It's no secret that Bellator keeps the bulk of its talent in its lower weight classes, and one could argue that Featherweight is the organization's most exciting division. Both Shahbulat Shamhalaev and Pat Curran would be key points in that argument. Shamhalaev went on an absolute tear in Season Seven's featherweight tourney, putting away a pair of dangerous fighters, Rad Martinez and Mike Richman, in his last two fights, the latter a reputable knockout artist in his own right. But few featherweights in the world, not to mention the small pond that is Bellator, can compare to the complete fighting prowess of Pat Curran, whose five fight win streak includes two title fights and three brutal finishes. And before his featherweight run, Curran ended a four fight streak with a hard-fought loss to Eddie Alvarez, who hasn't had more trouble landing on any opponent in years than he did against Curran in that bout.
So it's safe to say that I'm excited for this matchup, and I think you should be too. Pat Curran, as has been pointed out by BE cohort Dallas Winston, is a three-dimensional martial artist. He is quite possibly the most well-rounded featherweight in the world, with excellent submission grappling, wrestling, and striking. Shamhalaev, on the other hand, doesn't have the same set of tools -- in fact, his only defeat is a submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov -- but he is as much of a knockout artist as you will find in the lighter weight divisions, with knockouts comprising 75% of his total wins, and all of his wins at featherweight.
Fortunately for fans of striking, at least some of this bout is all but guaranteed to be decided on the feet. Let's see what each of the fighters have to offer in that department. The biggest difference lies in positioning and footwork.
There is a marked difference in the way that Shamhalaev and Curran position themselves. If you're unclear on what I mean by "positioning," I talk about it a little in my Bloody Basics piece on stance, as well as my King Mo piece -- but basically, the concept can be summarized like so: with proper positioning, you are facing him, and he is not facing you. This means you can hit him, and he can't hit you. At the highest levels, it even sometimes means that you can hit him hard, and he can only hit you softly. Footwork is the means by which a fighter establishes his position.
You can tell a lot about a fighter's intentions from his stance, and his positioning. Shahbulat Shamhalaev reveals his intentions in every fight to be more or less the same. Check out this .gif of his latest triumph over Rad Martinez to see what I mean.
Take a look at Shamhalaev's feet prior to the landing of the swinging right hand. His lead foot is well outside of Martinez'. Despite how frequently you hear this foot placement referred to as basic southpaw vs. orthodox strategy, a skilled fighter can prevent that telegraphed rear hand from landing nine times out of ten. The foot position is a dead giveaway, and it's never good strategy to tell the opponent exactly what you intend to do before you do it. Granted, at this moment in the fight Martinez had just been badly stunned, and was simply waiting to have a massive power shot planted on his chin. But this is the positioning that Shamhalaev uses in every fight. He rarely utilizes a jab, which is the surest way to set up a power shot on someone who knows how to avoid it.
Again, let's look at the fighters' front feet in the above .gif. Shamhalaev, once again, has his lead foot placed outside Richman's, pointing slightly away to his left. He is clearly lined up for a right hand, as usual. Unfortunately, Mike Richman wasn't able to read these intentions in the Shah's stance, and threw just about the worst punch he could possibly have thrown at that moment. His lead foot pointed neither at Shamhalaev's center nor placed to the outside of Shamhalaev's own foot, Richman attempts to throw a punch with his rear hand, the furthest possible weapon from his opponent, at Shamhalaev's right ribcage, the absolute farthest target from Richman. Mike's punch doesn't even have time to land before the lightning speed of Shamhalaev allows him to counter with ease.
Clearly Shamhalaev has found great success with his right hand so far. His speed and power are unquestionable. The problem with this strategy is that it relies on speed. Shamhalaev is rarely in the right position to defend himself and attack simultaneously, because his centerline is completely unprotected. He's proven quick enough to make this positioning work, but as soon as his speed is taken away from him, or he faces an opponent wise enough to deny him the rear-handed position he craves, his entire gameplan could go out the window. In his last two outings Shahbulat has faced one striker of only moderate skill in Rad Martinez, and Mike Richman, a usually clever striker who was caught making a grave mistake against a fast, powerful opponent. Though the Shah's feet are quick enough to put himself in position, he only ever looks for that one position. No set ups, just quickness. Speed can be a crutch in the lower weight divisions just as power is a crutch in heavyweight.
To sum up, I ask you to take a look at these highlights of Andre Ward's technical dismantling of Chad Dawson. Though most of the highlight reel moments show Ward landing power punches with his lead foot outside of Dawson's, pay careful attention to the moments between the big left hooks and right hands, when Dawson is feeling pressured by Ward. Throughout the fight, Ward used his lead foot and lead hand to threaten the centerline of his opponent. Once Dawson became oversensitive to these approaches and began positioning himself to defend his centerline, the outside angle was wide open for Ward, who simply stepped outside Dawson's turned-away lead foot with impunity.
