The highly anticipated match up is finally upon us: Pat Curran meets Marlon Sandro in the finals of Bellator's Summer Series featherweight tournament this Saturday night on MTV2. The action begins at 9 p.m. ET.
While the featherweights will headline, the card is punctuated by a host of well known UFC veterans making their Bellator debut. Ricco Rodriguez takes on Seth Petruzelli at a 230-pound catch weight and Paul Buentello faces current Bellator heavyweight champion Cole Konrad. Undefeated Team Bombsquad lightweight Rene Nazare will lead the show off against Juan Barrantes.
The entire lineup is solid, but I'm particularly geeked for the main event and believe it warrants its own detailed analysis.
Pat Curran built a reputation at lightweight for being a party pooper. He was pegged as mere cannon fodder for Bellator's high profile acquisition Roger Huerta, then Toby Imada, and finally, perennial top-ten lightweight Eddie Alvarez was expected to dust him.
Now, Alvarez accounts for Curran's only loss under the Bellator banner out of six total fights. Curran was infinitely resilient despite being defeated, joining Joachim Hansen and the venerable Matt Lee as the rare decision wins on Alvarez's resplendent resumé.
After dropping down to his natural weight, Curran also underwent a change in mentality, stomping on the gas and adding a significant dose of aggression to his normally methodical pace. In the opening round of the featherweight tourney he laced up Luis Palomino with a Peruvian necktie and cleverly out-gunned Ronnie Mann in the semifinals.
In 2010, Nova Uniao's Marlon Sandro and Hatsu Hioki were two widely esteemed featherweights fighting in the overseas market. This year, Hioki is making his Octagon debut and Sandro chose Bellator for a stateside stage. The Brazilian drew a highly under-rated opponent in Genair da Silva for his promotional debut, but looked strong and sharp in his second round match against Nazareno Malegarie.
The finals will feature two tremendously talented featherweights with technical striking who prefer to handle their business standing. This, along with the future rematch between Joe Warren and Patricio Freire, will be the best 145-pounders you'll see outside the UFC.
The match up is analyzed with a ridiculous amount of animated gifs in the full entry.
The most notable new addition to Curran's arsenal is his jumping knee.
The glitzy maneuver is an odd contrast to Curran's prudent and unpronounced stand up. With impeccable reactions and timing, Curran generally prefers to snap off airtight and on-balance boxing combinations, so launching forward with the flying knee comes as a surprise attack.
While normally a risky technique, Curran employs the flying knee sparingly and doesn't leave himself exposed to counter strikes or takedowns in the process.
As shown above versus Ronnie Mann, he stays compact and balanced, unleashing the knee in a short, controlled burst.
The sequence to the right is a medley of Curran's flying knees versus Mann.
The first and second are sprung instantly and with absolutely no set up. Note how, in the second flying knee, Curran adds a straight right hand when Mann anticipates the advance, and he keeps his hands high to protect himself in both.
The third example is the charging double-knee, which he assailed Palomino with after stunning him with a punch.
To conclude the second and third attempts, Curran drops levels for a double leg. This has been another tool to continually push his opponents backward and keep him in control of the pace.
In the past Curran was cautious and surrounded himself with a force-field of stiff counter punches, but he's upped his offense since moving to 145 and is now leading exchanges with more enthusiasm.
Being more assertive on the feet is the perfect complement to Curran's stand up game, because he has some of the most amazing defensive abilities in the sport.
His ability to stave off takedowns and dodge or block strikes was subtly apparent in his upsets over Huerta and Imada, but became glaringly obvious against Eddie Alvarez's high octane attacks.
As usual, Eddie unloaded everything in the cannon, but due to Curran's freakish defensive skills, eventually had to settle in to a strategic back and forth duel when he couldn't run him over with strikes and takedowns.
As shown in the animation above -- with Curran, nothing is superfluous, excessive, or wasted; he's one of the most efficient and judicious strikers in the featherweight class.
He controls distance with a long, clean double jab, and when both get through, he cracks a tight right hand. The accuracy and consistency of his punches disrupt his opponent's rhythm and never let them get settled.
To the right we see the subtleties of Curran's bewildering defensive skills. Watch Mann time his counter to Curran's lead jab well, but still, Curran muffles all three strikes with textbook blocking and shelling while skipping back out of range.
In the next exchange, Curran's technique is nearly flawless: his elbows are tight, his chin is tucked, he has his balance, and he delivers a beautiful one-two while deflecting Mann's counter.
Here we see more fundamentally intact boxing from Curran.
Check out the lightning fast counter-combination led by the heavy right hand to back Mann up in one of the few instances where he gets off first.
To regain control of the momentum, Curran advances and feints with a body blow, forcing Mann to backpedal further and reset. Then Curran lances another long jab and left hook before displaying exemplary defense once again when Mann returns fire.
