It would be unfair to define Jeff Curran solely as a fighter.
The 34-year-old mixed martial arts fighter has been much more than that since he opened his first training school 15 years ago. He’s worn the figurative hats of gym owner, teacher, trainer and promoter, not to mention his daily duties as a husband to his wife Sarah and two sons, Ty, 5, and Jacob, 3.
This, all in addition to maintaining his own fighting career that saw him rise to the second-ranked MMA featherweight fighter in the world and compete in a world championship fight in 2007.
“As far as being successful in the sport, I have what most fighters desire,” said Curran, who sports a professional record of 35-15-1. “That’s a school and a team, something that will live on far after my career is over.”
Curran, a 1995 graduate of Woodstock High School, practiced karate as a kid and started training in Brazilian jiujitsu when he entered high school.
He grew up at a time when mixed martial arts was in its infancy. The Ultimate Fighting Championship wasn’t founded until 1993, and the most popular styles of no-holds-barred fighting were found in Brazil and Japan.
Curran was one of the pioneers of MMA in the United States. His first no-rules fight came when he was 19, competing in an eight-man tournament that required him to fight three times in a day.
The early amateur fights were far from the glamor of today’s UFC events. Curran often competed in pole barns, bars and banquet halls, only occasionally fighting in an actual arena.
A couple of times Curran showed up to a fight only to be told that the it had been relocated to another venue because the city had preemptively shut down the fight.
“At that point I didn’t even consider it a sport,” Curran said. “You’d go in and fight and you fought for your honor and pride to promote what you did.”
He and UFC fighter Bart Palaszewski were the only two full-time fighters in the early years of Curran’s first gym, a 900-square-foot facility in Johnsburg. But as MMA started to grow in popularity and the UFC implemented stricter safety rules, Curran received more interest from people wanting to fight.
With 11 wins in his first 14 professional fights, Curran slowly climbed the world rankings, which he didn’t know existed until his manager said he had cracked the Top 10 in 2002. He won 15 of 16 fights between 2004 and 2007 before losing to Urijah Faber by submission in the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight championship in December 2007.
In order to support his career, Curran had expanded his involvement in the sport beyond fighting and training. His stable of fighters in Team Curran was growing, and Curran helped start the Xtreme Fighting Organization, designed to be a stepping stone for fighters in the Midwest that had ambitions of competing in the UFC.
“I started my school, built my school, built my team and my career all at the same time,” Curran said. “If I would have just been a fighter, … I wouldn’t have had the training partners, the facility, the extra income. I wouldn’t have been able to do it in my generation of fighters.”
Those extra time-consuming responsibilities eventually took away from Curran’s fighting career. In 10 fights since his world championship loss to Faber, Curran is 4-6. He was released from the UFC after his second consecutive defeat in May.
More recently he’s taken steps to simplify his life. Curran is no longer involved in the day-to-day operation of the XFO and he moved the Curran Martial Arts Academy to a new facility in Crystal Lake that is smaller than the 24,000-sq.-foot building he bought in 2009.
“It’s been a battle, no doubt,” Curran said. “My career hasn’t been the same since we had our first kid [in March 2007]. But my life hasn’t been the same either. I couldn’t imagine my life without my kids.”
There will come a day when Curran walks into his new gym on Woodstock Street without a fight in his future. There won’t be a fight camp to toil through or any worries about making weight. For the first time, it will be solely about his students, including younger cousin Pat Curran, the current Bellator featherweight champion.
At 34 years old, Jeff Curran realizes his body has an expiration date.
“I want to be able to enjoy my life with my kids and be able to play catch with them,” Curran said. “When I start having a shoulder injury and I can’t even throw for my dogs, it starts putting things in perspective.”
But he doesn’t think the time to retire is now. After fighting at 145 and 155 pounds for most of his career, Curran is dropping weight and betting the flyweight division (125 pounds) will better suit his smaller frame.
His next fight is Aug. 18 in Island Lake against Dustin Ortiz in XFO 45, and he thinks a string of victories could vault him back into the UFC as a contender and potentially give him one last shot at a world title bout.
“Mentally and healthwise I’m not ready to retire,” Curran said. “I’d like to retire a UFC Hall of Famer, a world champion. If I get that, it would be a storybook ending.”