If one asked the average MMA fan who the best boxer in MMA was competing today, you'd probably get a response of Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva or Junior dos Santos. Truth be told, they wouldn't necessarily be wrong, but they also would be excluding a name from the list who at least deserves some consideration: Bellator's featherweight champion Pat Curran.
Curran doesn't have the resume of a GSP or Silva and isn't necessarily the better striker beyond the realm of boxing, but he has done something none of the aforementioned UFC stars have attempted thus far: fight five full rounds in a title defense against elite opposition relying almost exclusively on inside, head-to-head short-range boxing. And ultimately, to win in the process.
In his first title defense of Spike TV, Curran and Patricio Freire employed a full arsenal of MMA skills, but boxed one another in a fashion almost unheard of in elite professional mixed martial arts. Curran emerged the victor, starting slow and gaining steam as the bout progressed. It was an eye-opening performance as Curran and Pitbull engaged one another on terms most MMA strikers - to say nothing of the larger body of fighters - find anathema to success. Whether other boxing-centric MMA strikers haven't fought this way is open to interpretation: is it because they lack the skills or willingness? Whatever the case, Curran proved he lacked neither.
Whatever one thinks of Curran's skills, they'll be put to the test on Thursday evening as his title is up for grabs against season 7 featherweight tournament winner Shahbulat Shamhalev. While the Daegestani doesn't possess the crisp Western boxing Curran uses, he is a force to be reckoned with all his own. With blinding hand speed, superb timing and crushing power, Shamhalev's effective but hugely different style of striking is going to test Curran's in a way no fighter the champion has previously faced will.
In this interview with MMA Fighting, Curran discusses Shamhalev, Bellator's plans for him, his love of boxing and why Miguel Cotto's strong defensive skills are what he tries to emulate in his MMA bouts.
Full audio and partial transcript below:
I want to circle back to the beginning of your Spike TV reign. It was the first fight to ever air on Spike TV that was on Bellator, the most viewed. Any changes to your visibility or popularity as a result of that bout?
I don't think so. I mean, I don't feel like I've changed at all, or anything in my life has changed dramatically at all. Definitely a lot more people saw the fight, and I'm getting noticed a little bit more. It was a hell of a fight, and I'm really proud and really happy to be the first fight on Spike after the move.
From the outside looking in, you appear to be a guy that Bellator is looking to position long-term. There's ads running on MMA websites week after week after week. On one side it's Michael Chandler, on the other side it's you. Has Bellator ever spoken to you about their long-term vision for you? Do they have a long-term vision for you?
I re-signed my contract and I'm going to be with them for the next couple, three years. And I have no problem sticking out my entire career with Bellator. But no, we really haven't discussed too much about that. But from what I'm thinking, they're taking great care of me and I have no reason to leave.
When you heard (Daniel) Straus was out, did you think it was possible you'd get a rematch with Pitbull (Patricio Friere)? Not that the fight was...it was close in the sense that it wasn't crazy close, but you could make a credible case that a rematch would make sense.
I know Pitbull was asking for a rematch, but with the Bellator format, especially with the featherweight division so packed right now, it really just needs to be caught up. So maybe if you go through the tournament again down the road you'll get a rematch, but for now you've got Daniel Straus and Shahbulat and there's another tournament going on. So, possibly another three fights this year.
People talk about who's the best MMA boxer, and a lot of people say Junior dos Santos or maybe Georges St. Pierre when he uses his jab. But I've never seen two guys fight in MMA at close range at that high a level for that long. Talk to me about your skill development. Obviously you've gotten better at boxing, but did it ever dawn on you that you're one of the few guys in MMA that does, to the extent possible, inside boxing?
Yeah, it's a new style. I've been working on my striking with my boxing coach Doug Mango for the last five years and it's really just getting that experience and timing in the cage to let my hands go like that. I was really excited to be able to perform like that. Pitbull's a good opponent, a hell of a fighter. A tough opponent. And yeah, we just stood in front of each other for the whole five rounds and turned it into a boxing match.
Why don't more guys fight that way? They don't have the trainers to teach them? They're worried about the takedown? What is it?
I don't know, it's interesting. It just really depends on the camp that you're coming from, the type of person that you are. The type of fighter you are. I believe boxing is going to be a huge part of this sport, especially later down the road. Wrestlers are taking over, but you get a good wrestler with a great boxing level and really, in my opinion, he's going to be unstoppable.
Is it harder to learn boxing, or is it harder to learn kickboxing?
The two are completely different. Different areas. Boxing, there's so much to learn. There's so many angles, so many punches, how to throw a punch, there's so much to learn in boxing, and I just loved it. Especially leading up to that fight, I was watching boxing almost every night. It's all I thought about and it's what I was working with my coach.
Who are some of your favorite boxers to watch?
Definitely Miguel Cotto. I think his style is perfect for MMA. He keeps his hands really high, defends himself very well, great angles, and he's a killer. He just goes after it and looks for that knockout.
Okay. I'm assuming you watched the last Cotto fight against (Floyd) Mayweather, yes?
So what did you think about that fight? The conventional wisdom heading into that fight was that he was shopworn, that he was beaten down. I thought he availed himself kind of nicely up until the last few rounds. What was your takeaway from that bout?
Miguel Cotto man, he just has the heart of a champion. He's fast, and he's one of the best for a reason. It was an all-out war, a great performance by both guys. And Miguel just never gives up.
I've heard this for years now. In your experience, to what extent is it possible to find a boxing trainer who understands MMA? You talk to Freddie Roach and he's like 'I train MMA guys to box but they never want to get close. They want to punch at range because they're scared of takedowns'. How difficult has that been, that recruitment process? Or I guess I should say, the discovery process?
