Chris Curtis relocated to Las Vegas in January and immediately began training more intensely than he had at any other point in his 10-year professional mixed martial arts career.
Twice a week, the 32-year-old Cincinnati native engages in double sparring sessions, scheduling a practice fight in the late morning/early afternoon before taking a couple of hours off and doing it all over again. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you’re doing too much,’ ” Curtis says.
• October 11: Women’s lightweight and men’s welterweight tournaments
• October 17: Women’s featherweight and men’s lightweight tournaments
• October 31: Men’s light heavyweight and men’s heavyweight tournaments
• All cards at Mandalay Bay Events Center
• Tickets $35-$250, axs.com, 702-632-7777
Overtraining is a common problem among fighters, but Curtis has grown accustomed to explaining why he doesn’t believe he’s falling into that trap. There’s a purpose for preparing this way—it’s simulating what he’ll need to do October 11 at Mandalay Bay Events Center in the welterweight tournament of the 2019 Professional Fighters League playoffs.
MMA was founded on fighters competing multiple times in the same night in a single-elimination tournament, and for the first time, that sort of endurance test is coming to Las Vegas. The PFL will stage six tournaments this month—two per card on October 11, 17 and 31—that will air on ESPN2 and ESPN+.
The four men’s brackets—lightweight, welterweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight—all include eight participants and require them to fight twice in the same night to reach the finals. The championship matches will take place New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden in New York City, with each winner earning $1 million.
“I love the idea of it,” Curtis says. “It’s an experience that can separate a lot of people. Anyone can do it once, but you have to be mentally strong to do it once, sit down and think, ‘OK, I’ve got to do it again.’ ”
The Nevada State Athletic Commission approved the format because it’s structured not to be much different than a typical championship or main event bout. Fighters will not be asked to compete in more than five rounds on a single night. Quarterfinal matches last two rounds, with the semifinals increasing to three rounds. In the case of a draw on the scorecards after two rounds, judges are asked to identify which fighter they thought won overall.
The setup heavily incentivizes first-round finishes in the quarterfinals. Fellow local fighter and former UFC veteran Vinny Magalhães can speak to the advantage of a quick finish in the PFL. He earned a submission victory in under two minutes in last year’s quarterfinals, then felt fresh enough to come back out and do it again in the semifinals.
Although Magalhães went on to lose in the championship two months later, the 35-year-old is back in the light heavyweight field, where he will face Rashid Yusupov in the first round on October 31.
“I’ve been through it, so it gives me a certain advantage. But the opponents have changed, it’s different and I’m older, so there are other advantages [for them],” Magalhães says. “But I know how to go through two fights in one night, and some of these guys don’t. They’ve never been through it in general. For me, I’ve been in [grappling] competitions where I have four, five, six different opponents in a night. To have two fights in a night is not much different than those events.”
Magalhães says the seasonal format of PFL has rejuvenated his career. The PFL holds a regular season from May to August in which rostered fighters compete twice and earn points in the standings for wins and how quickly they were achieved. Those standings turn into tournament seedings. Magalhães rode the No. 1 seed to his second-place finish last year, which earned him $200,000 in addition to his base pay for the five fights between the regular season and postseason.
“Last year, I didn’t make the million and I still made more in the six-month season than I had in the previous four years of fighting,” he says. “PFL is the greatest thing to have happened to me, and I think more guys are going to start realizing how big this can be.”
Magalhães enters the light heavyweight tournament as the No. 3-seeded fighter this year. Curtis just cracked into the welterweight bracket at No. 7, meaning he faces a tough matchup with No. 2 seed Magomed Magomedkerimov, who defeated him by unanimous decision in the regular season.
Because this is Curtis’ first time fighting more than once in a night, he sought advice from Magalhães and top lightweight seed Lance Palmer. “Universally they just said, ‘Don’t get hurt in the first fight and take it from there,’ ” Curtis said. “I’ve got to win the first fight and be smart while I do it. I don’t predict it’s going to be very hard on me, because I’m a very durable human. It’s been one of my blessings since childhood. I don’t usually get hurt in fights.”
Event doctors must clear fighters for competition after the first bout, and then there’s usually about two hours until the next fight begins. Magalhães came out of his quarterfinal win last year so unscathed, he just relaxed before his return to the cage and went through his normal warm-up routine.
Still, he knows there’s no guarantee it will go as smoothly this year. Magalhães and Curtis agree that flexibility will be key, leaving them unable to plan exactly how they’ll approach the downtime between fights. It might make the whole event more stressful, but for what’s at stake, it’s worth it.
“A million bucks is a life-changing opportunity,” Curtis says. “So I told myself if I’m going to do this, I’ve got to make some sacrifices and make some changes. I’ve never fought for a million bucks, so in order to do something I’ve never done, I’ve got to train in a way I’ve never done, so Las Vegas, the mecca of MMA in the U.S.—I had to come out here.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.