Curtis Millender isn’t in the main event Saturday night in Wichita, but when he meets up with Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in the co-feature, don’t be surprised if these two welterweights steal the show. They have the track record and styles to prove it, but if “Curtious” Curtis has his way, it will be a different kind of bonus check in his wallet on the way back home to California.
“I always say I’m not going out there for a war,” he said. “I don’t want the Fight of the Night check; I want the performance bonus, I want to knock him out or sub him and get the best performance of the night. But I look at these tough guys and sometimes we might not be able to avoid it.”
And that’s okay, too. In three UFC bouts thus far, Millender has gotten into entertaining scraps with Thiago Alves, Max Griffin and Siyar Bahadurzada, winning all three and quickly establishing him as one of 2018’s top Octagon rookies. A win on Saturday over the No. 14-ranked Zaleski dos Santos could be his ticket to the top 15, and that’s what we call a whirlwind 13 months.
“It’s gone so fast,” said Millender, who recently celebrated his sixth anniversary as a pro fighter. “This year is the first year of me fighting that I haven’t had to worry about whether I’m gonna be able to pay the bills. This has been a very stress-free year for me financially and that’s one of the things I’ve always said: once I’m able to do this stress-free financially, nobody’s gonna be able to touch me.”
Now that’s a frightening prospect for the rest of the 170-pound weight class, but that literal hunger was quite the motivator for Millender on his way to the UFC. Now that he’s here and established, will he lose some of that fire?
“Oh, no not at all,” he said. “I’ll find something else to make me hungry. I still have two little boys that want everything every time I go into a store, and I hate telling them no, even though I do it sometimes just because we can’t completely spoil them. (Laughs) So the hunger is never gonna go anywhere. The whole goal for me is not just to be rich. I want to be the best ever. So until I’m retired and considered the best ever, my hunger is still gonna be there.”
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The best ever. It’s an abstract goal, but it’s also one that is on the table for any fighter at this level. Sure, it will take talent, skill, a little luck and the right dance partners, but what a place to be in, where all the right moves can make someone an all-time great. So in Millender’s eyes, what will it take to be the best ever?
“Never losing again,” he said. “Beat everybody they put in front of me, and just be impressive. My ideal goal is to win every fight from now until I’m retired and never even lose a round. As long as I continue to do the work I’m doing and working hard and keep the right circle, the good people around me, that goal is gonna happen.”
But what of the X factor? Does Millender have that personality to set him apart and make people want to tune in to see him fight? Yeah, he’s got it. And he also has a fighter’s mentality, where he’s always willing to risk it all to make it to where he wants to go.
“It’s funny, my manager tells this story,” Millender recalls. “There have been times when I was fighting on the regional circuit where I’d sell a bunch of tickets, I would spend what I would make in the fight and my percentage of the ticket money and if I didn’t win, I would be broke. So I would only have my win bonus after the last two or three fights back then.”
“I perform better with the pressure.”
That pressure is on this Saturday, and it’s only going to get higher as 2019 proceeds. So with UFC Year One in the bank, what’s the plan for Year Two?
“If it ain’t broke, we don’t fix it,” he said. “Another three wins and go into 2020 top ten, top five, making big checks and getting a gold belt.”