This was it. Chris Curtis’s moment had come.
After 10 years of toiling away on the regional MMA scene, bouncing from Kentucky to Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, even taking a stop in Alberta, Canada, “The Action Man” was finally going to get that UFC contract. He’d been signed for a welterweight fight on the season two premiere of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, a booking that felt like culmination of all the hard work that the Curtis put into the sport.
At 18-5, he entered Tuesday’s show in Las Vegas as the most experienced fighter by far, with the rest of the participants having an average of about seven pro bouts between them. All Curtis had to do was take care of business, which he did, dispatching of Sean Lally with a highlight-reel hook kick in round three.
In that moment, Curtis was certain that his UFC dream had finally come true.
“I was 100 percent sure,” Curtis told MMA Fighting. “I was 100 percent sure I had gotten it. In my head I said, come out, perform, get a good finish and that’s mine. I had damn near double the fights of other people on that card. I was the most experienced guy there. I was ready and in my head I’m prepared to lose the fight and not get the contract, or I knew if I won the fight and I finished him I would get signed.
“And it’s like a coin flip that’s kind of weird because the coin landed on edge this time. It’s just the one scenario I wasn’t prepared for is it lands on its edge and I’m like, ‘Huh? Alright.’”
Curtis got the finish, but didn’t get the contract. A coin on its edge.
That same evening, Curtis took to social media to announce that, in addition to injuring his hand, he’d made the decision to walk away from MMA competition.
The news may have seemed abrupt given that Curtis had just won his sixth straight fight and on UFC Fight Pass, the biggest platform he’d ever performed on. But thoughts of retirement that had crossed Curtis’s mind long before.
There had been brushes with the UFC in the past. Curtis tried out for a recent season of The Ultimate Fighter that was supposed to showcase lightweights and welterweights, but the producers decided to go with only the 155-pound fighters. A bout with UFC and Bellator veteran Nah-Shon Burrell in April 2016 looked like it might propel Curtis to the big show, but Burrell ended up winning a split decision and Curtis says the questionable result set him back another two years.
With a Contender Series opportunity looming, Curtis gave himself an ultimatum.
“I knew four months ago if it didn’t work out that this was it,” said Curtis. “After my last fight, we were kind of holding out for the Contender thing so in the camp for my last fight I was like, I’m going to go through with this and if it doesn’t work out then that’s it.
“I’m 30 years old, I’ll be 31 in July. It’s too old to be a prospect. Honestly, it’s kind of BS. I put more time in than those people on the freakin’ roster, I don’t know what I’ve had to do, so I knew months ago that if it didn’t work out that was it for me.”
UFC president Dana White ended up giving contracts to former NFL player Greg Hardy and top light heavyweight prospect Alonzo Menifield, who both picked up wins by first-round knockout on Tuesday.
Curtis was the second-to-last fight on the card (after Hardy, but before Menifield), so he was able to see the other winners and get a feel for how high his chances were of landing a contract. He doesn’t begrudge White for choosing the fighters he did, but was still left wondering why he didn’t make the cut.
“It’s both,” Curtis said when asked if whether it was frustrating not to get a contract offer or if he was able to accept the decision. “I know why they signed the guys, but it’s well within his power to give out three contracts. Hardy got a developmental contract, I don’t even know what the hell that is. So technically you could have given me a shot. I’ve earned my shot.
“I put on a highlight-reel KO, that’s not just one punch that’s gonna be gone that everybody’s seen before. I freakin’ superkicked a guy in the face. I don’t understand what I had to do. What didn’t I show you?”
Not only did Curtis walk away empty-handed, he also suffered an injury to his thumb, describing it as having “completely clean snapped across”.
The injury resulted in Curtis receiving a six-month medical suspension, not that it matters much to him given that he is standing firm on his retirement plans.
“Nah, after July 15 I am done,” said Curtis. “I promised my kids that if it didn’t work out, I’d go until I was 31, and I’ll be 31 on July 15. After that, I’m done. I’m not going to put my life on hold, put my kids’ life on hold anymore for ‘maybes’, for opportunities, it’s just not responsible of me. They’ve dealt with enough already and I’ve just been holding stuff off for a possibility, for a possibility, for a possibility.
“I’m not going to go out there and do everything I’m supposed to do, pass with flying colors, and still have to put everybody’s life on hold for a ‘maybe’.”
Failure to acquire a DWTNCS contract has not been a dead end for several of the fighters who appeared on the show. Zu Anyanwu and Mike Santiago are two names who were not immediately signed, but would later make their way to the Octagon as short-notice replacements.
However, Curtis is confident that even if the UFC contacted him with a similar opportunity, he wouldn’t bite. He has both feet out the gym doors at this point.
“I honestly really probably will not pursue training,” said Curtis. “I’m kind of okay with walking away from everything. I just want to make a clean break with it. Like, if I keep training then you know I leave the door open for finding a reason to come back. I’ve trained full time for the last eight years, so I guess I can go back to school, go get a real job, be a real adult, I don’t really know yet. But I made a decent bit of money on the show, so it gives me a little time to figure out everything, get my ducks in a row, figure out what I want to do.
“If I’m going to walk away from it, it has to be completely. Because I’ve seen too many people try to make that comeback and it never ends well.”