Former featherweight champion Pat Curran spoke to us about overcoming depression, fatherhood, and his tournament experience not being a factor ahead of Bellator 226 and the featherweight grand prix.
There is almost an intrinsic inclination to shy away from any show of weakness in MMA. It’s a sport that rewards toughness and mental fortitude. That encourages athletes to hide any semblance of vulnerability. Inside or out of the cage, it doesn’t seem to matter. Bellator 226’s Pat Curran is a fighter who has broken that taboo, speaking openly in the past of dealing with depression.
Cageside Press caught up with former two-time featherweight champion, not to mention two-time Bellator tournament winner, ahead of the opening round of Bellator’s featherweight grand prix this weekend. Which gave us the chance to ask him whether the very nature of MMA, with its roller coaster of ups and downs, intensified his depression.
“Of course,” Curran agreed. Nor was it just about the highs and lows of the sport. Training itself, said Curran, played a role. “At the time, when I did come out with it, I wasn’t aware of how severe head trauma, head injuries could be, the effects of it. The training camp I was at, we were sparring hard constantly. Even after my fights, there was another fighter getting ready for a fight, so I rolled right back into another training camp for somebody else.”
It was a constant cycle. Train, fight, jump back in and help someone else prepare. “I was getting hard sparring in,” said Curran, but with it came “the constant head abuse. That’s the problem with smaller teams, you don’t have many guys to train with, so they kind of rely on you. They help you out with your camp, you help them out with their camp. That’s just how we trained, back in the day, a lot of hard rounds.”
While Curran pointed out that he’d “never been knocked out, those rounds can add up. On top of having a loss, going through a winter where you haven’t seen the sun for months at a time [seasonal depression].” It all added up.
“You can feel the effects of getting depressed and down on yourself,” Curran explained. In his case, he was self-aware enough to recognize change was necessary. “That’s just something I recognized, I realized, and I made the correction to fix that problem and have a better outlook on my position. I haven’t dealt with depression in a long time, I overcame it. I found the light, found the path I wanted to go down, and I haven’t looked back.”
Curran learned first and foremost that he needs to take time off now and then. It took him a while. “That’s just me being a young, immature, dumb fighter not knowing any better.”
“Now that I’m more mature, I’m older, I’m looking out for my best interest and my family’s best interest,” he explained. That means taking personal time, to “rest your body, rest your mind, get back into the right mind state.” It’s something he now does after each fight. His training style has changed as well. Gone is the constant hard sparring. Instead, “only when I need to, leading up to the fight, say six weeks, seven weeks out, we start picking up the intensity, picking up the pace of sparring.”
To others who might be going through similar struggles, Curran suggested that “you just have to realize it and want to make the changes yourself. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s going to take time. You have to make those small changes, little by little and want to better yourself, change your life for the better.”
It’s not something you can wait out, either. “If you’re not happy, you feel stuck, get unstuck. Get out. Change up your life, do something that you want to start doing,” advised Curran. “It takes time. Don’t expect to see results overnight. You have to put in the time, be patient, and eventually, the changes will start affecting your mood.”
The Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix: Experience is not a factor
Heading into the featherweight grand prix at Bellator 226, Curran is in a good place. He’s also, as noted, a two-time tournament winner in Bellator MMA. He won the Bellator Season 2 lightweight tournament in 2010, and followed that up a year later by winning the 2011 Summer Series featherweight tournament.
So experience in tournaments should be on his side, right? Not so fast. “I want to say yes, but I don’t believe so,” Curran told us ahead of his opening round fight against Adam Borics. “I’m right there with the rest of the fighters.”
“I don’t think anybody has an edge. Especially with my experience of being a two-time tournament winner, that was a long time ago, I was real early in my Bellator career,” he elaborated. “This is a totally different ballpark right now. Everybody in the tournament is extremely competent and can win.”
“I don’t want to say experience is going to have a factor in this at all,” he reiterated.
The featherweight grand prix is expected to play out over the course of the next year, a vast difference from Bellator’s early tournaments, which took mere months. On the topic of a preference in terms of time frame, Curran said that “if you had asked me that question when I was 21, 22, of course I liked the quicker pace. But I feel like my body recovered a little bit quicker, especially after going through a tough fight.”
These days, said the former champ, “I’ll take the extra time, recover, reset, and come up with a new game plan.”
With a million dollars plus the title on the line, that’s a safe approach. Asked which was more appealing, the belt or the cash, Curran answered “that’s the beauty of the tournament. You can do both. They both have the same appeal to me. But of course a million dollars can change my future, my family’s future for the rest of their lives.”