I never really want out and searched for my coaches. I came up to Team Curran when I was 19, just turned 20, and my boxing coach Doug was already here just as a striking coach, a boxing coach. So he's been around the sport. He's been training my cousin Jeff (Curran), Bart Palaszewski. He's been around the game for a long time, so I just think that over the years of being around the sport, around MMA, has tweaked and developed his style for coaching.
You said Cotto had a great style for MMA. Which boxer who is really good would have a bad style for MMA?
It's tough. What I look for is - keep your hands high, I'm really big on that, because it takes one punch to get knocked out in this sport. Definitely I'd say Floyd Mayweather, because he moves his head a lot and his hands are down. Like I said, all it takes is that one punch and you're out. So you definitely want to keep your hands high.
Right, and Mayweather gets away with it because he's Mayweather, right?
Let's talk about your opponent Shahbulat Shamhalaev. For a while, and even right now, mostly known to insiders. What is your sense about how he came out of the tournament? I won't say he had an easy run because he beat good guys, but they didn't get very far with him. Not Michael Richman, not anyone. How would you evaluate him?
Very impressive. Like you said, the last three fights that I could find and did watch didn't go past the first round. He has a deadly right hand, and he looks for that knockout. Once he hits you, he's on you, he's stumbling all over the place, he's doing everything he can to land that knockout shot. He's a very good counterstriker as well. He's very impressive but I don't know too much about his game. I know he's a good striker. He's a newer fighter that I haven't really watched or heard too much about, so it's going to be an interesting fight just because he's a counterstriker and I consider myself to be a counterstriker as well. So I feel like our styles match up really well.
Two counterstrikers. I'll play Devil's Advocate for just a moment. Devil's Advocate might say - hey, two counterstrikers. You might get one of those things where it's like Pedro Rizzo vs. Ricco Rodriguez, where they just face off and don't do anything. What would your response to that be?
That's definitely not going to happen. As a fighter I'm really trying to develop my aggressiveness and my offense for striking, and I'll definitely start to engage. If it starts to be a slow fight and we're not really engaging, I'll take that chance and I'll start going in and put the pressure on him.
What do you make of this recent Russian...I don't even know what the word is, revolution, influx...where Bellator's got a ton of guys in virtually every weight class from parts of Russia or Daegestan, and they come in unheralded and just start tearing people to pieces. For years, Russians were not particularly that great relative to say, the Brazilians or the Japanese in MMA. There's Fedor obviously, but as a group they weren't that great, and now they're here. Do you have any sense about why that is?
MMA's a big sport, and maybe over in Russia where they didn't have the training needed a few years ago. But obviously that's changing because they're getting a lot of great talent coming from Russia and everyone is looking great that Bellator finds. I guess I would say that the gyms, the training over there has definitely evolved and gotten better.
Can you beat the rangy kind of fight he likes with inside boxing? Or do you have to make it a clinch fight? How do you it?
It's hard to say. A fight's a fight, and you kind of go on the fly. You can come up with a game plan but when it comes down to it, a fight's a fight and it changes in a seconds and I just got to go off of instinct. But if I'm on the inside I definitely have to be careful of the right hands and left hooks. He really puts all his weight behind every throw. If he hasn't gone out in the first round, it's a five round fight and I know I can go five rounds, no problem. So it's really going to test his conditioning if we go past the first round.
Is it more fun being champion? That Bellator tournament, it's brutal. It's hard to get through. You have to fight the guys that win the tournaments, so ostensibly the toughest guy. But you at least get to peak, you get to train for one guy. Obviously you have an opponent change here from Straus to Shamhalaev, but still. There's time to focus on just one guy. How much more enjoyable is it to fight that way?
It's great. It's the way you want to prepare for a fight. Two months out, I know my opponent. I get to study him, review him, and it just makes for a better fight I think. Like you said, the tournament style is extremely rough. You don't know who you're going to face until the night of, or maybe a week after your fight. And they're within a month apart of each other so it puts a toll on your body. Being a champion, I love it. Like you said, I get to watch my opponents go through the tournament, see their style. Study them and come up with a game plan.
What do those tournaments do for your skills? You hear guys that talk about different ways. The ones who say they train 365, and six days a week. They're working and their skills and they get better. I've heard some Bellator fighters say that because of those tournaments, by the time that they've done two or three of those tournaments...by the time they were done with that, they were just way better fighters. Do you believe that, specifically because of the tournament, you were forced to get your skills in order?
Absolutely. It's a big credit to the Bellator tournament format. That's why I got so good so quickly. Because it's just one long training camp. You have no life other than the training, the focus on your fights, and to become better. You have no choice but to become better. I went through two of the tournaments and like you said, it's a really tough tournament, but if you can get through it you're definitely going to be a better fighter at the end of it.
That leads to the question: now that you're not in the tournaments, how do you continue to stay good?
Ever since I started training MMA, my cousin was really big on keeping me in the gym and keeping my focused. And over the years, that's just become my style. I'm one of the fighters that's in the gym Monday to Saturday, training two-to-three times a day. I just really want to focus on becoming a better fighter in every aspect of the sport.
I read a report - I want to say it was Time Out Chicago - they said you were going to have some type of role on Spike TV, obviously not just as a fighter. But maybe in the reality show, or some other presence. Are you going to be on this Bellator reality show in some capacity?
Honestly, you know more than I do. Because I have no idea, man. I know we had a reality show coming up, but honestly, they haven't told me anything about it and I'm still waiting to find out more information about it.
Given your availability, you'd like to be on it?
Yeah, absolutely. Honestly, I don't even know what the reality show is or how it's going to be arranged, but yeah, absolutely. Anything Bellator's doing, I'd love to be a part of it.