Pat Curran completed his unlikely Cinderella-story run through Bellator Fighting Championshipsâ€™ Season 2 Lightweight Tournament on Thursday, scoring a split decision victory over MMA veteran and 2009 Submission of the Year titleholder Toby Imada to win the tournament championship.
Curranâ€™s win headlined another great night of fights from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in South Florida, roughly 30 miles south of the high school that Curran represented in the state wrestling finals just four years ago.
On Thursday, with dozens of his friends and family looking on, the 22-year-old impressed the judges with an athletic takedown defense and a series of powerful blows to the head that opened two cuts around Imadaâ€™s right eye. With the win, Curran earned the Season 2 Championship and the right to fight reigning Bellator Lightweight Champion and 20-2 MMA star Eddie Alvarez
Alvarez, who watched the fight cageside with his son, Eddie Jr., called Curranâ€™s performance â€œtoughâ€ and â€œimpressive.â€
â€œThe guyâ€™s powerful and he hits hard,â€ Alvarez said as Curran (12-3) was presented with a check for $100,000. â€œIâ€™m looking forward to fighting him.â€
Curran, who was inspired to begin a career in MMA by his cousin, UFC, WEC and Strikeforce veteran Jeff Curran, said afterwards that Bellator â€œchanged my life.â€ It was his third consecutive upset victory along with a quarterfinal KO of Georges St.-Pierre training partner Mike Ricci and a semifinal decision win against UFC veteran and early tournament favorite Roger Huerta.
â€œWhat Pat Curran accomplished tonight is exactly what Bellator is all about,â€ said Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney. â€œHe proved to himself and to the world that he deserves this championship and he deserves a fight with Eddie Alvarez thanks to three straight outstanding wins against three very tough opponents.â€
Imada, who helped put Bellator on the map during its inaugural season with his now-famous inverted triangle choke submission of Jorge Masvidal, accepted the defeat graciously, congratulating Curran and saying â€œthatâ€™s what I get for leaving it up to the judges.â€
The night also featured an impressive statement from Megumi Fujii, the consensus No. 1-ranked female fighter in the world, who improved her pro MMA record to an impressive 20-0 with a third round TKO of Missouri-based jiu-jitsu specialist Sarah Schneider in the eveningâ€™s â€œFemale Showcase Fight.â€
Schneider turned in a gutsy performance to survive the first two rounds but Fujii took the fight to the ground early on in Round 3, moved quickly to full mount and unleashed a rapid-fire ground-and-pound that forced the stoppage at 1:58. It was Fujiiâ€™s first-ever TKO and she admitted afterwards that she was â€œvery surprisedâ€ not to have won via submission.
The win cemented Fujiiâ€™s position as the overwhelming favorite in Bellatorâ€™s upcoming Season 3 womenâ€™s tournament, despite the inclusion of a bevy of the worldâ€™s top 10 female fighters including 11-1 British tae-kwon-do black belt Rosi Sexton (the world’s No. 1-ranked 125 lbs. female), 12-5 Seattle submission artist Lisa Ward and 7-0 Southern California striker Jessica Pene.
â€œI will show my skills and I will be the champion,â€ Fujii told Bellator TV commentator Jimmy Smith after her fight, which also marked her first appearance on national television in the U.S.
In the eveningâ€™s first televised bout, a â€œHeavyweight Showcase Fight,â€ Seattle-area native Mike â€œ300â€ Hayes (12-3-1) overcame a 30-pound weight disadvantage to win a unanimous decision victory over former Arena Football League player Steve Banks (4-3). The southpaw Banks used his size to claim the center of the cage and control the fight during Round 1, but he began showing signs of serious fatigue early on in Round 2. Hayes used his superior conditioning to control the fight the rest of the way and earn his fourth straight victory.
Later, in a â€œBantamweight Feature Fight,â€ Philadelphia brawler Zack Makovsky (9-2) defeated local fan favorite and American Top Team product Eric Luke (4-3) with a crafty kimura submission at 4:28 into Round 2. With the win, Makovsky earned a spot in Bellatorâ€™s upcoming eight-man Season 3 Bantamweight Tournament.
The event also played host to four Local Feature Fights, a sampling of which will be aired at Bellator.com beginning this Sunday as part of Bellatorâ€™s ongoing â€œSunday Night Fightsâ€ promotion. The results of the local fights were:
- Brian Eckstein def. Mitchell Chamale via unanimous decision
- Moyses Gabin def. Chris Boffil via rear-naked choke submission (4:41)
- Sabah Homasi def. Frank Carrillo via TKO (13:36)
- Luis Palomino def. Jose Figueroa via unanimous decision
Fans who missed Thursday nightâ€™s action can watch all the best moments this weekend during special highlight shows on NBC, Telemundo and the cable network mun2. Check your local listings for exact dates and times.
Bellator returns to action next Thursday night from the Kansas City Power & Light District, where former NCAA wrestling champion and U.S. Olympian Ben Askren faces MMA rising star Dan Hornbuckle in the championship round of Bellatorâ€™s Season 2 Welterweight Tournament.