It seems so long ago that Pat Curran was the featured fighter on the reality series called TapouT that aired on the Versus network.
At the time in 2008, it was Curran's first real step into the spotlight as a young fighter with a 1-0 record training under his cousin and veteran UFC competitor Jeff Curran. Fast forward two years later and Curran was competing as a lightweight in a Bellator tournament, knocking out current UFC fighter Mike Ricci and beating former Sports Illustrated cover boy Roger Huerta on his way to face Eddie Alvarez for the 155-pound title.
Curran lost that fight, but truth be told, he was never a lightweight to begin with, just a bloated featherweight who got a chance to compete in Bellator and he took it. Since that loss to Alvarez, however, Curran has never looked back.
A winner of five fights in a row, Curran won the Bellator featherweight tournament before destroying former champion Joe Warren to capture the belt, and he made his first title defense in January defeating Patricio "Pitbull" Freire at the inaugural show for the promotion on Spike TV.
Once a shy, quiet fighter who was always slipping under the radar leading up to his bouts, Curran is starting to settle into his role as champion. It's a different feeling than always being the contender, but Curran also knows that it only takes one punch to put him back on the bottom looking up.
"I've always had that role of being the underdog and I liked having that role, but as a champion that role's going to change," Curran told Bleacher Report recently. "In my mind I work too hard, put too many hours in and devoted my life to being where I'm at right now and I don't plan on losing that. One loss can change everything and it would ruin everything I work for, so I mentally want to stay focused and I keep that in the back of my mind where I'm not going to lose that."
Curran can walk around these days with confidence knowing that he's the best in the Bellator featherweight division, but the air never gets too thick because a quick dose of humility will always bring him back to earth. No matter how much pride he carries in being champion, at the start of each fight he's just another guy in the cage standing across from a fighter who wants to take his head off.
No amount of gold, confidence or swagger will save him in those moments, so Curran reminds himself often that it all goes away if he's not truly at his best at all times.
"I'm very proud of all my accomplishments and being Bellator's featherweight champion. I'm very proud of that. I've worked very hard to get where I'm at and I am confident as a champion, but at the same time I am humble because I know it only takes one punch to change a whole fight," Curran said. "You've got to have confidence but at the same time you have to be humble and respect all your opponents."
Respect is a tricky word because Curran knows he gets that from his fellow fighters and he gets it from the executives at Bellator, but perception sometimes rules the MMA spectrum. Right now, the perceived notion is that Curran is probably a top-five featherweight but may not be No. 1 in the world because of a fighter named Jose Aldo who currently competes in the UFC.
To Curran, none of it matters. He enjoys—like any fighter would—getting the accolades that come along with being a champion, but whether he's ranked No. 1 or No. 10, he knows what he can do inside the cage and that's all that truly matters.
"I worked my ass off to get where I'm at and I definitely proved I belong with the best," Curran stated. "I don't look at the rankings too much, it's cool to see, but it really doesn't phase me at all being in the top five or whatever. It's nice to know I'm getting recognition for the hard work I'm putting into the sport."
Curran will attempt to solidify his spot once again Thursday when he faces a very tough test in Russian striking machine Shahbulat Shamhalaev in the main event at Bellator 95.
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.