So he’s gunning for both. “I definitely want to have both with me back home in Illinois,” said Curran, who never anticipated competing for that kind of money at this point of his career.
“Absolutely not. Never expected it. I saw it in other organizations,” said Curran. However, he didn’t expect Bellator to follow suit. “Maybe,” he allowed, “but not featherweights. I had no idea at all.” Curran was excited when the promotion announced the grand prix, but was also on standby waiting to see if he’d be included after losing his last fight to A.J. McKee.
However as a two-time champ of the division he figured “there’s good possibility I’d be invited to the tournament.” Curran stayed positive and played the waiting game, and as it turned out, he was right, and was announced among the first 16 men competing in the grand prix. First up, rising prospect Adam Borics.
“He’s as tough as they come,” Curran observed of Borics, an undefeated Hungarian with a 13-0 record and a tendency to uncork flying knees at any given moment. “Everybody in this tournament, they can win this tournament. It’s a very dangerous, very deep, stacked division.”
“With Adam, he’s never tasted defeat, never experienced a loss before,” Curran pointed out. “He’s on this wave of confidence right now, he has a lot of momentum on his side. That can be dangerous for a fighter. Hopefully I can dig down and put some pressure on him.”
“I know I have a lot more fight experience in the cage, I’ve been with Bellator a lot longer,” continued Curran. But again, he added, “I don’t think that’s a factor on my side.” Forget experience. Plus, “he’s very experienced in his own way, he has a lot of kickboxing experience, he’s training with an incredible team, he’s very active as a fighter.”
“Experience is not going to help me, it’s just the will to win, and who wants it more.”.
As for Boric’s flashy tendencies, “of course you just want to focus on you,” Curran said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to be cautious of his strengths. What he’s shown in Bellator is really good back position, he has a rear-naked choke finish, so he’s very good on the ground, and he likes to look for those knees, flying switch knees. Those are something that we’re prepped for, we’re training for, I have to watch out and stay away from his strengths.”
Curran, however, noted that he’s not over-thinking or over-analyzing his opponent, but rather focusing on making his own game better, while staying cautious.
Fatherhood and Fighting
Like Dad Cerrone and a number of other contemporaries, Patt Curran is now a father. Now entering his second fight as a dad, he’s also found a comfortable balance between fatherhood and fighting. “The last fight, he was still a little bit too young to go into day care,” said Curran in regard to his son. “I couldn’t afford daycare either at the time, it is extremely expensive. But over the last few months we found a really good nanny close to the house.”
That has turned out to be quite the blessing. “On the way to the gym I drop him off, on the way back I’m able to pick him up, or I can leave him there however long I need and get a second training session in.”
“I definitely found my routine that works best for my family right now,” he said, later adding that “even compared to my last training camp, we’re really further along.”
It’s a nice little system, said Curran. And his son is added motivation. “That’s always going to be on my mind now, and I just have to remind myself and try to motivate myself a little bit more, to push myself hard in the fight for him.”
Though he doesn’t like to speak of it too much, out of fear of letting him down, perhaps, his son is “always on my mind, that’s the whole reason I’m doing this — to provide a better future for him and my family.”
The McKee Fight
Again, MMA is a roller coaster. The ups, the downs. While Curran has put depression behind him, there’s no escaping the highs and lows until you walk away. Curran’s fight with A.J. McKee was unquestionably a low. However, it’s worth noting he did enter the bout after being out of action well over a year. Not that he’s looking for a scapegoat.
“I don’t like coming up with excuses. I had a bad night,” said Curran, who also admitted “A.J. was on point, looking awesome. You can say there was a little bit of rust involved, there was that long layoff, it could have played a factor. It’s hard to say. We’ll see my next fight, if I knock the rust off, dust off, and I’m able to actually perform and fight the way I know I can fight.”
One booking that surprised some MMA fans was seeing McKee passed over for a title shot in favor of Juan Archuleta. With the belt on the line in every round of the featherweight grand prix, it’s Archuleta who will meet champ Patricio Pitbull first. Despite McKee’s 14-0 record, and his defeat of Curran himself.
“A.J., he’s undefeated, he is the poster-boy for Bellator, they’re promoting the heck out of him. But I can see how they’d want that to be the final,” Curran said of the slight. “They’re going to try to keep them on opposite sides, and hopefully if everything comes out to plan, they’re going to have that as the final match. But anything can happen. That’s the beauty of this sport. You can’t really plan for anything, it’s up to the fighters to make their own fate.”
Bellator 226 takes place Saturday, September 7 at the SAP Center in San Jose, CA. The card airs live on DAZN.