Curran on pros, cons of Bellator tourneys

Bellator featherweight champ Pat Curran, left, defends his title in Friday's rematch with Patricio Freire. Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

When Pat Curran signed with Bellator MMA in 2010, the promotion's tournament format suited him perfectly.

He advanced through the promotion's Season 2 lightweight tournament, earning a title shot against Eddie Alvarez in April 2011. The 23-year-old Curran wasn't quite ready for that stage and it showed, as he lost a one-sided unanimous decision.

Two months later, Curran enlisted in Bellator's featherweight tournament. Once again, he rattled off three consecutive wins to earn a title shot, this time against Joe Warren. In March 2012, Curran captured the belt with a highlight-reel knockout in the third round.

At that time, Curran symbolized a win for the Bellator tournament format. A developing fighter, he was granted an opportunity to stay busy and gain cage experience. He proved his talent, winning six fights in a 16-month span, and became a recognizable champion.

Eighteen months later, however, Curran came to symbolize all that was wrong with the tournament structure.

At Bellator 106 last November, Curran lost the featherweight title to Daniel Straus via unanimous decision. At the time of the loss, he was universally considered one of the best featherweights in the world, in the same ballpark as UFC champion Jose Aldo.

Despite that, according to Bellator precedent, Curran was presumably supposed to cycle back into a tournament. In other words: A top-ranked, former champion with two prior title defenses was headed to the very back of the line.

Curran would be asked to win three consecutive fights for a chance to reclaim the belt. He'd be competing for the (relatively, when you consider his accolades) paltry sum of the tournament's $100,000 prize.

It made sense to no one, especially Curran's management. So, in late 2013, manager Brian Butler requested a meeting at the Bellator renegotiation table, even though Curran still had plenty of fights on his current contract.

"Pat had been through a couple of tournaments and he had won the title," Butler told ESPN.com. "I didn't think it was fair or reasonable that if he lost one fight, he'd then be characterized as a guy who had to go back to the beginning.

"I said to them, 'You've got to start treating your champions like true champions. Get behind them.' Bellator was more than willing to get behind Pat."

Then-Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney agreed to renegotiate Curran's deal, sign him to an extension, and give him an instant rematch against Strauss, whom Curran submitted in March to win back the featherweight title.

The other piece in all of this, of course, was Patricio Freire.

Freire (21-2) is another example of a win for tournaments. The talented Brazilian has distinguished himself by winning two featherweight tournaments and reaching the finals of a third 145-pound event.

When Curran lost to Straus, Freire was waiting in the wings for a title shot. Bellator elected to pass him up in favor of the rematch, which didn't sit well with Freire.

This situation is one example, of many, that illustrate why Bellator tournaments (on a regular basis) have been laid to rest. As good as the tournaments were in occasionally building new stars, they were horrible handcuffs on the existing ones.

Curran (20-5), who defends his title against Freire at Bellator 123 on Friday in Uncasville, Connecticut, was surprised when Bellator replaced Rebney with former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker in June, but doesn't mind seeing Rebney's tournaments gone.

"When I heard they got rid of the tournaments, I was little excited," Curran said. "I never want to go through another one. It's a better direction to put on superfights. Tournaments put too much on your body and anything can happen in three fights."

Curran, who defeated Freire in his first 145-pound title defense in January 2013, is honored to headline Coker's first Bellator event. Curran's initial contract in 2010 included several company-option extensions, meaning he's never come close to free agency.

When the promotion got behind him last year as a "star," rather than a "tournament fighter," however, Curran says he didn't mind signing a long-term deal. His current contract will keep him under the Bellator banner for several years.

With Coker announcing a move away from weekly cards in 2015, and a focus on big blockbuster events, Curran is even more comfortable with the path of his career.

"Scott has done a lot in this sport and he brings a ton of knowledge," Curran said. "I think he's taking us in a great direction. No complaints on my end."

On Freire, Curran said there is a bit of an emotional rivalry between the two, but it's mostly based on their competitive relationship. He edged Freire via split decision in their first meeting, in which he won the final two rounds to defend the belt.

"He really wants to get that [loss] back," Curran said. "There has been a little of social media [trash talking], but I have to put that aside and fight with no emotion."