Hard-core fans would recognize Pat Curran’s name. He’s ranked in the top 10 of virtually all media rankings at 145 pounds. Yet considering he’s 25 years old, and has done most of his work on MTV2 as part of a budding organization still seeking attention, the casual watcher probably hasn’t seen him yet.
That should change Thursday, when Curran defends his featherweight title against aggressive Patricio Freire in the first bout of his promoter’s foray onto Spike TV (10 p.m. ET) at Bellator 85. It’s a statement-making opportunity for Curran, who’s a month younger than his challenger, and Bellator, which entrusted both fighters with the chance to make a first impression.
"History has an amazing way of repeating itself,” said Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. “If you look at Curran's history. Pitbull's history. ... These guys bring the fights. My anticipation factor is really high."
Curran likes the matchup because he considers himself a good defensive fighter and counterpuncher, which he clearly is. He intends to keep his hands high, block the Brazilian’s power shots, and find openings just like every other fight.
“I think that's going to be a huge factor in this fight,” Curran said. “Block his power. Grind him out to the end. And just outclass him."
A quick look at the pair would lead one to believe that Curran is the bigger, more dangerous physical threat. But “Pitbull” is thick in his legs and said by fight night he should hover near 170 pounds. Plus, his older, larger brother, Patricky, has made for a good sparring partner over the years.
"Since I was a kid I got used to training with my bigger brother," said the Brazilian. "I know [Curran] is better than me in the counter, but the best defense is to attack."
Freire, standing 5-foot-5, didn’t leave the impression that he was concerned over Curran being at least half a head taller, and significantly longer. The champ, who will step into the cage around 160 pounds, sounded surprised to hear how much weight “Pitbull” would put back on. He and a training partner looked almost happy to hear it, because they’ve focused on remaining light, nimble and fast.
Though neither man gave much credence to the idea, ring rust is at least a variable Thursday. The challenger, boasting an impressive 17-1 record, hasn’t fought since May 2011 and after taking several questions about the idea that he might be sluggish, spoke in English for the first time.
“I’m back,” he said with a gravelly tone. “I’m back.”
Curran hasn’t fought in 10 months and recently recovered from a broken orbital bone, which he suffered a week away from meeting Freire in August.
"I went blind,” he said. “I knew instantly there was something wrong and I needed to go to the hospital to get it checked out. He didn't even hit me in the nose but the left side of my eye started bleeding right away and it took about 30 minutes for my vision to come back. You know when you have a serious injury."
The Bellator titleholder took time off from getting hit and focused on grappling, said the champion’s cousin and trainer, Jeff Curran, who has endured several similar injuries.
“He never had downtime, so it's good in that sense,” Jeff said. “I was concerned it was going to be longer before we got him back into the cage. I wasn't concerned about long-term issues. My concern was a long time away from being in the cage and coming back with ring rust."
After another training camp, and knowing Pat the way he does, rust no longer weighs on Jeff's mind. The younger cousin moved from Florida to Illinois five years ago to pursue his dream of fighting. In Pat, Jeff saw a chance to mold a natural athlete who also happened to be a game fighter.
"Pat's a very humble fighter and champion,” Jeff said. “It's just a fight to him. He knows he's the champion in that he has to rise to the occasion and live up to it and make an example of his position."
Said the Bellator champion: "I want to put on an exciting fight and make it known I'm one of the best featherweights out there.”
Not surprising, so does Freire, who claimed he weighed a rather astounding 185 pounds at the start of this training camp.
“I was strong,” he said. “I've been watching many fights of his. I'm prepared for anything he does."
He’s had plenty of time to think about Curran (17-4) after defeating Daniel Straus to earn the shot in 2011. Beyond Freire’s dangerous striking prowess, it was the Brazilian’s ability to take down a strong-hipped wrestler that caught Curran’s attention.
“I trained with Straus before,” Curran said. “Seeing him do that to Straus shows his level of wrestling and his takedowns."
Knowing he’s the taller man, Curran claimed he’ll throw knees if Freire takes a shot. But if he misses and Curran is forced to the canvas, Freire, a jiu-jitsu black belt, promised to “kill him.”
This attitude is the reason Rebney was compelled to call his matchmaker Sam Caplan in the middle of the night to tell him that “Pitbull” was a guy they had to sign. Curran came with less fanfare, yet the native Floridian, a surfer in his heart, has handled the role of champion well and is growing accustomed to doing more promotional stuff, including three red carpets last year and a shoutout at a Brooklyn Nets game. Those perks plus the move from MTV2 to Spike TV, which helped give rise to the UFC, helped motivate Curran.
Now all he needs to do is live up to his promoter’s lofty expectations.