On observers' scratch sheets, Pat Curran should have lost. But when it comes to 15-minute cage fights, paper wisdom isn't exactly a script. Sometimes the underdog wins. Sometimes he chops down old idols like dead trees. Sometimes he rewrites the ending in blood. That was the story when Curran knocked out Mike Ricci in his first fight of this year's Bellator Lightweight Tournament.
"Everyone expected Ricci to win because he's Georges St-Pierre's number one training partner. He was supposed to be the next GSP. And they gave him all this hype," Curran recalled in a phone interview with the New Times. "I missed my first right hand. But I was able to time the second one and I caught him right on the chin."
A 23-year old kid who grew up in Delray Beach and Boca Raton, Curran was a wrestler in high school. But despite a blood relation to veteran cage brawler Jeff Curran, he came late to the pro fight game. "I never really knew much about MMA until I was 17 and I met my cousin Jeff for the first time. We were never close growing up. I knew of him, but I never knew exactly what he did," Curran explains. "Then he showed me some of his fight videos and I got hooked."
It was two more years before Pat finally left home to join Jeff's gym in Chicago. Why the lag? He was finishing high school. He wanted to be a firefighter and an EMT. He didn't want to deal with the long and ugly city winters. Finally, though, Pat chose to fight for a living. "At the right time, Jeff came down with one of his fighters and he was fighting in the UFC at the Hard Rock," he says. "Jeff gave me two tickets. I went to the fights. And the next day I was on a plane, flying out to Chicago."
In the three years since that overnight flight, Curran has amped his wrestling skills with deep jiu jitsu and thick hammer hands. The way he puts it: "I got a taste of standup and I took it straight into the cage, ready to go to work." In a quick 24 months, Curran put up nine wins and three losses. He punched and choked his way through the Xtreme Fighting Organization. Then he scored a contract with Bellator and brutally KO-ed Ricci in the first round of that first fight. The underdog won.
And the echoes of upset only got louder in Curran's next bout. He was going up against 27-year-old Mexican star Roger "El Matador" Huerta, a former UFC lightweight contender with a long and strong record of 21 wins and only three losses. "Roger Huerta was definitely the biggest fight of my career," Curran admits. "Everyone expected me to lose." But again, the paper wisdom was dead wrong. It was a unanimous decision for the underdog.
So after two king-making victories, Pat Curran had made it to the finals. His opponent? Toby Imada, a California vet and finalist in last year's lightweight tournament who found MMA through both the dojos and outdoor pits of Los Angeles. "I was taking judo in LA," Imada says. "Then I was asked to do some pankration and backyard fights. I tried it. I got through two or three fights, then I went full no-holds-barred."
With a record of 23 wins and 13 losses, the 32-year-old Imada was already something of a prizefighting journeyman before the current Bellator Lightweight Tournament. At one point, he even considered retiring after being beaten five consecutive times. Eventually, though, Imada decided he wasn't done throwing his fists and submitting strangers for fun and profit. At a quick clip, he started piling up TKOs and submissions. The immortal highlight of Imada's career, however, came with his freakish, upside-down triangle leg choke of Jorge Masvidal last year. Hanging upside down from the guy's shoulders, Imada wrapped his legs around Masvidal's neck and squeezed until the blood stopped feeding the brain. "In judo, the move is called sankaku-jime."
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The underdog and the journeyman finally met last night. In a pre-fight interview with the New Times, Curran sized up his opponent, saying: "Imada's a really tough guy. He doesn't break. He keeps coming and keeps coming until he wears you down. He's not gonna quit." He continued: "But standup-wise I think I'll have the advantage over Imada. So I wanna keep it standing." Meanwhile, Imada had words of his own: "If it goes to the ground, I've got a good, strong feeling that it could end by submission," he said. "But the fight could go anywhere. I don't consider myself a one-dimensional fighter."
In the end, it took the full fifteen minutes for Curran and Imada to settle the Bellator Lightweight Tournament Championship. They boxed in circles, thowing leg kicks and jabs. They clinched against the cage, exchanging knees and footstomps and short punches. Momentarily, Imada took Curran down. But the younger fighter quickly wrestled free, getting back to his feet. It was a closely fought battle. But through two rounds, Toby Imada was the aggressor, relentlessly chasing Curran, who hung back looking for chances to counter.
Then, a minute into the third round, the fight flipped. Curran landed a single laser-guided fist to Imada's face, ripping the right eye open. And the blood began running. Stunned, Imada fell into the fence. But weirdly, Curran backed off and the fight finished without any other high, dramatic moments. It was close, but Imada was the bloody one. He was the one who looked like he'd been gangbeaten in dive bar bathroom. And the judges took note. The scorecards were split. But the underdog won.
Curran got a giant $100,000 from a pair of supertan, black-haired Bellator babes. But more importantly, he earned a shot at lightweight titleholder Eddie Alvarez. Another chance to chop down old idols like dead trees. Another chance to rewrite the ending in blood.