The kids in Pat Curran Sr.’s Wonder Lake neighborhood tended to bend toward cruelty, constantly badgering the young boy for a nickname paying homage to his Irish roots.
So years later, when Curran and his wife were raising a son of their own, they resisted the temptation to pass along the “Paddy Mike” moniker that had caused Pat so much ridicule growing up.
Instead, they wanted their son to establish his own identity. Even if that meant him chasing dreams of being a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter, following the example of his older cousin who has made a name, not only for himself, but for the entire Curran family.
And yet, for all of the weight his last name carries in no-holds sporting world that has brought him $200,000 in winnings and two Bellator titles, Pat Curran is determined to make it on his own.
Paddy Mike fight name and all.
Curran will defend his Bellator featherweight championship against Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire on Thursday in Irvine, Calif. His first title defense comes almost five months after he was forced to withdraw from a fight against Freire after fracturing an orbital bone during a sparring match in August.
Even though he’s a champion, Curran doesn’t plan on changing the hard-working approach that has guided him through MMA’s ranks.
“I’m hungrier than ever right now,” Curran said. “There’s always a lot of pressure going into a fight, but I’m 17-4 right now. I’ve got plenty of experience, and all those years of experience have definitely paid off, and it’s made me a lot more comfortable with where I’m at right now.”
But Curran’s climb to the top hasn’t been easy.
Sue Curran cried the day her son announced he was becoming a fighter.
At the time, Curran seemed content pursuing life as a Florida firefighter. After receiving his certification, Curran was in the middle of a job search when his cousin’s constant prodding to change his life’s course finally got to him.
Curran always had been aware of Jeff Curran’s MMA career. During family visits, the two talked about a life fighting could provide and Pat would hang around the gym, watching Jeff fight. Then, nine years ago, when he visited Chicagoland for Jeff’s wedding, Pat stayed for the summer, immersing himself in the fight game.
Almost immediately, Jeff saw someone who had championship potential. Although he didn’t want to pressure his cousin to leave his life behind, he made it clear Pat had a definite future if he wanted it.
“If you don’t do it,” Jeff told Pat, “You’ll regret it.”
The more Pat saw, the more he began to consider the possibilities. But for three years, he resisted, sticking with the life plan he had established in Florida. Finally, Jeff’s persistence paid off, luring Pat to Crystal Lake.
Pat moved north, where he could be around Jeff’s MMA operations on a daily basis. But before he could make fighting a full-time endeavor, he had to find ways to pay the rent, keep gas in his car, food on the table.
He worked in heating and air conditioning. He made $12 an hour doing excavating and concrete work outside in the winter. He spent time bar-backing and bartending even though he was underage and uncomfortable, doing anything it took to keep moving toward what he really wanted.
“I always kept the big picture in mind – that I was going to be something great, I was going to be a champion, make it to the big time and support myself as a fighter,” Curran said. “That was the most important thing – keeping that mentality – always knowing you could make it.
“Just keep trying, keep trying, keep trying. Never give up.”
Back in Florida, Pat Sr. and Sue Curran still were coming to grips with their son’s decision. The fact Pat wanted to move north didn’t come as a huge surprise. But the idea of their son joining the ranks of MMA fighters he had watched on TV didn’t set well, especially with Sue.
Pat Sr. had been close to his son during his high school wrestling career when he often would allow his less-talented opponents to get up off the mat just to give Pat more time to compete. He had been a relentless competitor, and so the fact that he wanted to devote his life to fighting made sense.
Even if it would take some getting used to for his parents, who needed time to get over the shock of their son leaving home.
“He was of age, so we couldn’t say anything except we wished you weren’t going, but good luck,” Pat Sr. said. “You looked at the older fighters with the cauliflower ears and the punched-up faces and I think that had [Sue] worried.”
Curran took his first Bellator fight on two week’s notice, beginning a tournament cycle in which he would fight once a month for three months straight.
The daily training sessions were grueling. Fighting under Jeff Curran’s watchful eye, Curran put his body through a battery of physical tests. Earlier in his career, he had agreed to a fight in as little as two days before he’d climb into the octagon, anxious to start his climb to the top.
Curran, who had been fighting at 145 pounds before his first Bellator bout, was forced to jump up a weight class, forcing him to prove himself against bigger fighters. He used it as motivation, intent on making a name for himself no matter what it took.
Curran won his first Bellator championship in 2010, beating Toby Imada in a split decision before eventually losing his title in 2011 by unanimous decision to Eddie Alvarez. After dropping down to featherweight later in the year, Curran cycled through the tournament a second time, knocking out Joe Warren to capture his second title, adding another $100,000 payday.
With each fight, Curran’s confidence grew. Fighting under the same “Paddy Mike” that his father never had forced upon him but that a TapOuT promoter had pinned to him, Curran gradually was moving out of Jeff’s shadow by fighting with his own style. Primarily having a wrestling background, Curran began to focus on becoming an explosive and devastating striker.
Curran became more of a complete fighter, expanding his game plan to use forceful punches to get opponents off their feet to finish them off. Curran has become a more fluid fighter, blending grappling and dynamic striking styles to evolve into, according to striking coach and fellow featherweight Brett Brendel, a pioneer in a strategy that will become more prevalent in the MMA.
His evolution comes at a perfect time. Bellator is beginning a new relationship with Spike TV, taking the next step in becoming one of the sport’s premier promotion companies. But with wider appeal, Curran is discovering there is more pressure with the bigger stage.
There are more promotional appearances to make, more pitfalls and temptations to avoid. It’s an aspect of the profession Jeff Curran is helping his younger cousin adjust to. As long as the two have worked together, Jeff still feels pressure to keep Pat on the right track – not only because he’s family – because he’s a member of a fighting outfit that has the Pat’s name attached to it.
“He’s a Curran and the family and the students here and the other fighters, they look at Pat like, ‘Hey, you’re a Curran – you better live up to it,’ “ Jeff said. “All that’s a little more pressure, but he never lets down.”
Pat Curran heads into his first title defense fully prepared after wrapping up his training last week. He feels as if he’s not only ready to face Freire on Thursday, but to take the next step in his career.
“I have to make my own name,” Curran said. “I can’t live off my cousin’s success.
“That was always my goal – I’ve got to pave my own path. That’s what I did.”