Bellator Featherweight Champion Pat Curran knows when to turn on the crazy.
Pat Curran climbs down from the front seat of his Ford F-150 wearing a blue tee shirt that reads “EAT SLEEP TRAIN REPEAT!” The Bellator Featherweight Champion has just finished a 90-minute grappling session at Team Curran MMA in Crystal Lake, IL, and he has chosen a local Thai restaurant as his refueling station. A spread of egg rolls and green curry is forthcoming.
“I love this place,” says Curran. “It’s kinda out here, but they have a good lunch menu, and I like spicy.”
Curran orders an iced coffee, takes off his black baseball cap, and holds it carefully between his hands as he leans back in his chair.
“You know what else I love?” he asks, as he puts the cap back on. “Fighting in Bellator.”
If the Bellator tournament format is meant to draw out the best young talent in the country and reward them for toughness, Pat Curran is the organization’s archetype—he’s the only fighter on their roster to win tournaments at two weight classes.
After bouncing around smaller promotions like XFO, and a brief stint on the TapouT reality series, Curran brought a 10-3 record into the Bellator Season 2 Lightweight Tournament quarterfinals against Mike Ricci, a Tristar fighter being promoted (before Rory MacDonald) as the next Georges St-Pierre. Curran was about to begin his final week of training camp when adversity struck—one of his routine kicks was blocked awkwardly by a sparring partner’s elbow.
“I couldn’t walk or train a week before the fight,” says Curran. “But I knew this might be my only chance. I was on painkillers and anti-inflammatories right up to fight night.”
After a slow start, with Curran measuring and backing away, the hobble-legged fighter landed a sharp right hook to Ricci’s chin, knocking the lightweight unconscious before he hit the mat. Curran would go on to win the Season 2 Tournament before dropping a unanimous decision to then Bellator Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez at Bellator 39. After the loss, Curran made the decision to move to featherweight and enter the Bellator 2011 Summer Series Featherweight Tournament.
“I think I’m a little more natural at featherweight,” says Curran, who walks around at 160 pounds.
His drop has paid off. Since making the move to featherweight, Curran has gone undefeated and finished four of his last six fights (in a variety of ways).
“He’s methodical, almost mundane at first,” says Doug Mango, Curran’s boxing coach. “He’s basically a slow starter, but what he’s doing is, he’s figuring you out. He finds his timing and range, and then he has this switch.”
Marlon Sandro saw Curran morph during the finals of the 2011 Bellator Featherweight Tournament when a light exchange suddenly turned into a night-ending head kick. As Sandro’s limp body tumbled to the canvas, it was apparent Curran possessed more skill and spirit than Sandro predicted.
Curran’s demolition of Sandro earned him another $100,000 as tournament winner and a second title shot, this time against Joe Warren, a world champion wrestler who many thought could limit Curran’s cage control and force him to the mat. One minute into the third round, Curran saw something in Warren’s stance that spurred him to attack. “It was just there—an opening,” says Curran. After catching the champ with a short left, Curran unfurled a brutal 35-second whipping, alternating from knees to the face and body with full-throttle punches to the forehead. Warren eventually crumbled against the cage.
“He’s got a wild edge,” says Mango. “All fighters have a switch that unlocks their nutty side. They kind of snap, but Pat controls it better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
The control has shown in his ground game, where Curran—who was recently promoted to brown belt by his cousin Jeff “Big Frog” Curran—has been developing a potent neck-attack style of jiu-jitsu that’s allowing his hands to flourish and leading to submissions.
In April, Curran uncorked a combination of skills to submit Shahbulat Shamhalaev in the first period of his second title defense. Curran utilized a well-timed takedown to turn the corner and take Shamhalev’s back, before seamlessly wrapping back around his opponent’s body to pull guard and transition into an arm-in guillotine that put Shamhalaev to sleep.
“I’m loving the ground game right now,” says Curran. “I’m attacking my submissions, and it’s clicking.”
Curran’s fight career began as a sophomore in high school when the self-described “directionless” teenager was living in Del Ray Beach, Florida, a sun-drenched beach town on the Atlantic coast.
“Wrestling was my out,” he says. “I wasn’t a bad kid, but I could’ve gone down another road. I wasn’t going anywhere special, and I know I wouldn’t be here doing this if it wasn’t for wrestling.”
