LAS VEGAS — Chris Curtis was in the buffet line at 8:17 p.m. PT. In his hand, he held a clear, oddly shaped plastic plate with a serving of chicken and waffles and a half-eaten double-chocolate cookie.
About 45 minutes earlier, Curtis had lost a unanimous decision to Magomed Magomedkerimov, a defeat that, by all appearances, eliminated Curtis from the PFL’s welterweight playoff bracket. After that loss Curtis set his gloves down on the mat, the telltale sign that a fighter’s career is over. He then posted a message on Instagram that confirmed his retirement from the sport after a few moments of shedding tears with his face in his open palms.
Curtis was about to indulge himself with a hearty meal when PFL president Ray Sefo approached him. Magomedkerimov was sick, Sefo said. Curtis was needed to fight in the semifinals — in about a half hour.
Curtis heard the first half of the sentence more than the second.
“What’s wrong with him? Is he OK?” Curtis asked Sefo of Magomedkerimov.
Sefo said Magomedkerimov was throwing up, but would be fine. Sefo asked Curtis again if he could fight. Curtis, his eyes widening, said yes.
“Well, f—!” Curtis shouted as he hurried back toward his warm-up room. “I guess I shouldn’t eat this.”
Once Curtis got back, he dropped the plate on a chair and began to prepare to fight for a second time that night.
His wild ride was one of the many unique scenes going on behind the curtain last Friday night at Mandalay Bay Events Center.
In the PFL playoffs, fighters must win twice in a single night to qualify for the $1 million championship bout on New Year’s Eve in New York. After prevailing in a two-round quarterfinal fight, they have to clear medicals, decompress and then ready themselves to fight again in the three-round semifinals, which take place 90 minutes (or less) after their first bout.
With fighters, coaches, managers, training partners, commission officials, executives and camera people all milling about, the action backstage almost rivals the spectacle inside the cage. PFL tells its fighters who lose in the quarterfinals to stay ready, just in case.
No matter how checked out he had been after retiring and recovering from his defeat backstage, Curtis had just minutes to get himself as ready as he could to step back into the cage and lock horns with Ray Cooper III, one of PFL’s most feared knockout artists.
“It’s a roller coaster back here, man,” Curtis’ training partner and UFC fighter Sean Strickland said.
Glaico Franca laid down, his arms outstretched on the floor with a boxing mitt under his head as a pillow. Franca had beaten Andre Fialho earlier in a hard-fought majority decision and was trying to relax while waiting to see if David Michaud or John Howard would become his next opponent in the semifinals.
Keeping calm wasn’t easy. Adjacent to Franca’s warmup room was the kitchen, and the only thing separating the fighter’s area and the cooks, caterers and food were black curtains. The smell of pizza and fried food lingered in the air. Plates and utensils clattered loudly.
“That makes me mad,” Franca joked while shadowboxing. “I’m getting ready to go kill someone — oh s—, that smells good.”
On the other side of the event center, Cooper was staring stoically at the television screen in his room, about an hour after he advanced past Sadibou Sy in the quarterfinals. The only expression on his face backstage all night was no expression at all. Cooper wouldn’t learn until just before walking out that he would be fighting Curtis next, and not Magomedkerimov. He didn’t bat an eye when he heard the news.
“Doesn’t matter the opponent,” Cooper’s father and coach Ray Cooper Jr. said as they went through final preparations. “Same strategy.”
Down the hall, a PFL camera crew tried to enter the locker room of Magomedkerimov to check on his health. They were denied.
“No camera,” Magomedkerimov’s manager Ali Abdelaziz said. “Not now.”
Michaud beat Howard by unanimous decision to set up a semifinal fight with Franca. After clearing medicals and returning to his warm-up area, Michaud returned to a chaotic atmosphere with people running around with exasperated looks.
Michaud was sharing a warm-up room with Curtis, who was getting his hands re-wrapped to fight again. A few minutes later, Michaud is told Magomedkerimov is out and Curtis is in.
“Is my opponent good?” Michaud asks regarding Franca. “Can he fight?”
Sarah Kaufman returned backstage with her face covered in blood, her nose likely broken and a gruesome cut in between her outer ear and head. She was told she had to be transported to the hospital. Kaufman had lost her women’s featherweight semifinal by unanimous decision to Larissa Pacheco.
Unlike the other five PFL divisions, the women’s featherweight playoff bracket only had four fighters, which meant competitors were only required to win once on Friday to advance to the finals.
Kaufman, a Victoria, British Columbia, native, has done parts of her training camps at Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas where Curtis trains full-time and was also sharing a warm-up area with him. Syndicate coach John Wood — Curtis’ head coach — was in Kaufman’s corner and missed most of the chaos backstage. He didn’t even know Curtis would be fighting again until he got back after Kaufman’s semifinal fight.
At 8:26 p.m. Curtis got his hands wrapped for a second time. He was feeling good, and he started lightly warming up with teammate A.J. Matthews. But there was another logistical problem to solve; Curtis couldn’t find his mouthpiece, and he had to walk out to fight Cooper in a matter of minutes.
Wood was on the hunt outside the warm-up room and eventually found it — in the garbage inside the ringside doctors’ triage area.
“Please tell me this is it!” Wood said as he stormed back into the warm-up room.
At 8:42 p.m. Strickland sprinted to get some hot water from catering to put the mouthpiece in and refit it. Moments later it went into Curtis’ mouth, and the fighter was good to go. After a whirlwind 33 minutes, the fighter and his team made their way toward the cage, ready for battle and an unbelievable chance at redemption.
There would be no Hollywood ending for Curtis. Cooper ended the Cinderella story with one punch, a clubbing right-hand knockout in the second round. He, rather than Curtis, will fight Michaud, who beat Franca by decision, for $1 million.
With Cooper and Curtis being tended to by doctors in the triage area, Wood approached Cooper’s cornermen and brothers, Blake and Makoa, extended his hand and offered them congratulations. Wood told them the story, that Curtis knew only minutes before that he’d be fighting again that night.
“That was the craziest f—ing s—,” Wood said.
Curtis left the triage area under his own power. He had to be transported to the hospital, but told his team he felt OK.
“I don’t remember the fight,” Curtis said. “I’m fine. Apparently there was a [first] round somewhere.”
Later Friday night, Curtis (21-8) reiterated on Facebook that he is retired from MMA, at the age of 31. The 10-year pro ended up just one win short of fighting for that life-changing, million-dollar purse.
“Disappointing night, but that’s how this works,” he wrote. “Thank you all for the love. I really am done this time.”
If that holds, Curtis will have a heck of a story to tell about his final day in mixed martial arts — a sport that can be as cold as a plate of chicken and waffles left lonely in the bowels of Mandalay Bay Events Center.