There are wins and there are wins.
The kind of win Pat Curran initially was going for on Friday night slipped out of his reach fairly early on in his challenge of Daniel Straus for the Bellator MMA featherweight championship belt, a strap he used to wear himself. Before his reign was halted by Straus last November, Curran had been one of the second-fiddle promotion's leading lights. He'd won six in a row since an unsuccessful challenge of lightweight belt holder Eddie Alvarez in 2011. During that run, he'd charged through about as much of a murderers row that Bellator could assemble: former Pancrase and Sengoku champ Marlon Sandro, then-reigning Bellator belt holder Joe Warren, and stout challengers Patricio Freire and Shahbulat Shamhalaev. One of the few non-UFC fighters to secure a spot in SI.com's 145-pound rankings, Curran was a star.
It was a mind-blower, then, when Curran dropped that unanimous decision to Straus. But it wasn't just that he lost. It was the lackluster way in which he relinquished his belt that left a deep and troubling impression. There are losses and there are losses.
Yet for Curran the main event of Bellator 112 in Hammond, Ind., was a do-over, or at least something as close to one of those as we get in big-time sports. That defeat last fall wasn't going to be erased from the resume, but the ground had been laid for some revisionist history when Curran revealed that he'd been suffering from depression during the time of the fight. So maybe he just wasn't himself. On Friday night, Curran had an opportunity to cast the loss as an aberration, just a bad night in a career of greatness. All he had to do was go out and blitz Daniel Straus, show the world who's far and away Bellator's best.
He couldn't do it. But no loss there. All that Curran's back-and-forth tussle with the reigning champ did was open the door for an even more enlivening kind of win: an out-of-nowhere submission with 14 seconds to go in the fifth round of what seemed to be anyone's fight.
On a night that saw a buffet table of long-range strikes, clinch attacks, and submission tries, Curran (20-5) came away from a scramble early in the fight's final minute with a lock around Straus's neck. The champ seemed OK at first, flashing a thumb's-up and appearing relaxed. But Curran kept adjusting his grip and his angle, and as the seconds ticked down it eventually became clear that Straus was in distress. Then he tapped.
"I knew it was close, but I think Daniel was edging out each round," Curran said afterward. "I thought he was up on the scorecards, so I had to just let it all on the line."
No doubt Curran was not alone in thinking that he needed a finish to regain his belt. But it wasn't so. Through four rounds, the fight was a draw, with one judge favoring Straus (22-5) in three of the rounds, another also scoring it 3-1 but in Curran's favor, and the third cageside decision maker giving each fighter two rounds.
Interestingly, not one of the four rounds scored was unanimously in either man's column. That's how close this fight was. Until the fifth, when Curran took over. Even if his choke had run out of time, he did more than enough to grab the three "10" scores needed to secure victory.
But had the final bell sounded, the decision been read, and Curran had his arm raised and the belt fastened around his waist, this victory would not have been the same. It would have been a win of significance -- that's a birthright of a title fight -- but it probably wouldn't have gotten people talking. By finishing the job, though, Curran put an exclamation point back on his career.
"Fifth round, rear naked choke, I mean, those are the championship rounds right there," he said. "I had to dig deep and come out with the win."