HAMMOND, Ind. – Pat Curran's body slumped against the wall of a cramped backstage dressing room, drained by 25 minutes of punishment.
Curran's right eye almost was swollen shut, but the 26-year-old fighter finally was able to find a moment of quiet. A gold Bellator championship belt laid across Curran's stomach, showing that his mission was complete.
This is what winning looks like in the world of mixed martial arts fighting. His face was left bloodied by Daniel Straus, but Curran had pulled off a dramatic win as Straus tapped out with 14 seconds left in Friday night's Bellator featherweight championship fight at Horseshoe Casino.
Physically, Curran felt as good as the moment allowed. But the problem was his stomach, which wouldn't stop turning somersaults, keeping Curran from feeling entirely comfortable.
"You got your belt back, champ," Curran's manager, Brian Butler said, leaning over his client.
Curran sat with his arms folded behind his head. He just smiled.
"No big deal," Curran said. "Walk in the park, right?"
This fight had been the toughest of the 25 Curran has endured.
After losing his belt to Straus in November, Curran vowed to work harder than ever. His eight-week training camp had been as intense as Curran could remember.
In that time, however, Curran also had started treatment for severe depression and anxiety, a condition that had forced Curran to re-evaluate his life, his priorities and whether he even wanted to continue his career inside the octagon. Now, four months after he considered walking away, Curran was ready to prove he still had plenty of fight left.
• • •
Less than three hours before he'd step into the cage, Curran rested against a red wall displaying a framed black and white photo of Chicago's Michigan Avenue. He picked at a combination of diced egg whites, chick peas and sweet potatoes from a clear plastic container, filling himself with protein one final time before dozing off for a quick nap.
"I've been eating like a king lately," Curran said.
The days leading up to a bout represent the most dreaded portion of a fighter's preparations. At Thursday's official weigh-in, Curran weighed 144.7, just shy of the 145 pounds he had weighed before making a last-minute bathroom stop.
Team Curran, his coach and cousin Jeff and several others from their Crystal Lake MMA club, arrived in Hammond two days before the fight and immediately went to work. Curran dropped five pounds during a light hour-long workout before sitting down and putting 1 1/2 pounds worth of protein back into his system.
Needing to move closer to his weight limit, Curran lost three pounds while sitting in a hot tub. On Thursday, he woke up weighing 149.5 before shedding two pounds in a short workout and then dropping another three after spending 20 minutes in another hot tub.
Like everything else in fight training, cutting weight has become an exact science – one that must be followed to the smallest detail. But Curran knew that the weight-cutting phase was part of his transformation.
"I'm a killer in the gym right now, and everyone in the gym knows it," Curran said last week. "Now, I just have to go out on Friday and show that."
• • •
Friday evening, Curran did his best to stay loose. He stretched, resting his head on a rolled up towel. He glanced up at the flat screen TV that hung from the ceiling, showing the undercard fights.
Curran watched in silence as members of his fight team sat in chairs, exchanging small talk and offering casual commentary. Occasionally, a SPIKE TV camera crew popped into the room to capture Curran's preparations.
Next door, Straus prepared in the only other private dressing room. Every other fighter on the night's card dressed in large, open locker rooms designated only by whether they were fighting out of the red or blue corner.
Echoes of Straus punching his sparring partner's gloves could be heard through the wall as Jeff and Pat prepared for one final wokout.
It was 8:55. Thirty-five minutes until the match.
An official from the Indiana Gaming Commission walked in to inspect the tape job on Curran's hands.
"All right, Pat, you ready?" she asked.
The official checked the white tape wrapped around Pat's hands, using a black Sharpie to mark her stamp of approval with a hand-drawn asterisk. Pat slipped a pair of Everlast gloves over the tape before Jeff secured the gloves with a strip of red tape. When a portion of the white tape peeked out from underneath Pat's gloves, the inspector insisted that boxing coach Doug Mango cut the visible portion away.
After completing her job, the inspector told Pat she would return afterward to take him for a quick visit with a paramedic before administering a urine drug test.
Once she left, Jeff went into coaching mode.
"How's that shin?" he asked.
"Good," Pat responded.
"Good enough to kick him in the top of the head with?" Jeff asked.
