Pat Curran was on the phone. This was a couple of weeks ago, and he was taking a few minutes away from training to talk about his upcoming Bellator featherweight championship fight, which finally arrives Saturday night.
My first words to him were a shameful admission: that when the opportunity to chat with the champ had fallen into my lap, I'd had a momentary memory lapse and found myself wondering, When exactly is Pat's next fight? For just a moment, I couldn't remember.
The bout against Daniel Strauss deserved a bigger, brighter place than that inside my cranium. It was, after all, to be part of Bellator MMA's big-splash pay-per-view debut. However, Curran wasn't getting much attention. The whole hype campaign was being built around TITO VS. RAMPAGE, a fight that didn't really merit being splashed around in bold capital letters, other than the fact that large print is a fitting display for promoting a meeting of two guys who've lately been looking like MMA senior citizens.
Even the other title bout on the card, a rematch of the Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez slugest of two years ago that made the unbeaten Chandler the lightweight champion and an instant star, was being overshadowed by the Old Timers' Day matchup of faded UFC castoffs. The whole promotion was upside-down.
That's changed now, of course, with Tito Ortiz having suffered a neck fracture, forcing the cancellation of his main event with Quinton Jackson and the shift of the fight card to a Spike telecast (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET).
But even in retrospect, I find it interesting what Curran (19-4) had to say back then about being shoved to the background in favor of a pair of fighters who no longer are within whiffing distance of championship leather. "I'm just happy to be with an organization that's growing and taking a big step, and I completely understand where Bellator is coming from by making Tito vs. Ortiz its main event," he said. "It's a fight that'll draw a lot of attention, so more people will tune in for my fight."
That's actually not true. The Ortiz vs. Jackson was a turnoff, not a must-tune-in. The move to a regular cable telecast, with a real championship bout between Chandler and Curran in top billing, will dramatically increase viewership. And with Curran's bout against Daniel Strauss having been elevated to the co-main event, he now has a much more brightly spotlit stage on which to perform.
Just like when he's in the round cage, though, Pat was able to step back from any slights or distractions and focus on what was right in front of him. All he knew at the time was that Ortiz vs. Jackson was the main event, so he was working with what he had and keeping it real. That's how he talks. That's how he fights.
Curran has had Strauss (21-4) right in front of him before. Twice, in fact. Back in 2009, when both fighters were relatively green, they met in a regional promotion and Curran scored a knockout with a compact right hand. Then, after Strauss won Bellator's Season 6 featherweight tournament in May 2012 with a unanimous-decision win over former Pancrase and Sengoku champion Marlon Sandro, a rematch was arranged. Strauss broke his hand in training, however, so Curran took a short-notice replacement fight against Season 7 tourney winner Shahbulat Shamhalaev. He won with a first-round guillotine choke. That was what was right in front of him.
The straight-shooting ethos does allow for a little bit of twisting, though, when a challenge must be built up into something particularly formidable. Curran dismissed any boost he might get from having beaten Strauss, for instance -- "You've got to wipe the slate clean" -- but he did allow Daniel an added incentive for the rematch. "You don't forget a loss," he said. "I know it's been in the back of his head ever since it happened, and he definitely wants to get that off his mind and redeem himself."
As for the postponement of said rematch, Curran sees a silver lining for both fighters. Strauss will be stepping into the cage for the first time in over a year, but the champ will have been long out of the cage, too. "Seven months," he acknowledged. "I kind of needed the break, get my mind off fighting." The Shamhalaev fight had come just 2½ months following a rugged five-rounder against Patricio "Pitbull" Freire in his first title defense after last year's dethroning of Joe Warren.
Now, things are lined up for Curran. If he beats Strauss on Saturday night, he'll next be slated to defend against Season 8 tournament winner "Frodo" Khasbulaev, with the winner of the upcoming Season 9 finale between Freire and Justin Wilcox waiting in the wings. "If everything goes well," said Curran, "my future is lined up."
It was this mention of the future that unavoidably brought our conversation back to the past -- or at least to a couple of fighters whose best work was buried deep in the sport's history. Curran didn't address Tito Ortiz and "Rampage" Jackson by name, but there's no doubt he felt something by seeing two fighters well into their 30s -- and a combined 1-11-1 in their last 15 fights -- billed above him while he's in the prime of his career.
"As a fighter, as an athlete in general, you have to know that you're going to peak for a certain amount of time," said the 26-year-old. "Eventually, you're going to start breaking down physically or mentally or both. You can only do this for so long. I don't want to be one of those guys who push their careers on and on. I'm going to be on top of my game for a short period, and when the time comes that I question how much I want it, I'm going to step aside and let the new generation in."