This is a great example of how he's relentless in peppering with a variety of blows, keeping foes on the end of his punches, controlling the distance and (somehow) having the innate ability to deflect strikes wholly even when he's in the middle of his own combo.
Our final sequence for Curran shows the diversity of his offense. He flashes the left hook before planting a nice front kick to Mann's midsection and following up with a cracking low kick.
Keep in mind that Ronnie Mann has been training in Muay Thai since he was a kid and has an excellent striking game. Curran just endlessly jolts him with a wide range of boxing combinations and kicks and never stops coming forward.
As we segue to Marlon Sandro, these last few animations show a few spots where the Brazilian could capitalize. His deadliest strike is the vicious uppercut, and a slight trend can be found in Curran's tendency to dip his head into the pocket when Mann flurries.
You can also see Mann land a simple and quick straight right hand as a counterstrike here, which is another specialty of Sandro.
Marlon Sandro has a simple but effective boxing style that is very similar to Curran's.
He's basically a quick and powerful one-two machine. The differences between Sandro and Curran are that Sandro loads up a little more power, takes more chances with aggressive strikes, and alternates back and forth from laser straight punches to wide, looping hooks.
To the left he starts out countering with a straight one-two, but then switches to a heavy overhand while stepping back. The extra heft he puts on this strike is evident, as Malegaries wobbles and nearly takes a knee.
In classic Sandro fashion, he unfurls a huge uppercut while simultaneously sprawling to defend Malegarie's takedown attempt.
Sandro often flashes the uppercut just to let his opponent know it's there.
To the right, he backs Malegarie up by showing the uppercut, then bounds forward with two deeply penetrating punches; again putting a lot of mustard on the right hand.
You can see in the follow up that he very distinctly goes away from needling straight shots and starts winging wide hooks.
This tendency can be good and bad: any change in pattern keeps your adversary guessing and gives them one more weapon to worry about, but the wider strikes also leave more holes for a precise counter striker like Curran to exploit.
This sequence shows the significant change from straight punches to hooks.
Sandro begins by blasting a tight one-two straight down the pocket with his chin tucked, but then switches tempo when Malegarie advances and throws four wide, looping hooks in a row while moving backward.
While these shots all pack a lot of power and his head is moving, this combination is much more susceptible to the straight and accurate punches that Curran throws.
The beauty of MMA is the trade-off: for Curran to get close enough to catch his chin with his tight boxing, he has to step inside the whirlwind of a premiere featherweight knockout artist.
One of the differentiators in this match up is Curran's wrestling. While Sandro is not known as a wrestler, I think his scrambling and wrestling skills are a bit under-rated.
He hit three takedowns against Malegarie and is strong and adept in the clinch.
Curran will bring a markedly stronger wrestling acumen than Malegarie and is easily the best wrestler Sandro has encountered. They key aspect of Curran's wrestling is that he presents an equally formidable threat with his avid submission game.
To the right, Sandro sprawls and turns Malegaries attempt into a Shogun-style clinch takedown from the body lock.
To the left is a good example of how Sandro nullified Malegarie's nonstop takedown attempts.
Notice he lowers his center of gravity to absorb the blow and immediately digs an underhook to stay upright.
The next step is fishing for Malegarie's arm and controlling it, then slashing a hard knee to the midsection with Malegarie's defending arm effectively isolated.
Malegarie has no choice but to break contact and throw a hook on the way out.
Sandro is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, so even successful takedown attempts don't really yield a worthwhile advantage.
Finally, Sandro shows why he's a respected and fan-friendly featherweight despite spending most of his career overseas.
After flurrying with big punches on a turtled Malegarie as he transitions to the standing position, Sandro resets and explodes with the same type of controlled-but-deadly double flying knee that Curran employs in the gifs above.
By all accounts, this should be an extremely evenly matched fight.
Standing, I'd call them about even, with Curran's unreal defensive skills compensating for Sandro's ruthless aggression and knockout power. Curran is the better wrestler, but Sandro is superior in submission skills ... making the grappling comparison a wash as well.
What I feel will make the slightest difference is that both are extremely difficult to finish with iron beards, meaning that what catches the eyes of the judging panel will play into the mix.
I think, as history has proven, that Curran has the edge there. His cold and calculating style of deflecting strikes and sniping straight punches through the tiniest of holes should be slightly more appealing to the judges.
Sandro is one of the best featherweights in the world, and I think Pat Curran will vault ahead in the rankings with a very competitive and entertaining decision. I bought into the Curran hype after he continually defied the odds at lightweight and guessed he'd win this tournament when he announced the drop in weight.
My Prediction: Pat Curran by split-decision
All gifs via Caposa