Jeff Curran was well into the MMA game—30 pro fights—when his young cousin showed up for his wedding in 2005. Pat was a recent state place-winner in wrestling and had the shifting ease of a well-coordinated athlete. Jeff had held Pat as a baby, but when he showed up at the wedding, it had been a while since the two had interacted. Jeff, who is 10 years older, gave Pat some of his MMA tapes and asked him to get back to him on what he thought about MMA. “I knew nothing,” says Pat. The answer that came back was as simple as it was predictable. “Awesome.”
Pat stayed in Illinois after the wedding, and with the encouragement and support of Jeff, trained while the elder cousin went honeymooning. Pat stayed for 10 days and started the process of converting his natural athletic abilities—rawhide strength and wrestling acumen—into jiu-jitsu skills and knockout power.
Pat returned to his family in Del Ray Beach, but Jeff didn’t forget about his younger cousin. “He’d call me every few months and invite me to come back and train,” says Pat.
In the summer of 2006, Pat boarded a plane and headed north for a few weeks of training with his cousin. What Mango and Jeff immediately saw was talent—a combination of factors much larger than wrestling. “He could learn quickly,” says Mango. “He listened well, and once you taught him something, it was just there.”
But at the end of the two weeks, Pat went back to Florida. He needed money, wanted a career, and couldn’t see that end game. He enrolled in classes to become a firefighter, and after graduation, was working toward a full-time pension-bearing career.
“I couldn’t let it go,” says Jeff. “He was just too talented.”
Jeff sent Pat tickets to UFC Fight Night 10 in Hollywood, FL. One of the Team Curran MMA fighters, Nate Mohr, was on the card, and Jeff wanted Pat to get the feel for the excitement of high-level MMA.
“It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” says Pat. “I loved everything about the night, and there were some fights that I still think were the best I’ve ever seen.”
The next day, Pat was on a flight to Illinois.
“My mom was pretty upset that I wanted to get punched in the face instead of being a firefighter, but this is what I wanted.” After a brief stint back in Florida, pulling wires as a contractor, Pat had saved enough for a few months of rent, loaded up his 1998 Ford Explorer, and headed to a small apartment in Woodstock, IL.
“Pat’s dad called me the next day and told me to make sure that he was not gonna get lazy, that he kinda has that ‘surfer mentality,’” says Jeff. “‘He’s gotta make money, gotta work hard and stay the course,’ he said. So I just made sure he did that as soon as he got to town.”
Although a knockout artist capable of insane spurts of brutality in the cage, Curran’s demeanor at the gym—and at lunch—is reserved, patient, and moderated by self-reflection.
“Bro, you’d never know who he was in practice. He’s the guy quietly wrapping his hands in the corner,” says Lawrence Dunning, an English fighter who lives in Chicago and trains at Team Curran MMA. “Don’t get me wrong, he works really hard and is super-intense when he trains, he’s just not out there to hurt anyone or showoff.”
Whatever Curran’s ego is, it doesn’t get flexed on his teammates. “When we train, his level is always paced out, totally moderate,” says Jeff. “But when he goes out in fights—you’ve seen it—he gets on this whole different level.”
Not many fighters will admit that the reason they throw their hands inside a cage is from fear, but Pat offers it up casually. He’s self-aware in understanding that he is fighting scared, which means that the switch he has to throw in tough times—or when the opportunity presents itself—has to be on a hair-trigger. Every training session is another opportunity to open himself up—to expose a weakness and learn from a mistake. The techniques are there and his ability to execute in the cage is proven, but the lingering hesitation and slow build are the products of his in-the-cage fear.
“I don’t want to get clipped. Guys always tell me that you never see it coming,” says Pat. “You can’t control your career if you start losing, so I’ve just stayed extra cautious in the cage. These finishes and everything, they come from me knowing when it is my time to attack.”
Outside the cage, Pat shows less fear. He’s been riding the same blue 2006 Raptor 700 four-wheeler since high school and is on his Honda VTX 1300 motorcycle twice a week. It’s almost as if he’s encouraging his adrenal glands, getting familiar with an exposure to the elements that’s similar to being locked inside a cage with a fighter intent on battering your face with thinly padded gloves.
“It’s something I have to get rid of soon, but you know, I’m not racing my bike down the freeway. I’m riding country roads, and this part of the country has remote roads,” he says.
