There were a few points on the road to Bellator 184 when Pat Curran wondered whether he was done. The first came late last year, when numbness rippled down his right leg and sent him scrambling to the doctor. Another arrived this past spring, when money grew tight and nothing was working and it seemed like life had just moved on. It was then that he knew he had to step away. Step away from training, step away from the gym. Step away from all of this. And so the former two-time Bellator champion cut the fight game out of his life completely, a cold-turkey shift, because the nagging reminder of what he could no longer do was simply too painful to bear.
It was a crossroads long in the making.
His troubles first began five years earlier, when Curran tweaked his back during a speed and agility drill in camp. He was bedridden for two days. Eventually, the pain faded from his lower back, but it never truly drifted far away. Instead it always loomed on the near horizon, a dogged house guest that would poke its head through the front door at least once every fight camp. Curran would deal the only way he knew how, pushing through the pain and always — somehow — making it out the other side as his Bellator career thrived.
But things changed after his win over Georgi Karakhanyan last year. In preparation for a December 2016 fight against John Teixeira, Curran’s eternal house guest returned with a fervor unlike any before. Curran re-tweaked his back while wrestling, and within days, he started losing feeling and strength in his right leg, terrifying pangs of paralyzation shooting down his lower body. He visited his doctor hoping to get a cortisone shot so he could still fight Teixeira. He ended up undergoing the first major surgery of his life, doctors slicing open his lower back and carefully separating a herniated disc from the nerves on Curran’s spine.
He was given a timetable of six to 12 months to recover. Six to 12 months without a paycheck. And after battling depression throughout his fight career, Curran found himself adrift once more.
“As an athlete, you don’t know what your future holds, when you kinda put all your focus into one direction,” he told MMA Fighting. “And then your whole life can change in the matter of one office visit.
“It’s a very disturbing feeling because you’re kinda lost. You’re not sure what to do, where you’re going. Obviously me, I fight for a living, so if I don’t take a fight, I’m not bringing in any money as well. So financially, I was really stressed, and just really unsure what my future held, because I dedicated the last 10 years of my life to training full-time and becoming the best athlete that I could, and just giving the sport everything that I had. So it was a very, very sad time for me.”
At first, Curran tried to power through his rehab while keeping busy in the gym like everything was normal. For his first half-year of recovery, he focused on teaching, taking oddjobs here and there, personal training, coaching, anything to stay on the mats and stay involved with the sport.
But his the issues with his back remained a constant thorn in his side, a thorn that was starting to seem insurmountable, and Curran began to honestly question whether his win over Karakhanyan would be the last of his career. As the situation grew more dire, he became convinced that it would be.
And those old feelings of hopelessness continued to set in.
“I just wasn’t really bringing in as much money as I was hoping for, and I was struggling with the fact that, if I don’t fight again, do I want to coach? Do I want to be around this sport right now?” Curran says. “Because it’s very upsetting, it’s depressing to think about when your career is going to come to an end.
“I was looking for a something a little bit [more], just all around. I needed a little bit bigger paycheck, benefits, a retirement plan and whatnot. I just turned 30 this year and it’s time to kinda get my sh*t together. I’m not rushing, but now is the time. I can’t sit around and wait anymore. I love being an athlete, it’s been the best 10 years of my life, but it’s not a long-term career, and an athlete can’t retire off of that.
“So I decided to go a completely opposite direction, get outside of the mixed martial arts world, life, and just kinda focus on something that had nothing to do with being in the gym or being on the mats training. And honestly, I think it’s one of the best decisions that I ever made, or made thus far.”
After all this time, Curran circled back to the beginning.
Before he was ever a two-time featherweight champion, the Illinois native was an aspiring pipefitter with a small company in his hometown. So after some soul-searching, Curran took back up the trade this year, signing on to a full-time, 40-hours-a-week position as a pipefitter in Chicago.
Curran says he enjoyed the variety in his days. Every job was different, every day was new. Gradually, the gym melted from his mind, and the blue-collar days became his routine. Curran moved on from the fight game, putting it all behind him — until Bellator matchmaker Rich Chou called this summer with an unexpected offer to fight Teixeira on Oct. 6 at Bellator 184, and Curran had to decide whether to pick back up where he left off with his old life.
“When he gave me a call, it kinda just completely turned things around for me,” he admits. “I went from being focused on my career and what’s going on in front of me right then and there, to, alright, now I’ve got to get back into fight mode, now I’ve got to get back into a training regime.”
Curran dipped his toes back into the water at first, gingerly testing out the back issues that had forced his hand. As it turned out, the time away did wonders for his body. Curran was able to train effectively, albeit more carefully than ever before. And once on the mats, it was almost like riding a bike with how naturally the skills and movements came flooding back to him. So he figured ‘why not?’ and signed on the dotted line to meet Teixeira.
But even though his dream has now unexpectedly returned to him, Curran isn’t willing to go back to the way things used to be. He’s learned too much for that.
“How am I going to balance everything? I don’t want to lose this job, this possible career that I can fall back on, so how can I balance both?” Curran says. “That’s kinda been the challenging part of what I’m going through right now. But it is nice thing, knowing the fact that I can. If for some reason I do get injured again, I have a job to fall back on and I’m not going to be stressing as much or going through what I went through a year ago.
“It’s inevitable it’s going to happen, your body will eventually just shut down on you and not do what you want it to do. So I’m going to that point, and I know I can probably get a few more years out of this sport, but at what expense? My back is already kinda shutting down on me, and little by little, my injuries are still kinda flaring up here and there. So I’m trying, and that’s also kinda bringing me to a different approach with training. I’m not training hard, but I’m training smart. I’m training around my injuries. I’m training to keep my body healthy, and kinda saving it for the actual fights, compared to six long weeks of just grueling training.”
Curran says he wants to take things one fight at a time these days. He’s no longer doing two-a-day practices like he used to; instead he’s doing one practice in the evenings at Valle Flow Striking — a night spent in the gym after his eight-hour day at work. Every week he’ll also drive an hour up to Kenosha to get in his speed and agility training. His back has held up perfectly so far, and he has his first child on the way too. Several of Curran’s coworkers are aware of his second career and are excited about what will happen on Friday night. It’s a busy but fun time, and the fighter says he finally feels like he’s figured out a missing piece to his life.
Curran says he’s hoping his new training methods will allow him to fight at least twice a year, if not three times a year moving forward. He plans to store each Bellator paycheck away in savings as his family begins to grow in numbers — a luxury afforded to him by the weekly income he gets from his new career. And although he admits that the last chapters of his MMA story are closing in, he sees Teixeira as one step toward the final thing he wants to do before he’s gone for good.
“The top guys (in the division) are still the same,” Curran says. “In the next few years, I feel like that’s definitely going to change, but as of right now you’ve got ‘Pitbull,’ you’ve got Straus, Weichel, myself, Sanchez is coming up, Georgi. It’s a very deep division, but I want to say it: I see myself being at the top. That’s why I’m still working here. I want to push myself to become a three-time Bellator world champion.
“If I do retire, I want to retire as a champion. I did it twice already, I feel like I can do it again. And I know I have the abilities to do so.”
And that climb begins anew on Friday night.