Chris Curtis dreamed about fighting inside the Octagon for over a decade as a professional mixed martial artist. Now that his UFC debut was happening, though, it was turning nightmarish.
He was in a UFC 268 prelim last November in New York, and Curtis was getting beaten to the punch by an opponent he thought was no more than a musclebound wrestler. Straight punches were snapping Curtis’ head back, their effect growing visible on his face. Body kicks, one after another, were landing with sickening thuds.
As Round 1 wore down to its final minute, the TV analysts at cageside were discussing the need for Curtis to land something significant to earn the respect of his opponent, Phil Hawes.
“Curtis has got to stop this momentum,” Joe Rogan said. “The momentum is clearly … OHHH!”
Curtis had just interrupted the commentary with a left hook that left Hawes wobbly with legs unable to keep him upright, and Curtis pounced to deliver an emphatic finishing punch. When the referee waved off the bout with 33 seconds remaining in the round, Curtis ran around the Octagon with his arms raised, eyes dancing and a broad smile.
“I’ve given up 14 years of my life for this!” he told Rogan in their cage interview. “I’ve missed my son’s birthdays! I’ve missed everything for so many years!”
Curtis, 35, is now making up for lost time. On Saturday, when he faces Jack Hermansson in the UFC co-main event in London, it will be his fourth fight in just eight months with the promotion. He is 3-0 in the Octagon, and this will be his third appearance on short notice.
“My motto is ‘Ready yesterday,’ man,” Curtis (29-8) told ESPN. “I’m a full-time fighter, training seven days a week. I’m always ready to go, especially now that I’m in the UFC. I’d been waiting forever to hear Bruce Buffer announce my name, to get a knockout at Madison Square Garden, then to have Joe Rogan welcome me to the UFC. I’ve sacrificed a lot for this.”
The sacrifice Curtis pointed to in his postfight interview at the Garden was the time he’s missed with his son. Kris, who turns 15 in October, lives in Ohio with his mother, whom Curtis met when she was three months pregnant with the boy. He later adopted Kris, but Curtis has been living and training in Las Vegas for nearly all of Kris’ life. And yet, the miles between them and the time apart have not prevented the two from forging a bond that’s proved integral to Curtis’ fight career. He wholeheartedly believes he would not be where he is today if not for his son.
Back in 2018, Curtis had an opportunity to earn a UFC contract on Dana White’s Contender Series. He made a strong case for himself by scoring a flashy hook-kick knockout, but he was not offered a contract at the end of the night. Curtis was devastated.
“I was done with MMA,” he said. “I sat in the dressing room and told my team this was it for me. I’d been working my ass off for years to get to the UFC. I’d beaten guys who later got signed. I’d beaten guys who’d already been in the UFC. Then I go on Contenders, knock the guy out with a hook kick and don’t get signed? I was, like, what the hell else can I do?”
When Curtis called his son to tell him that he’d retired from fighting and would be coming home, Kris was excited that he’d be seeing his dad, but the boy had a question: What are you going to do now that you’re no longer fighting?
Curtis didn’t have an answer.
“You have to understand that for my boy, fighting is synonymous with who I am,” he said. “I mean, my son was three weeks old and in the crowd at my first amateur fight. He’s been a part of this for my whole career, sacrificing more than anyone so I could be a fighter. He couldn’t wrap his brain around me not being a fighter anymore. And neither could I, honestly.”
As Curtis spoke with his son in the days that followed, the “what’s next?” questions kept coming up. It occurred to him that his boy was turning the tables on him and the life lessons Curtis had been bestowing upon Kris all his life.
“I’ve constantly preached to my son that when things get hard for you, you can’t just quit,” Curtis said. “I’ve always told him that if something’s not difficult, it’s probably not worth doing. So now he was challenging me on my decision to retire from fighting. How could I just walk away when things got hard? I mean, I’m the guy who taught him it’s never OK to quit.”
So Curtis came back to fighting — although he wasn’t done quitting.
