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” Lewis said. “I’m the fun and goofy personality that likes to crack a lot of jokes around the family, and we love playing video games together.”

Ultimately, his plans are to make it to the pinnacle of MMA as a UFC fighter and put SIU on the map. By continuing to polish his craft, Lewis believes he the potential to become a highly marketable fighter.

Sports writer Ryan Demer can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @RyanDemer_DE 
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