Viacom—Bellator’s new home—is a billion-dollar company with a reality television show and growth in their sights. Although money might not be at the center of Curran’s every thought, he doesn’t want to fight into his forties. Retirement takes money, and money comes from avoiding unnecessary risk.
“Getting my hand raised, man. That’s what gets me going, that’s what I love to do. The bike and four-wheeler are just for fun,” says Pat. “You can’t fight forever, and I want to stay healthy in the cage and outside of it. That’s the key.”
Curran’s cautious approach seems at odds to his wild side, the side that keeps his heart beating and the checks rolling in, but in reality, they feed off each other in unison. Pat’s relentless killer instinct might be spawned from overcoming the anxiety of a future without winning fights, but the results are unchanged—Curran is delivering virtuoso submissions and devastating knockouts without showing signs of slowing down.
“You don’t see lions in the wild running around crazy. They save it for when it counts,” says Jeff. “That’s Pat. He’s a lion, and he’s always looking for his chance to attack.”
For better or worse, the mixed-martial arts community is focused primarily on the happenings of the UFC. Dana White and his army of media-trained superstars have found their way into an increasing number of mainstream platforms, including movies, SportsCenter, and a few Miller Lite commercials. They’re the top MMA organization in the world, and that won’t be changing anytime soon.
But now, there’s a chance for the stars Bellator has built to start breathing some of the limited air for fighters in the national media. The champions are promoted at Viacom events, and Spike’s new show Fight Master has been a pleasant ratings-getter for the network. If Bellator is to grow, it won’t be from the absorption of fallen stars like Rampage Jackson and Tito Ortiz, but from the natural charisma and unique talents of their farm league guys like Ben Askren, Mike Chandler, and Pat Curran.
Bellator fighters like Curran, might not get as much media exposure for their in-cage heroics, but their talent is increasingly shown to be on par with that of the UFC. Curran isn’t going to fall into a Twitter feud with a trolling fan, and his magazine covers might be limited, but in the end, Bellator is providing young fighters like Curran something that the UFC doesn’t—the opportunity to fight a lot and for good money. Curran is Bellator’s poster boy as the best example of what a hungry, talented, and willful fighter can accomplish within their organization.
When Curran signed to take part in the Bellator Lightweight Tournament in Season 2, he knew he’d be committing to a full-year of training and fighting. The journey was painful (he fought through several injuries) and professionally risky, but he beat a trio of accomplished fighters (Mike Ricci, Roger Huerta, and Tony Imada). He also made $100,000.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done if for some reason the UFC would have called my number, but with Bellator, especially that first tournament, fights were so close together that I had no choice but to get better,” he says. “I could look at my weaknesses and see what I needed to work on. I jumped levels. You’re only going to get better from it.”
Now a champion, Curran could be faced with the appeal of bigger fights in the UFC (like the recently resolved Eddie Alvarez debacle). But Curran—who says he has several fights and years left on his contract—is content with Bellator, and knows that the future is always uncertain.
“We’d love to test him with a different roster of fighters,” says Jeff. “But right now, I told him just to be loyal, train hard, fight hard, and make money along the way.”
Curran has two options waiting for him in the form of Bellator tournament winners who have yet to get their title shot. Daniel Straus was first on the ledger, but had to be passed over when he broke his hand and had to deal with unresolved legal issues. Magomedrasul Khasbulaev was the Season 8 tourney winner, and he could leapfrog Straus in line. With Bellator ramping up their November schedule with four events, including their first pay-per-view endeavor on November 2, Curran will be back in action to defend his title this fall—and he doesn’t care who it’s against.
Curran orders a second iced coffee and nibbles on the pea pods of his green curry and rice as he waits for his to-go box. As the conversation careens toward goodbyes, Curran suddenly remembers something cool he’s been working on.
“Oh, I got this new standing guillotine that I’m loving,” says Pat, as he stands up to demonstrate. “Feel that? It’s just a simple grip on your wrist. It’s more of a panic tap, but it’ll work.”
He’s smiling, enjoying the chance to show a new trick, to think about ways to avoid the horror of being clipped or losing his momentum. Pat thinks it can all disappear with a single four-ounce glove, so he prepares. He does it methodically, and with the purpose of using his fear to drive his action in the cage. That might not be the Spartan way, but with a flip of the switch, Pat is paying the bills and leaving opponents unconscious.