After Chris Curtis wasn’t awarded a contract following his victory on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2018, he pulled the plug on his career as a professional fighter.
Paired off with Sean Lally, the veteran scored a third-round knockout victory by hook kick, extending his winning streak to six and his record to 19-5 overall. Each of the four other fighters that earned victories that evening eventually found their way onto the UFC and have made 35 combined appearances inside the Octagon.
The Ohio native walked away from the sport, but seven months later, he was back in the cage, extending his winning streak to seven. He’d fight four more times in 2019, walking away again following a second-round knockout loss to Ray Cooper III that extended his losing streak to three.
Barely three months passed before he was back in the cage and kicking off a five-fight winning streak he carries with him into his UFC debut this weekend.
Yes, his UFC debut.
Saturday evening at Madison Square Garden, three years, four months, and 26 days after leaving Las Vegas empty handed and taking the first of a couple different sabbaticals from the sport, Curtis will finally cross the threshold into the UFC cage for the first time.
“F****** finally!” boomed the engaging veteran, who faces Phil Hawes in an intriguing middleweight clash this weekend at UFC 268 when asked to articulate what he’s feeling just a few days away from an opportunity he wasn’t sure would ever materialize.
It’s been a long road, but Curtis has arrived.
“I don’t party, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke; I don’t do anything,” he began, explaining the complex emotions and thoughts that have raced through his brain and prompted the various different sabbaticals he’s taken over the last several years, only to return each time. “I train — all I do is train — so it’s heartbreaking never knowing why you’re not good enough, and that hurts.
“I have given up a significant chunk of my adult life for this sport and to chase a dream, and it hurts, man,” continued the 34-year-old, whose son lives in Ohio, while he lives and trains in Las Vegas. “You sacrifice a lot and you reach a point where you wonder not only how much did you sacrifice, but how much did the people around you have to sacrifice for you to live your dream before you’re like, ‘You know what — maybe it’s not gonna happen?’
“You try to walk away and be better for everybody around you, but even then, what hurts even more is living with the thought that you never saw it through to the end,” he added. “That’s what scares me. I don’t want to be 60 years old, thinking, ‘Man, I wonder if I could have done it?’”
This weekend, Curtis finally gets the chance to prove something he and those close to him have known for quite some time: that he’s more than capable of competing on the biggest stage in the sport.
Just under four weeks ago, Curtis volunteered for this assignment opposite Hawes when the ascending middleweight’s original opponent, Deron Winn, withdrew from their scheduled bout on the morning of weigh-ins. Curtis weighed in, but Hawes passed on the short-notice fight, leading to the duo being rebooked for this weekend.
It was an extension of the mindset that has propelled the “Action-Man” throughout this year, where he’s already racked up four victories in three different weight classes, beginning with a stoppage win over UFC veteran Kyle Stewart and capped by a unanimous decision triumph over another Octagon alum, Kenny Robertson, at the end of July.
“I campaigned for a heavyweight fight this year,” recalled Curtis, laughing. “I would do it, but the commission was like, ‘Please stop it.’
“I was looking to get 10 fights this year,” he continued. “I have four and I had three fall through. I told my manager, ‘I will beat everyone until there is no one left.’”
That ambition to fight as often as possible, coupled with being stationed in Las Vegas, created the opportunity for Curtis to raise his hand when Hawes needed an opponent at the last minute, even if the fight didn’t initially come together. But what put the affable veteran in that position in the first place is the work he’s done with the team at Xtreme Couture and the confidence they’ve imbued him with over the last two years.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of support there,” Curtis said of the Las Vegas outpost, singing the praises of Nate Pettit, Jake Shields, Jason Manly, and head coach Eric Nicksick. “All those people pour a lot of time and effort into me, and what people don’t realize is that as a fighter, a big part of it is having people around you that put time and effort into you because they believe.
“Every fighter has doubt,” he declared. “Anyone that says they don’t is a f****** liar! We all have doubt. When we’re having a bad day, we’re all laying at home in our beds wondering, ‘What if I can’t do it? What if I’m not good enough?’ So having people around me that are like, ‘This is brilliant; let’s go!” and they’re not just being ‘Yes’ men?”
He paused to find the words.
“Anybody can hold mitts for you, but having somebody hold mitts and having people coach you are different, and I feel like I’ve got a lot of good coaches around me; a lot of people that are putting that effort into me.
“As such, my skill set has grown a lot,” he added. “I’ve gone into fights this year with so much more confidence. It’s a completely different level.”
While he’s jovial and playful, it’s easy to tell how much all of this means to Curtis; the laughter and excitement he’s feeling now serving as a counterbalance to the days, weeks, months, years of sadness and disappointment he’s experienced feeling like this day was never going to come.
His journey has featured peaks and valleys, extended winning streaks and abbreviated retirements, and to finally be on the cusp of making a walk he’s dreamt about making for more than a decade brings its own feeling of accomplishment and release.
“No one is owed anything in fighting, and I’m certainly not owed anything, but I have earned this 10 times over,” said Curtis. “I fought a ton of good people, I train with the best people in the country, I have my place in that room, and no one understands what it was (that kept me out all this time).
“But at the end of the day, I’m here now.”
And he plans to savor every minute of it.
“I get to debut at Madison Square Garden, and I’ve earned the ability to enjoy that a little bit. I will let myself enjoy it; I’ve earned that.”
He most certainly has.