Richie Lewis sat inside the Toms River East High School auditorium in 2010, watching history unfold.
New Jersey’s own Frankie Edgar defeated B.J. Penn by unanimous decision to become the UFC lightweight champion at UFC 112 on April 10, 2010. Lewis watched the bout in its entirety at the same high school where “The Answer” graduated in 2000.
Lewis built a legacy of his own inside the Raiders wrestling room by becoming a three-time state placer under head coach Warren Reid from 2010 to 2013. Reid is the same coach who helped Edgar place second and fifth in New Jersey in 1999 and 2000.
At 25 years old, Lewis is following Edgar’s lead once again. He is trading in the mat for the cage.
“Once I saw Frankie beat B.J. Penn, it’s like a kid from the same area as me, becoming a world champion and defeating all these odds,” Lewis said. “From there, I kind of knew I wanted to do it [MMA].”
Lewis never doubted MMA as a profession since watching Edgar hold the title in the octagon for the first time.
Many fighters can say they want to be like Edgar, a UFC champion, but Lewis is following the path of some of the best to ever do it. After graduating high school in 2013, Lewis continued his academic and athletic career at Iowa Central Community College.
It’s the same school where UFC Light-Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones, former UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez, current UFC Welterweight Colby Covington and former UFC Bantamweight Joe Soto earned NJCAA All-American Honors.
Fighting for UFC gold is another thing all four share in common. Velasquez , Jones  and Covington  all took home national titles for Iowa Central at the JUCO level.
Lewis found similar success as a two-time All-American for the Tritons, placing second at 157 in 2014 and third at the same weight in 2015.
“I go to school and look at the wall, I see Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez and Colby Covington,” Lewis said. “Once I got there, I was like, ‘This is my destiny.’”
He transferred out of Iowa in 2015 and spent the next three years back in New Jersey at Rutgers University. He made an immediate impact for the Scarlet Knights by placing fifth at the Big 10 Championships, qualifying for his first NCAA Championships in 2016.
Lewis came out of the tournament with torn labrum, which eventually led to him getting surgery less than a year later.
After redshirting his senior season, Lewis made a triumphant return by winning the U23 70kg World Championship in November 2017. He was the first American to earn a U23 World medal.
He came back the following season and placed third in the Big 10, making his second NCAA tournament appearance in 2018.
“That pretty much sums up my career man, the ups and the downs,” Lewis said.
Making it in MMA
MMA is no longer just a thought for Lewis, it’s reality. He currently trains at Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City, New York, with John Danaher and at LionHeart MMA in Bordentown, New Jersey, under Ash Elbanna.
Outside of the gyms he calls home, Lewis mixed it up with some of the top fighters in the UFC.
He helped Covington for one of his camps at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida. The New Jersey native also completed a fight camp with UFC Bantamweight Champion Henry Cejudo.
“I was just picking up little things along the way. The past two months I’ve really had a focus every single day with a coach and sparring,” Lewis said. “I feel like I’ve developed pretty well.”
It comes as no surprise to Lewis that he is choosing to continue sports after college. While some kids came home and completed homework after school, Lewis’ father, Joseph, urged his son to do pushups.
His dad knows a thing or two about competing at a high level. He saw it in his 17 years as the head coach of boys basketball at Cardinal McCarrick High School in South Amboy, New Jersey.
Lewis’ dad led the Eagles to 310 program wins, 11 Greater Middlesex Conference division titles, two Greater Middlesex Tournament titles and three NJSIAA Non-Public South B Championships. He left a lasting legacy on the school, which closed permanently in June 2015.
A blue-collar job never interested Lewis. It’s something he saw from his father first-hand.
“He kind of knew I was cut out for it [sports] because he’s seen hundreds of athletes his whole life,” Lewis said. “I’ve seen him get up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. in the morning, come home tired. He would tell me, ‘I’m doing this so you can do something special.’”
The Lewis story
He may be following fighters like Edgar, Velasquez and Covington, but he’s making his own way, building his own story. If it wasn’t MMA, Lewis figures he’d work in construction or business.
None of those options are as attractive as MMA in his eyes.
The 25-year-old is looking at a September debut and is programming each workout till then. Lewis has a plan, he usually does.
“I feel like this was the only way to achieve the life I wanted to achieve,” Lewis said. “I always knew because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything else.”
Connor Northrup once covered municipal meetings and promised himself never again. He is now combining his passion for Mixed Martial Arts and reporting all into one.