Pat Curran is finally healthy, and Bellator’s featherweight champion has not let his good fortune go to waste. Curran will defend his title for the second time this year when he squares off with Shahbulat Shamhalaev in tonight’s Bellator 95 main event.
The champion’s recent period of activity follows a 2012 in which Curran fought just once due to a broken orbital bone sustained in training. As a result, Curran’s first title defense came more than 10 months after winning the title from Joe Warren. Despite the long layoff, the champion appeared as sharp as ever against Patricio Freire, using a tight boxing attack to outpoint Freire in Bellator’s eighth season premiere on Jan. 17.
The victory over “Pitbull” did not come easily, as Curran elected to stand and bang with the dangerous Brazilian for 25 minutes en route to a split-decision win.
“I really wanted to prove to myself that my striking and boxing were up to par. I was really pushing to make that statement, and I proved that my striking is some of the best,” Curran told Sherdog.com of his first title defense. “I trust my striking, and I trust my cardio, but I think I maybe need to mix it up a little bit more instead of turning it into just a straight boxing or striking match. This is MMA, so I think I need to go for some takedowns and mix things up a little more.”
Curran emerged from the fight virtually injury free, though the 25-year-old did acquire a serious knot on the top of his foot after having a body kick blocked by Freire’s elbow. After a week and a half on the shelf, however, the pain dissipated, and the featherweight decided to defend his belt again at the Season 8 finale from Revel in Atlantic City, N.J.
Initially booked to face former foe and Season 6 tournament winner Daniel Straus at tonight’s event, Curran was thrown a curveball five weeks ago when he learned Straus had broken his hand, leaving Season 7 winner Shamhalaev as the logical replacement.
“I’m a complete fighter, and I’m good in every aspect of the sport. Five weeks is plenty of time to switch opponents and mindsets and come up with a different game plan,” said Curran. “They are two very different fighters. Straus is a wrestler and wants to grind you out on the ground. Shahbulat is definitely a striker, and he wants that one-punch knockout. I have a different mindset coming into this fight, but it was an easy switch, and we felt like we had plenty of time to make that change.”
Curran diligently prepared for the dangerous Dagestani during his remaining five weeks of camp, studying his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses by reviewing Shamhalaev’s previous performances.
“Since I’ve become champion, I’ve been able to watch and review all of these fighters coming up in the tournament, and that’s a big part of my game plan,” said Curran. “I think that’s a smart decision for fighters to make. If you get a chance, definitely review and study your opponent to know what you’re getting into. But still, it’s fight. Anything can happen, and things can change in a second. You definitely have to be prepared for that.”
Perhaps no fighter under the Bellator banner more aptly personifies that statement than Shamhalaev, who is more than capable of changing a fight’s entire complexion with a single strike, as he did in his tournament finishes of Cody Bollinger, Mike Richman and Rad Martinez. Though Curran believes he will emerge victorious against the hard-hitting Team Bombsquad rep, the champion is nevertheless cognizant of Shamhalaev’s punching power.
“Watching [Shamhalaev’s] fight with Rad, [I noticed] he has a very powerful overhand right, and he has the killer instinct,” said Curran. “I’m a very clean, technical counter puncher, and I’ve really been working on my boxing. Once I’m on the inside, I’m going to have to throw my combinations and keep my hands high and move away, especially away from his power side. I have to stay composed, because I know he’s going to wing some really hard shots at me. If he does clip me, I’m going to have to be prepared for it, because I know he’s going to jump all over me and try to finish me.”