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Chris Curtis celebrates after knocking out Phil Hawes in their middleweight fight during the UFC 268 event at Madison Square Garden on November 06, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)
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Chris Curtis Unafraid To Say "I Told You So"

Middleweight Reinvents Himself, Becomes An Inspiration To Others

Two wins into the UFC feel-good story of recent years, and Chris Curtis is still coming to grips with his new role as an inspiration not only to his fellow fighters, but to anyone still grinding against the odds.

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“It's still weird,” said Curtis. “I never really started this to inspire anyone, so to see all the feedback, I got a lot of messages from people who are telling me, 'I thought I was down and out and I was gonna give up, and I saw you keep grinding and reach it.' I've gotten so many of those messages and it's insane to me because I never really looked at myself as someone to look up to or as an inspiration. I'm still wrapping my head around that one.”

For those just tuning in, Curtis, a pro since 2009, fought his way through the regional circuit and in 2018, he thought a knockout of Sean Lally on Dana White’s Contender Series was going to be his ticket to the UFC.

It wasn’t.

A brief retirement followed, and longer doubts surfaced, even after he returned to active duty. But after a four-fight winning streak that included victories over UFC vets, Kyle Stewart and Kenny Robertson, Curtis got the call he had been waiting for in 2021, and at UFC 268 last November, he knocked out highly touted Phil Hawes in the first round. Less than a month later, another top prospect fell when he stopped Brendan Allen. At 34, Chris Curtis was the hottest rookie in the UFC.

It was back-to-back “I told you so” moments for the Cincinnati native, and he wasn’t shy about letting the doubters know about it.

“I think I said it on camera,” he laughs. “For all the people who always said I was gonna make it, there were three times as many, if not more, saying I wasn't gonna make it. ‘You're never gonna get there, you suck.’ And to get the chance and to show out and get a finish in Madison Square Garden, I knocked off two of my goals at one time: UFC debut and fight in Madison Square Garden. And, on top of that, I get an awesome finish. There were so many people who just shut up and I never heard from them again. I've been blocked from people and I hurt a lot of feelings, so I love it.”

Curtis laughs the laugh of someone who made it. And not just made it, but made a mark in a pair of appearances that have fight fans – and his middleweight peers – paying attention as he preps for his third trip to the Octagon on Saturday against Rodolfo Vieira. Yet don’t think the hunger has dulled for the “Action-Man” now that he’s reached the place he’s been chasing for years.

“For me, the goals never really change because it wasn't just about getting to the UFC,” Curtis explains. “My entire thing about not getting signed was I never wanted to leave the sport not knowing how far I could go. My entire goal has always just been to see how far I can go. And, to me, I guess it doesn't really matter where that ends up being. I just had to know. I didn't want to retire and walk away and think, 'Man, could I have done more, could I have done better?' I just want to find out where my upper limit is. How strong can I be? If I was to become a world champion, that's cool. If I was to become a Top Ten guy, that's cool. I don't have to be at the very top. For my own personal, mental well-being and state of mind for the rest of my life, I just need to know how far I can go. So the goalpost doesn't change. I'm just gonna keep going until I can't go any further.”

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It's the perfect mindset to have and, not surprisingly, a mature one. Would it have been the same attitude had he made it to the UFC back in 2018?

Highlight: Chris Curtis Stuns Phil Hawes In The First Round | UFC 268
Highlight: Chris Curtis Stuns Phil Hawes In The First Round | UFC 268
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“I've had a lot of growing to do the last couple years,” he said. “I would still handle things better than most because I was more experienced than most people. But I think I’ve, through all the ups and downs since that moment, added a lot of ability to process and be less emotional. I am more mature now. At 34, I got to that party late, but I think 28-year-old me would probably be making more mistakes. At 34, I'm calmer, I know what I want in my life, I have directions outside of fighting, which is something 28-year-old me never had; it was all just fighting. Now I'm thinking about starting a life, settling down, doing more other stuff, so, at 34, I'm older than I want to be (in the sport) and I'm not gonna have as much time in the company as I want, but overall, it's probably good for me because I'm maturing pretty late in life.”

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Better late than never for a fighter who never stopped believing. It was a lonely road to get here, but now millions are watching his every move.

“I didn't get it until so late, so I really didn't have a chance to have anybody to look at and say, 'Hey, they made it so I can make it,'” Curtis said. “For me, I just had to keep my head down and keep going and keep betting on myself.”

UFC Fight Night: Tsarukyan vs Gamrot Took Place Live From The UFC APEX In Las Vegas, Nevada on June 25, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass