And good news: The rematch is scheduled to go down Friday at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
Magomedkerimov (25-5), who is looking to win back-to-back PFL welterweight titles after earning $1 million in 2018, defeated Curtis (21-6) via unanimous decision at PFL 4 in July. Magomedkerimov pretty much had his way early on in the first fight, until Curtis rallied in the final round and nearly finished the Russian with a guillotine choke.
In anticipation of the rematch, ESPN sat down with Randy Couture and rewatched the first fight, as the UFC Hall of Famer and current PFL commentator offered his real-time insights and reactions, as well as what he expects from the sequel.
Note: If you’d like to watch along with Randy, click here, open up ESPN+ and fast forward to 1:32:30 into the broadcast.
Setting the stage: Magomedkerimov is the returning champ. I think he surprised a lot of folks last year, with just how smooth he is and how well he keeps his range. And then his submission game is sick. He gets into positions very quickly.
But I like Curtis. He’s an interesting guy, the way he thinks about things. He has this innate confidence that comes out when he’s talking about what he’s capable of. And I always feel like, in a rematch, the onus is on the guy who won. What’s he going to change? He got the outcome he wanted. The guy who lost knows where he screwed up and knows what mistakes he needs to adjust. That’s why it’s always a gamble when you’re fighting a guy you already beat. You’re taking a wild guess as to what this guy is going to do different.
First round (Curtis looks to counter on his feet, loses round): Magomedkerimov makes first contact with that side kick. Curtis is responding to him, instead of going out and making Magomed respond. I don’t know if he underestimated how good this guy is on the feet or how well he keeps his range, but Curtis is the one trying to react here.
If you have a guy with good takedown defense, you can press forward and hunt someone like Magomedkerimov and make him react. But you can’t do that straight-legged, in a traditional boxing stance. Curtis needs to be the one moving forward, and he has to do that from a bended-knee position, where he’s ready to sprawl quickly.
And this side kick Magomedkerimov is throwing, he’s thrown it now five or seven times in this round. It’s a weird angle, but if I were Curtis, I’d be looking to change levels and drive through him as he stands on one leg and throws that. You know he’s going to throw it. It’s an opportunity to take him down. Because we really haven’t seen him operate much from off his back. Most of the submissions he gets are from top position.
Second round (Magomedkerimov scores a takedown and holds back position the majority of the round): Magomedkerimov, just a tenacious takedown. He ran Curtis down like a jackal on a water buffalo. I think if you’re Curtis, you still have to throw combinations on your feet, even though you don’t want to be taken down, because if Magomedkerimov wants to take you down, he has to engage in that range first. But the stance is so important. If you lose track and get in that straight boxing stance, that’s when you get taken down.
Curtis is in a bad position this round, but he’s not panicked. He’s not just waiting out the round, he’s actively trying to figure out how to get out of there. He can absolutely make up some of this ground by the rematch — he just gave up his back in this round and couldn’t get out of a very dominant position. There are some things he can focus on that would have prevented this.
Third round (Curtis yells at Magomedkerimov at the start of round, is far more aggressive, and almost secures a late guillotine): I’m not sure what his goal was, telling Magomedkerimov to “fight him.” From my perspective, Magomedkerimov has been fighting him the whole time — he’s just been one step ahead of Curtis.
This is the first time where you see Curtis move forward and you see the difference. You can’t sit back with a guy as technical as Magomedkerimov, he’s too good. You have to make it nasty, a little dirty. You have to hit him first and make him react.
Magomedkerimov uses that underhook and head placement on the far side very well, to trap you against the fence. That’s something I made a living off doing when I fought. Re-pummeling and not giving up that access to your body will be key for Curtis in the rematch. It wasn’t a huge part of this fight, but Curtis needs to be able to get off the fence.
The guillotine is legit. Magomedkerimov is scrambling because it’s tight. If Curtis comes out in the rematch and does what he did in this third round, which is go first, he’s got a good chance at winning. And a second fight would have been tough on him, psychologically, if he hadn’t had success in the third round. But now, he already showed he has the ability to win this fight.
Post-fight thoughts: It’s exciting we get to see this again in the playoffs, when there’s so much on the line.
If Curtis can’t get it done, I think Sadibou Sy would have a chance against Magomedkerimov. Everybody thinks he’s a kickboxer, but Sy’s shown he’s well-rounded and has the ability to sprawl. What’s important is Magomedkerimov is taller and longer than just about everyone in the division, besides Sy. If not him, you look at the knockout power of John Howard or Ray Cooper III. Those guys bring one-punch ferocity that can change a fight.