Kelvin Tiller was one of the breakout stars of the first season of the PFL. After a first-round KO and a second-round submission finish, he was locked into the No. 2 playoff seed in the heavyweight division, lined up well for a deep run — especially considering he’d already defeated his first-round opponent.
The day before that fight, however, Tiller’s run at $1 million was derailed by the devastating news of his grandfather’s death. He’d go on to lose that fight last October. Tiller returned to action in June and earned another standout victory with a first-round submission win via kimura against Muhammed DeReese.
He’s well-positioned for another PFL playoff berth, but Tiller is looking to lock up a top seed as he takes on Denis Goltsov Thursday in Atlantic City, New Jersey, at PFL 6.
ESPN talked to Tiller about his time thus far in the PFL and his expectations moving forward.
The PFL is midway through its regular season, and you can watch action at PFL 5 and PFL 6 on ESPN+. You can also watch archives of PFL 1, PFL 2, PFL 3 and PFL 4 in their entirety.
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ESPN: Walk me through your first fight of this season and everything that led up to your submission win.
Tiller: I did a little bit of studying on Muhammed DeReese. I had seen mistakes that he made, and I knew he was not really comfortable on his feet. I read into things like that. I took a bit of time. I tell people all the time I’m not just a fighter — I’m able to think while I’m getting punched and kicked.
I knew he was going to bring it, but I knew I was better. The last two guys he fought in PFL were not on my level. I knew those things.
ESPN: After making some noise in the first season, did you do anything different to prepare for your second shot in the PFL?
Tiller: Last year, for all three of my fights and for this first camp this season, I pretty much trained with two or three people. My biggest thing this time was to get with a different camp. Kansas doesn’t have big guys for me to really work with, so I did three weeks out of Duke Roufus’ gym in Milwaukee. I got to train with some high-level guys up there and learn a lot from high-level coaches.
I feel like I still haven’t really shown what I can do. I think I’ve only been at 50 or 60 percent with what I’ve done, and I’ve got so much more.
ESPN: What adjustments did you make heading into your second training camp this season, and what are your thoughts about an opponent in Denis Goltsov who also got a first-round finish?
Tiller: He threw a little check hook at Jared [Rosholt], and Jared fell. That’s not me. Anybody can get knocked out at any given moment, but my style is straightforward — when I throw, they land and they hurt.
We didn’t really change anything in training camp. I’m sure his camp is relying on the height. But I’ve got good head movement. I rip to the body good. I leg kick. I could do everything really well. I’ve been fighting taller fighters my whole career. My first pro fight, I fought Dan Spohn, who’s in the [PFL light heavyweight] tournament, and I think he’s 6-foot-4. My training partner Wayman Carter is 6-foot-4, and I’ve been training with him for 11 years. You know, I fought [Caio] Alencar last year, and I think he was listed at 6-4.
ESPN: The PFL format and its $1 million prize offer a lot of incentives, but what has your experience with the promotion over two seasons been like to this point?
Tiller: I actually got [my first PFL fight] on kind of a last-minute-type thing. Last year I was just sitting on the couch, not really training, not doing anything, almost 300 pounds. To get this opportunity … I was starting a lawn care business, just saving up money for that, working in the heat all day long to try to make some money to take care of my kids.
I got a lot of exposure since last year. Even though I lost in the playoffs in the first round, a lot of people are still sending positive messages, telling me that they were excited to see me back this year. When I signed my contract this year, everything was good. … With any other organization, I was just another fighter, and I feel like they appreciate me in this organization.
I hope to fight for them for another two to three years. When I’m 32, 33, then I’m done fighting. So I hope I can retire with them.
ESPN: Your nickname is “The Mama’s Boy” and your mother is a cageside presence in the crowd. What would winning $1 million mean to you and your family?
Tiller: My mom worked plenty of years, struggling with working two jobs, 16-hour shifts. She’d come home, sleep for a little bit, then go back and do it again. It was just a lot. My motivation is to get her her own house. She can retire and be able to do something that she really wants to do.
We grew up very poor. My dad was never around. So I would like to give my kids a good life, where they don’t have to know what the struggle is really about. Where we all don’t have to worry about money or how we’re gonna pay the rent next month.
ESPN: How much are you looking forward to another chance in the playoffs?
Tiller: I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t think I could win. I wasn’t in it for a quick check. I wasn’t in this for another 500 followers on Instagram. I really do believe that I’ll win, in my heart. I put in the time over the last 11 years of my career. I believe this is my time.