Without question, from a technical standpoint, one of the fighters I've grown to appreciate and admire is Bellator featherweight champion Pat Curran.
His resplendent rise to overtake the fourth slot in the USA Today consensus MMA rankings was anything but common. Initially slated as an alternate for Bellator's Season Two lightweight tournament, Curran filled in for teammate Mike Corey when he pulled out with a knee injury. Curran drew then-undefeated TriStar Gym product Mike Ricci, who was fresh off a win over young phenom and future Strikeforce welterweight Jordan Mein. If Curran was known going into the tournament, it was for being the cousin and student of WEC/UFC veteran Jeff Curran. That would change quickly.
Curran cracked Ricci with a short right hook for a 1st-round knockout and, in retrospect, what was originally assumed to be a random upset now stands as the genesis of his ascension. In fact, Curran continued to play spoiler all the way to the tournament finals by knocking off Toby Imada (split decision) and trumpeted acquisition Roger Huerta (unanimous decision), both of whom were the clear favorites to win it all.
It wasn't until Curran gutted out a grueling 25-minute performance against top-ranked lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez that he started to be accepted as a genuine, high-caliber prospect. The loss to Alvarez in the lightweight finals, Curran's only flaw in his 9-fight Bellator stint, inspired a drop to featherweight and triggered Curran's race for the title.
In the full entry, the stellar defense and striking tactics of Pat Curran are analyzed by myself and resident striking geeks Fraser Coffeen and Jack Slack with a heaping assortment of animated gifs.
One of the aspects that makes Curran a distinctly specialized martial artist is that he's a three-dimensional fighter with legit striking, wrestling and submission grappling. This diverse foundation allows for some of the best technical defense in MMA. His exemplary takedown defense was on display against the likes of Alvarez, Imada and Greco Roman wrestling standout Joe Warren. Though this trait typically keeps him upright and moving of his own volition, the rare instances in which we've seen Curran's guard have been promising, as he's been able to initiate a scramble to escape back to his feet or unveil a high-caliber submission game.
From a defensive perspective, where Curran really shines with subtle brilliance is with his striking defense, intelligent movement and timing. Here's Fraser Coffeen on some of Curran's defensive striking characteristics.
Fraser Coffeen: His striking defense is indeed quite good. He does a good job using a lot (seriously, a lot) of feints to get fighters to move in. When they come in, he typically takes one of two approaches:
1. If he doesn't like how things are going, he won't engage. And he has a lot of good tools to help him with this. He will use his hands to catch incoming punches, and use head movement to slip shots. But his best asset here is simply stepping out of range.
When he does this watch his hands - he keeps the lead hand extended to block shots, while keeping the rear hand tight to his ear (as if he is holding a phone), to block any shots on that side. You can see this hand defense nicely in the sequence to the left at 3:15.
Dallas Winston: Further to Fraser's assessment, Curran employs an excellent set of angles when disengaging, as depicted to the right. Predictability is a death sentence in MMA, and Curran stays admirably unpredictable with his motion.
When Alvarez chucks out one or two probing strikes, Curran deftly shuffles back a step or two, looking for openings to counter. When Alvarez adjusts for Curran's straight-line retreat and commits to a plunging right hand, Curran cuts a hard 9 o'clock pivot to avoid it smoothly.
Fraser Coffeen (cont'd): 2. He will fire back on his opponent as they come in. Before the opponent can fully close the distance and begin connecting, Curran has already landed a shot of his own. In particular, he'll use the teep, the jab, and a lead hook. These shots all keep the opponent outside while also using their own forward movement against him.
Dallas Winston: I would add the straight right and flying knees to Fraser's list of strikes Curran punishes advancing aggressors with. Let's examine the latter.
Curran is judicious in strike selection with no wasted or excessive actions. He typically stuck to an effective set of basic boxing at lightweight but has amped up his aggression as of late. Anytime his opponent drops a level to duck a punch or shoot a takedown, Curran keys on their head position and launches a flying knee (right). Flying knees are among the riskiest of maneuvers because you're airborne with no way to adjust your balance or trajectory, plus the thrower commonly drops his hands on the way in (see: Arlovski vs. Fedor or Struve vs Buentello).
Curran wisely mitigates the risk by springing into a short, controlled jump with his hands up and a strong semblance of balance despite being airborne. The aforementioned use of his opponent's forward momentum against them also shortens the distance of travel on the flying strike and catches them off-guard to prohibit quick counters. The fanbase was impressed with Curran's resiliency against Alvarez but also criticized him for being too reserved. Pat seemed to take that to heart when he dropped to featherweight, because his offensive potency has skyrocketed since.