Pat nodded his head in the affirmative.
The sparring session began as Pat delivered a series of elbow blows into his cousin's pads. He then went to a series of knee lifts, delivering one body blow after another before shifting to the boxing portion of the workout.
"Jab, jab," Jeff encouraged.
"Left cross, overhand, cross," he continued. "One-two ... cross ... power jab."
Pat responded with a combination of punches, allowing short whistling breaths to escape with each blow
"Nice, Pat," Mango said. "That's it."
Jeff kept on Pat, pushing him to not let up.
"There's no way he's got the gas tank you've got," Jeff said.
Boxing turned to wrestling. Jeff instructed Pat not to get caught up against the cage in a way that would give Straus an advantage. This wasn't the time to freeze, Jeff said. Putting him up against the cage was instead an opportunity.
As Pat caught his breath, Jeff shifted to the motivational portion of his coaching.
"It's your time, bud," he said. "You deserve it. More than ever. You deserve it more than the first time you won gold. You deserve it more than the second time. Stay mentally strong. Mentally, you've already won it. Now, you have to go out and physically win it.
"Don't put any limits on yourself."
• • •
When it was over, after Pat locked in a rear naked choke that ended the fight and delivered the title back to him, the fighter and his entourage returned to the backstage room.
As Pat rested with his eyes closed, Jeff and Butler read celebratory texts, quietly celebrating Pat's 20th professional fight. Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney walked in to congratulate the new featherweight champion.
"You got your champ back," Mango told Rebney.
Rebney had taken criticism for allowing Pat a rematch with Straus without working his way back through Bellator's tournament format. The night's epic fight had proved that Rebney knew what he was doing.
"You look what these two guys did tonight and you couldn't script it," Rebney said. "You couldn't take out your computer and script that the fight would go that way. Just the ebb and the flow and the back and forth, it was just razor thin and every round could have gone either direction."
Almost a half hour after he had tapped out, Straus walked into Pat's dressing room shirtless, displaying a collection of tattoos that covered his chest. Straus made his way through the small room and approached Pat, who was now resting in a chair.
Straus quietly spoke to Pat, jokingly inserting a pair of expletives in referring to the only fighter to ever knock him out.
"We're going to hug this out," Straus said.
After jumping in on a group photo made up of Pat and his Crystal Lake-based fight team, Straus left Pat with one parting message as the two fighters embraced.
"You know I'm coming back after you," Straus said.
"I know," Pat said, his arms wrapped around Straus' neck.
"I appreciate you so much," Straus responded. "You deserved it."
Jeff stood a short distance away, understanding that even though Friday night's fight had been dubbed "the ending of the trilogy," the rivalry was far from over. After the fight, Rebney announced Pat would defend his title next against Patrico "Pitbull" Freire with the winner facing Straus – again for the Bellator featherweight championship,
Jeff smiled as he watched the two fighters pull away from one another one final time.
"You're like two brothers fighting over the same girl," he said.
Pat sat back down, placing the ice pack back on his head while Mango wiped fresh blood from Pat's swollen eye. Pat disappeared for a quick shower and emerged in a gray suit, a charcoal and white checkered shirt and a black tie.
Anthony Mazzuca, who works for Bellator media relations, had twice entered the room, trying to rush Pat toward the post-fight news conference. Mazzuca led Pat through a hallway and into an open ballroom where a large contingent of Curran family and friends waited for the new champion.
"Paddy Mike," one of his relatives yelled as Pat came into sight, referring to the three-time Bellator champion with the nickname he had been given as a kid.
Pat stopped, shaking hands and trading hugs with loved ones while he was encouraged to keep moving toward the news conference.
"Walk and talk, Pat," Mazzuca said. "Walk and talk."
Team Curran moved its way down a pair of escalators. During the final descent into a large casino, where lights and bells rang out over the din over the room, Pat clutched the belt, which was flung over his shoulder, allowing him to finally enjoy the championship he had worked so hard to win back.
Somewhere behind Pat, one of his cornermen, still wearing the "Fear The Fighter" T-shirt Pat's team had worn during the fight, announced his presence.
"Paddy Mike," the man yelled, extending each syllable as Pat reached the casino floor. "The champ is back."