The tournament format that Bellator uses isn’t for everyone. But it is for current featherweight champion Pat Curran, who navigated fields in two separate weight classes en route to becoming Bellator’s 145-pound division champion.
Curran is the prototype for what Bellator is after with its bracketology -- a standout fighter who survived the “toughest tournament in sports” in making a name for himself. He is, by default of the model, the king of attrition. And as he gets set to defend his 145-pound belt for the second time Thursday night against Shahbulat Shamhalaev in Atlantic City, Curran has become the face of the promotion.
“I don’t mind being the face of Bellator at all,” Curran told ESPN.com. “I’m the product of their format. I went through two tournaments, and I’m a big believer in that Bellator tournament format. It’s a great way for a fighter to jump levels in his game, become better and make it to a big stage and make a name for himself. That’s what I did, and that’s what [Michael] Chandler did, and we both capitalized on it.”
Chandler and Curran -- along with welterweight champion Ben Askren and former lightweight champion/free agent Eddie Alvarez -- begin to carry something more than titles for the promotion. They carry value. People begin to speculate as to how each would fare against the UFC elite. One way to compete with the UFC is to have fighters at the top who look like threats to the UFC champions. Could Askren beat Georges St-Pierre? Who knows, but it’s a talking point. Parallels are drawn.
That’s the rarefied space that the 25-year-old Curran finds himself in today. People begin to wonder how he’d stack up against not just Shamhalaev (of which we’ll soon find out), but Jose Aldo (inevitably on the other side of the ledger). Being linked to fantasy matchups against one of the game’s pound-for-pound bests can’t hurt. It means things are on the upswing.
Curran says he respects that, but he’s not hearing it.
“I’m really not thinking too much about that,” he says. “I made a dedication to Bellator, I re-signed my contract and I know I’m going to be there a while and be part of everything they’re doing. Being with Spike is a huge part of that as well. I know Bellator is doing great things where it’s still very early in the Bellator stage, and it’s going to get better from here on out.”
Curran recently renegotiated his contract to earn more money per fight, and he’s signed on to be with Bellator for the next “two or three years.” He won’t be facing Aldo or anybody under the UFC banner for a long time.
Instead the Crystal Lake, Ill., native will help grow and perpetuate the Bellator model. Only, he’ll come at it from the pinnacle of that model. After climbing toward Alvarez’s belt in the Season 2 lightweight tournament (and losing in the title fight), and then climbing anew in the 2011 Summer Series featherweight tournament (and capturing the title over Joe Warren via brutal TKO), he’s adjusting to life as the destination. From now on, he’ll be asked to beat back the survivors of tournaments specifically constructed to take his belt.
In essence, it’s Curran’s job to present himself as a dead-end street for featherweight traffic. To make whatever momentum comes charging at him from the tournament completely moot.
And that continues with Shamhalaev, the hard-hitting Dagestan fighter who knocked out Rad Martinez in February to earn his chance. It’ll be Curran’s second defense of the year after eking out a split-decision victory over Patricio Freire in January.
“You have to respect [Shamhalaev’s] power,” he says. “His last three fights have all been by knockout. You’ve got to respect his power in his right hand and his left hand. It’s a very interesting style -- he’s a counterstriker, but he waits, and he puts 100 percent of his energy into those punches, and he’s able to find those openings.”
“I consider myself to be a counterstriker, too. So it’s a very interesting matchup in a way, but we’re eventually going to have to engage and I feel like my technical inside game is going to outstrike his.”
We’ll find out Thursday, in a fight that is basically a cymbal crash for everything Bellator is about.