The capture above is a medley of Curran's flying knees against Ronnie Mann. Perhaps surmising that Mann's quickness was causing more problems than his punching power, Curran started vaulting into range fearlessly: first with a single flying knee, then with a double flying knee directly into a takedown attempt and, finally, closing with a flying knee-straight right combination. Though the risk inevitably increases as the moves get flashier, Curran keeps himself protected throughout and incurs no damage. To the right is another example of Curran's preference for the right hand and flying knees in succession.
You're probably a connoisseur of the technical side if you're reading this, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy a little raw brutality with it too.
The guilty pleasure of some good ol' brawling is appeased by Curran to the left, when he just freaks out and sprints forward with an offensive outburst of nearly indiscernible kicks, punches and double-leg takedown attempts.
This multi-faceted, Jekyll-and-Hyde mentality is why Pat Curran has become a must-see fighter.
Fraser Coffeen: The negative? As pointed out by Sandro, Curran is pretty heavy on his feet. He's flat footed, which can hurt his ability to move quickly. So far, his timing has compensated for that trouble, but if he faces an opponent with a real speed advantage, that could be the difference maker.
Here, against Sandro, you see Curran working these different defensive styles together. Sandro closes the distance quickly with a jumping attack. Curran at first tries to stop him with a teep, but when Sandro gets inside, he changes tactics and escapes, keeping his left hand out and his right hand tight to the ear. Once he has moved away, he fires back with a teep to the thigh to prevent Sandro from charging in again. As a result, Sandro is not in great position when he goes for the takedown, and Curran is able to avoid it.
One of the best ways to measure the technical proficiency of a fighter is to note how his victorious opponents were able to beat him. Pat Curran has been in with some huge names, ones who on paper should have torn him apart, and his only recent loss has been to the lightweight great Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez is known as one of the best strikers at lightweight, variously described as having "pro boxing level hands" and "Frankie Edgar with power", yet despite his brutal 87% finish ratio, was unable to stop Pat Curran.
Pat Curran proved to me in that fight alone that he is an exponentially hard man to hit. Alvarez, normally done within three rounds, was unable to land anything telling on Curran for the first two rounds. The opening exchanges really told the story of Curran's defensive savvy. As Alvarez came out to meet Curran, he circled for a while, feinting with some inconsequential punches, before stepping in behind a jab at the very upright, very square on Curran. Curran slipped and threw a counter jab which also didn't connect.
A second jab saw Curran skip back away from Alvarez.
About half a minute in to the fight Alvarez threw something we hadn't seen him throw often up to that point, a hopping right hand lead. For readers unfamiliar with the term "right hand lead" it is nothing to be ashamed of, in traditional boxing textbooks it is not even discussed as it is seen as the ultimate technical taboo. A right hand lead is the beginning of an attack with a right straight, rather than with the closer, faster, left jab. In boxing it is seen as a foolish risk due to it's slowness, but those who have become known for it - Roy Jones Jr, Sugar Ray Leonard, Nonito Donaire - rarely threw it with any power.
It simply substituted for a jab and set up a big left hook in the same way a jab would set up a heavy right straight.
(Note from Dallas Winston: the following gifs from Alvarez vs. Curran do not directly reflect Jack's commentary.)
The right hand lead was just about tailor made for Curran - he stands square on with his hands on sides of his head and body, to block kicks and hooks, rather than in by his chin as most square on boxers do. Most fighters or coaches would see his square on stance and assume he'd be easy pickings for a good jab, but Curran slipped Alvarez's jabs with ease throughout the fight. Because Curran was always ready to slip to the elbow side of Alvarez's jab (the only side to which one can slip and not be in the line of fire), he was often slipping to the wrong side when Alvarez fired his right hand lead, which meant Alvarez's punch could follow Curran's head.
Interestingly, as Eddie Bravo said of Jiu-Jitsu, the more advanced a technique is, the less occasions it will prove useful in. The same is true of the right hand lead. While it was a visually appealing way of winning points over the hard-to-hit Curran, it walked Eddie right in to the wild swings of much less competent striker Michael Chandler. Another lesson, if any were needed, is "styles make fights".
Alvarez continued to throw right hand leads throughout the Curran fight, more in the first three rounds than he had in his entire career.
They weren't powerful, and they didn't much hurt Curran, but they were the only technique which Alvarez could land with any consistency. Eventually Curran's excellent fundamental footwork slowed and in the 3rd, 4th and 5th rounds Alvarez was able to land some effective body shots while Curran reverted to blocking rather than moving, but Curran made Alvarez reach deep down inside of his bag of tricks to beat him.
Dallas Winston: There's no better way to close or more befitting example of Curran's appeal than his unruly beatdown of Joe Warren to overtake Bellator's featherweight throne.