This wasn’t part of the plan.
Chris Curtis was done with MMA. This time of year, his main concern should be getting his kids to school and finding time to relax and play his video games. Instead, he’s a couple of thousand miles away in Las Vegas, working with the Syndicate MMA team to prepare him for the upcoming Professional Fighters League season.
He was retired. No, really. After a third-round TKO win on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series last June failed to garner him a UFC contract, Curtis (20-5) decided he’d had enough of the rat race. All the winners from Curtis’s Contender Series episode would eventually be signed at some point (including fighters with considerably less experience than him like Greg Hardy), but “The Action Man” was left out in the cold.
The thought of starting from the bottom again and missing out on more important things in life left Curtis certain that he should move on.
“I thought I was done,” Curtis recently told MMA Fighting. “People don’t realize that if I need to train—I’m in Vegas right now, I was in southern California before—I’m from Ohio. My kids are in Ohio, my family’s in Ohio. So I’m spending eight months out of the year away from my family, which sucks. Being away from my kids is already hard enough, but fighting has cost me a lot. … I’ve missed birthdays with my kids, I’ve missed school plays, I’ve missed holidays. A lot.
“For me, I always told myself I’m sacrificing now so someday I’ll take care of everything, but the Contender Series was a slap in the face. To go out there, break my hand, tear my groin, still perform, still get a knockout, and be passed over, it was like, ‘What am I…?’ It hit me hard. My kids miss me, I’ve lost stuff that was important to me. What am I doing this for? Honestly, I had to justify it to myself. How can I spend so much time away from my family and kids, lose all this stuff, to go back to the regional scene again?”
But go back to the regional scene is exactly what Curtis would end up doing seven months later. He couldn’t help himself. “Fighting is as natural as breathing to me,” he said.
So he headed north in January for a fight in Lethbridge, Alberta, for Z Promotions, an organization where he’d previously won a vacant welterweight title, and threw down for five bloody rounds with UFC veteran Matt Dwyer, this time for a vacant middleweight belt.
It wasn’t a perfect performance (Curtis won a majority decision), but otherwise Curtis felt like he hadn’t lost a step. Not surprising, given that that the 31-year-old has been a pro for over a decade.
Soon, the PFL came calling, which meant Curtis was back for good. It also meant he was breaking the promise he made to his children that he would hang up the gloves last year. But when he told them that winning the PFL’s welterweight tournament would net him a seven-figure prize, their disappointment quickly evaporated.
“With the PFL announcement, I’m like, ‘You know, it’s a chance to win a million dollars,’ Curtis told his two sons.
“They’re like, ‘Oh my God, we’re gonna be rich!’”
As for the UFC dream, one that Curtis was singularly focused on for most of his adult life, he’s put it behind him. The excitement, the frustration, the confusion over why he was being passed over as the UFC’s 170-pound roster continued to add names that weren’t his, all things of the past.
After going through the Contender Series process himself, Curtis sees that perhaps his style was never going to be what UFC president Dana White was looking for.
“It’s pretty much ‘Dana White’s First-Round Knockout Series,’” Curtis said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of fighter you are, how you got there, it’s first-round knockout or bust. You spent your entire life becoming good at fighting only to go out and abandon it all and throw haymakers and hope for a first-round finish.
“It’s whatever, I never got any answers about what happened.”
Now in the PFL, Curtis is ecstatic about being in an organization where he feels that fighters’ careers are completely under their control and not dependent on if “the bald dude likes me.” He knows that as long as he wins, he could potentially have five fights lined up for him this year, a far cry from scrapping for bookings on the regional scene.
“I love it. The thing with the PFL, having the season and playoffs is really—I don’t think people realize how frustrating it is when you’re fighting to not know when your next fight is gonna be. It’s just maddening,” Curtis said. “Sometimes you’ll get six offers in two months, sometimes you’ll get two offers in 12 months. It’s really frustrating. So to have the regular season and the playoffs, which is great, assuming I perform well, I’ve got a year planned out for me. Which is phenomenal. It lets me manage my money better, my time, my camp and all that.”
Curtis’s comeback has not been without its hiccups. He was supposed to be fighting 2018 PFL middleweight tournament winner Louis Taylor in the main event of Thursday’s show, but Taylor was not cleared by the New York State Athletic Commission, so Curtis will now face Bellator veteran Andre Fialho on the preliminary portion of the card on ESPN+.
Before he’d even heard about Taylor’s withdrawal, Curtis wasn’t too concerned about who he has to fight or how many finishes he has to earn to get his hands on the $1,000,000 prize. He knows as long as he keeps winning, the rest will take care of itself. Besides the money, he’s most concerned about finding fun matchups, preferably against breakout star Ray Cooper III or 2018 welterweight tournament winner Magomed Magomedkerimov.
“I followed Ray Cooper last year, I really like Ray Cooper,” Curtis said. “I’m a fan of Ray Cooper, so that’s gonna be a fun one if we get matched up.
“The big target is [Magomedkerimov], he’s obviously the big fish, but that’s a fun matchup. It’s a hard matchup for sure. We’ve already looked at that and thought about that. But Ray Cooper I think is going to be a really fun one if I get that one.”
Curtis has joked that if he gets the million, some of the money will go towards buying a tiger. Sadly, he’s aware that owning a tiger in the United States may not be legal, so he’ll settle for buying a house for himself and his mother and securing his children’s future.
Given how close he recently came to hanging up the gloves, would that kind of financial windfall allow him to quit fighting for good?
“Once I win my million, we’ll see,” Curtis said. “But I’m always like, ‘Okay, what’s one million when I can have two million?”