So, what about the footwork and positioning of the champion? Pat Curran is easily one of my favorite strikers in MMA, despite the fact that he has historically done a lot of things I'm not a huge fan of. His footwork and his positioning are the reasons for that.
Curran is an excellent kicker, and judiciously employs flying knees in his assault. But his greatest weapon is his lead hand. Even aside from his blistering left hook, Curran is one of the still few MMA fighters (even in the "more technical" lighter weight classes) to regularly make use of a stiff jab, as well as jab feints. Many fighters don't seem to have figured this out yet (Rashad, I'm looking at you), but a feinted jab is just about useless without an actual jab to help sell it. Once a fighter learns that he can simply walk through your threat envelope every time you extend your lead hand, he has the freedom to enter his range and cut you down. For every fighter that only paws with the jab, or throws superman punches before ever throwing a single kick: feints need real threats behind them to work.
Curran is fond of cutting to the outside of his opponent's lead foot to land the right hand, just as Shamhalaev is, but he first threatens the opponent with his lead hand.
Watch the lead foot. This right hand doesn't land, but using the lead foot and hand to threaten the center allows Curran to safely find the angle to try. It just falls a little short.
Not this one, though.
Pat Curran's footwork does have some flaws, but it has served him very well against some very competent opponents. In fact, Pat's footwork reminds me of someone else. Let me preface this by saying that I cringed when I first read Jack Slack's article comparing Dan Henderson to Rocky Marciano. Much in the same way that fans of a band can never acknowledge a cover song to be as good as the original, it's hard for me to bear the comparison of a lesser MMA striker to one of history's greatest boxers. However, I make my apologies to Jack now; I'm about to commit the same cardinal sin.
Pat Curran's footwork reminds me of Joe Louis.
It pains me to say it--Joe Louis is one of my favorite fighters, and in my opinion is the greatest heavyweight of all time. Not only does Pat Curran compete in a different sport, but he's not the perfect blend of athleticism and intelligent training that Louis was. There are some striking similarities, though. Both men are dangerous counter strikers, particularly utilizing the left hook to catch their opponents coming in. This excellent video shows some clips of the Brown Bomber dismantling his opponents with his expertly utilized knockout power.
Louis and Curran have both been criticized for their supposedly "plodding" footwork. Footage of both men more often than not shows them flat-footed, moving slowly around the canvas, jabbing and leaping in, slinging heavy shots at their opponents. But both of these skilled fighters have method to their seemingly sluggish variety of madness.
Excellent timing aside, Louis and Curran are quintessential "stalkers." Curran used to be much lighter on his feet and move around a lot more. Since coming to featherweight, he's adopted a new, more aggressive style that sees him moving much more conservatively. In fact, rather than jabbing and evading like he did against Eddie Alvarez at lightweight, he is more commonly seen patiently walking his featherweight opponents down, using his subtle movements and left hand to set up crushing power shots. If you've ever wondered why Curran, and Joe Louis for that matter, were able to do so little against their swifter opponents and yet consistently finish them, it's all about the positioning.
It's hard to see from outside the cage or on the couch in front of the TV but, when Pat is at his stalking best, his opponent's just never have the opportunity to find a dominant angle on him. Like Louis above, he uses the implication of his lead handed strikes to either frustrate or threaten the opponent so that he can counter, or take the initiative--usually with a spectacular flying knee or dynamite right hand.
Like Joe Louis, though, Curran often ends up hoping too much for one great counter. He sometimes gets into difficult exchanges because he will remain stagnant in his positioning and allow an opponent to find an angle on him, all while looking to land the stepping right hand or a counter left hook. The following .gif is not the best example, but there are a few moments where Pat allows Pitbull to come dangerously close to landing some meaningful blows.
There were other moments in that back and forth bout in which Freire was really able to press Curran when he became too fixated on countering and forgot to maintain his position. Fortunately, Curran's defense is quite sound, and against Pitbull I saw very little of the looking away from the opponent that was so common in his previous fights. But let Curran's great counterpart Joe Louis stand as a reminder to what can happen when you allow a heavy hitter to march into your space.
It's a promising matchup, to be sure. Raw speed and power versus the technique of a constantly improving fighter. For my part, I'm always a fan of the better technician. I predict that Curran will be keeping his strap for some time yet. But with a fighter of Shamhalaev's ability, you never know. All I know for sure is that I won't be missing this fight.