Less than a year after the Contender Series disappointment, Curtis signed with the PFL for the 2019 season. A risky detour from his pursuit of the UFC dream, but the potential payoff was lucrative.
“If all goes well, I win a million dollars,” Curtis said he remembered thinking. “But if things don’t go well in the PFL, the UFC will notice and will never sign me. I was betting on myself, going all in.”
The pivotal night came in the playoffs at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas that October, when Curtis would try to earn a spot in the $1 million final. Competing under the PFL’s old fighting format, the quarterfinals and semis would take place in one night. First up for Curtis was the defending welterweight champion, Magomed Magomedkerimov. Curtis lost by decision, and he took off his gloves and laid them at the center of the cage.
“It was the worst-case scenario,” he said. “There would be no million dollars and no UFC. This time I was really done as a fighter.”
After Curtis had sat quietly backstage for a few minutes allowing the emotions surrounding his retirement to sink in, he grabbed a plate of food. He would have a bite to eat before changing out of his fight shorts and going home. As he was about to dig into his chicken and waffles, Curtis saw PFL president Ray Sefo headed in his direction.
Sefro told him that Magomedkerimov had fallen ill after their fight and needed to be replaced in the semifinals, which were scheduled to begin in a matter of minutes. Could Curtis fight? Of course he could.
Ten minutes after sitting with a plate of food on his lap and no fighting future ahead of him, Curtis gloved up and walked back out to the cage. His opponent was Ray Cooper III, who’d been a finalist the previous year.
Curtis didn’t make it to the judges’ scorecards this time. Cooper knocked him out in the second round and was headed to the season final. Curtis was headed somewhere else.
“All right, guys, still retired,” Curtis told reporters afterward. “I like to count it as one retirement.”
Whether one calls it one retirement or two in one night, the same question again came up for Curtis: What would his son say?
Curtis didn’t have a better answer at the time, but reflecting on that night now, he recognizes that his son knew what was in his dad’s heart.
“I’ve quit a thousand and one things in my life, and by that point Kris was old enough to be used to it,” he said. “I have been like, ‘F— it,’ throw my hands in the air, walk away. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I react. He’s seen it. But he also has seen that I never quit anything for long.”
His manager, Jason House, has been on this roller-coaster with Curtis and others in the sport. “After a fight, a fighter’s emotions are going 100 miles an hour,” he said. “You have to give him some time to breathe, to make sure that what he’s saying immediately afterward is not just a kneejerk reaction. With Chris, I thought maybe he was really done this time, although I didn’t think he really wanted to be done.”
Sure enough, barely three months had passed before Curtis was taking a fight. Then another. And another. By last October, he was on a five-fight winning streak when House received a late-night call from UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard. The promotion needed a middleweight fighter who could step up on one day’s notice to face Hawes. Curtis, who had always competed at welterweight, was in.
The last-minute fight fell through, but it was rebooked for a month later at UFC 268. Curtis finally had the opportunity he’d long been waiting for.
“In this sport, it’s not just about who’s good; it’s also about who’s left,” House said. “We’re seeing longevity and perseverance pay off for fighters a lot these days. Glover Teixeira. Charles Oliveira. Brandon Moreno. Who can withstand all of the adversity that MMA brings?”
For Curtis, the secret to that perseverance is love. As the love he shares with his son remains strong despite all the birthdays missed, his love for fighting is the North Star he fixates on to determine when it will be time for him to walk away.
“I’ve always feared being an old guy at a bar saying I could have been a contender,” Curtis said. “My goal has always been to go as far as I possibly can, and I’m terrified of giving up too early. How will I know when I’ve gone as far as I can and it’s over for me? You’ve got to listen to your heart. As long as you have a dream, and you have love for that dream, you’ll suffer for it, do anything for that dream.
“Getting to the UFC is cool, a dream come true. But anybody that says this is the finish line is an idiot. My goal wasn’t just to get here. I need to go as far as I can while I still love it. When the love is gone, it’s over.”