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Pat Curran retains featherweight belt as Bellator MMA takes center stage

Pat Curran was less than impressed with his early victory, saying that was his plan. Pat Curran was less than impressed with his early victory, saying that was his plan. (Henry S Dziekan III/Getty Images)

Timing is everything. Well, almost everything. Good fortune also factors into success.

Bellator MMA had both of those things on its side Thursday night in Atlantic City.

Bjorn Rebney & Co. put together perhaps the best fight card in the promotion’s history, headlined by a featherweight title bout, with two tournament finals billed right below. And the card got an added boost when the UFC lost its Saturday main event, allowing Bellator 95 to step out of the shadow of its behemoth rival and become the mixed martial arts event of the week.

The only thing left for Bellator to do was deliver. And its fighters did just that right from the top.

Pat Curran, who at No. 3 among featherweights in the SI.com MMA rankings is by far the highest-ranked non-UFC fighter, defended his belt for the second time with remarkable efficiency, choking Shahbulat Shamhalaev unconscious 2:38 into Round 1. What made it efficient? Before his lightning-quick takedown around 10 seconds from the finish transitioned into an arm-in guillotine that prompted referee Keith Peterson to jump in when the challenger went limp, Curran had not landed a single punch. He was credited with but one strike in the fight, a kick to the body.

“It feels great, man,” Curran (19-4) said after his sixth straight victory. “I didn’t get hit once in the face. I wanted to get in, get out, get back to the gym, rest up, and on to the next one.”

That’s efficiency for you.

The fight actually threatened to kill the momentum that the main card had built, with a pair of knockouts and a rock ’em, sock ’em bout that went to decision. Why? While both Curran and Shamhalaev have shown spectacular flashes in recent fights, they’re both counterpunchers. What that stylistic matchup produced was mostly a circle dance, with each man waiting for the other to initiate. The challenger got off a few shots -- he was credited with landing six strikes -- but did not find the opportunity to show off the explosiveness he’d used to knock out his last five opponents. For Shamhalaev (12-2-1), the loss ended a run of 11 straight bouts without a defeat.

Earlier in the evening, another Russian featherweight fared better. Frodo Khasbulaev took a tight but unanimous decision from Mike Richman to capture the Season 8 tournament and earn a shot at Curran. He might have to wait a while, though, as Season 6 champ Daniel Strauss still hasn’t had the shot he earned. He was the champ’s original opponent for Thursday night, but a training injury put him on the shelf, replaced by Season 7 winner Shamhalaev. The tourneys come fast and furious in Bellator.

So do the punches of Doug Marshall. He’s the other tournament winner, as his brutal first-round knockout of Brett Cooper propelled him to a shot at middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko. That should be an explosive  one, as Marshall is a wildman and the champ is a finisher as well, with five KOs during his 10-fight win streak.

It’s a risky proposition, though, thrusting Marshall into the spotlight, and not because of the Iron Cross tattoo on his chest. That symbol was used by the Nazis, yes, but it’s also been seen on surfer dudes, so we’ll draw no conclusion about “The Rhino” based upon his ink. However, his classlessness in victory -- standing over a prone Cooper smugly, then saying he was trying to knock the guy’s beard off -- was bush league. And Bellator surely would prefer to be seen as a major-league player in the sport. But a tournament is a tournament, and you let the chips fall where they may. Even if they might look like roadblocks.

--Jeff Wagenheim

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