Pat Curran is still standing.
One of the pillars of Bellator’s early days, the two-time champion finds himself in the thick of the title hunt again as he prepares to compete in the opening round of the Featherweight World Grand Prix, which kicks off at Bellator 226 this Saturday at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.
It’s been a rocky couple of years for Curran, who was only fought once since October 2017, with much of that time off spent dealing with a knee injury. When he returned this past May, it was in a losing effort to unbeaten 24-year-old A.J. McKee. Next up is Adam Borics, 26, another standout member of Bellator’s featherweight youth movement. Borics is 13-0 and a legitimate threat to stop Curran’s tournament run before it begins.
Curran knows all of this. When Borics’s career was just starting, Curran was headlining Bellator shows and competing almost exclusively in five-round championship bouts. There might not be a Bellator featherweight division if it wasn’t for the likes of Curran, Patricio Freire, Daniel Straus, and others, and though Curran respects Borics’s talent and ambition, he’s not ready to hand over the reins just yet.
“Each and every one,” Curran told MMA Fighting when asked if he saw himself in the next wave of 145-pound stars. “Every fighter, I was one of the first fighters who signed with Bellator—I think on the second season when Bellator first came around—I’m pretty much still one of the only fighters that are actively fighting that are around. I don’t know anyone else who signed with the organization when they first came to the organization that are still fighting to this day. So I’m one of the select few and I do take a sense of pride in that because I was here from the beginning and I’m still here to this day and I was a part of the whole process of all the changes being made. That’s something I can definitely be proud of.
“All these new fighters coming up, all the young guys, the new generation of fighters, I’m sure they watched me, they saw my career when I was a champion and when I did the tournaments. It’s kind of cool to think about, because they’re chasing after that same dream that I was chasing after when I was their age.”
Curran (23-8) turned 32 this past weekend. Prior to the McKee fight, he’d won three straight, but even then his appearances were sporadic. He competed twice in 2015, then logged just one fight in both 2016 and 2017 before a two-year hiatus. It hasn’t necessarily been time lost as he’s worked to find the balance in his life that was absent when he was entrenched as a main event star.
He threw himself into his work outside of fighting, working in carpentry (“A hard, blue collar job and I enjoyed it,” Curran said.) He put an emphasis on his mental health, physical recovery from training, and dieting. He became a father. He describes himself as “very happy” with his life, though the hunger to compete hasn’t gone away and Curran jumped at the opportunity to be part of the 16-man Grand Prix roster.
“Of course, there was a doubt [that I would be included],” Curran said. “Even before the fight, I knew, I was like, I’m on a three-fight win streak, A.J. is the No. 1 contender, even if I lost this—that’s just how my mind thinks—I think I can get invited to the tournament still.
“I talked to (Bellator official) Rich (Chou) after the fight, he did ask me if I would be interested in doing the tournament, I didn’t even second guess it, I answered it right away. ‘Yes, I would love to be a part of it, please. Let’s make this happen.’”
And so Curran finds himself in a tournament, much like how his Bellator career began over nine years ago. Curran defeated Mike Ricci, Roger Huerta, and Toby Imada to win a lightweight tournament before falling to then-champion Eddie Alvarez. A drop down to 145 pounds followed and the rest was history.
It’s a history that could be nearing its conclusion and Curran is at last comfortable going out on his own terms after contemplating retirement in the past under more dire circumstances. He has no concrete end date for his fighting career, though he sees the poetry in possibly going out with one more glorious run at the top.
“It is kind of like a circle effect,” Curran said. “I started out with the tournament and I did great with it and now—I’m not saying this is the end of my career, but it’s definitely approaching towards the end—I get the opportunity to do another tournament.
“Who knows? I don’t plan on retiring, I don’t have any thoughts about retiring, but that is funny how things work out that way.”