By Scott King
5:14 PM CDT, March 13, 2014
It's one thing for a mixed martial arts athlete to fight another person trying to knock him into next week. It's another to battle his opponent and depression at the same time.
Former Bellator featherweight champ Pat Curran, who trains in Crystal Lake, Ill., has fought his way back from his "lowest point" and will look to regain the title Friday at the Horseshoe Casino. The 26-year-old will face Daniel Straus in a highly anticipated rematch.
Curran spoke to RedEye about battling depression, winning titles and why he loves MMA.
What made you want to pursue MMA?
I started MMA when I [had] just turned 20. The main reason, the only reason, was because of my cousin Jeff [Curran]. He started 16 years ago and he's one of the pioneers of the sport. He's been around a long time. He was the whole reason I started pursuing it.
He found out I was wrestling in high school, so when I came up for his wedding in Island Lake, he sat me down, started talking a little bit and he showed me some of the footage from his fights. I was hooked. I had never seen anything like it. Just two guys going at it, beating the crap out of each other.
There was just something to it. I was really intrigued by it. A couple years go by and I decided I didn't want to do it. I was going to school to be a firefighter down in Florida, and my mom was really pushing me to do that.
Then the UFC came down to the Seminole Hard Rock, 20 minutes away from where I lived, and my cousin gave me and my dad two tickets to the show. After that night, and I remember it exactly, it was Sam Stout vs Spencer Fisher, their second fight. It was a hell of a fight. The next day I left Florida to come up to Chicago, to Crystal Lake, to start training.
What's it like winning the title for the first time?
Really, it's unexplainable. You put so much hard work into your fight. The stress, the anxiety, everything leading up to that fight. When I won it for the first time, it was a dream come true. My second title fight, the first one I lost. So I got close, got a taste of it, and had to go back through the wringer again and do a whole new tournament. Got my second title shot, won it and it was unbelievable. Dream come true, I was on cloud nine, there's no other feeling like it in the world.
How much tougher is it fighting while battling ADHD?
You know, all fighters have their own issues, and not just fighters, people in general. The ADD is not so much an issue, that's just what causing my problems because it was building up a lot of anxiety inside. And then the anxiety eventually turns into depression.
It started back when I was just a kid, when I was in middle school. It just really adds up over time, especially with life as a fighter. There's a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety leading into a fight. I've never stepped into a cage before in front of thousands of people and knowing that you're going to be on television in front of millions, it's a lot of pressure. Especially when you have all the cameras and lights shining on you.
It's something I had to deal with and recently just found out and am taking the right actions to correct it. The last couple months have been great. There's definitely been a turnaround since I sought help and started moving in the right direction.
That's why this fight is going to be a completely different fight from my last time. I was at the lowest [point] of my depression and it really affected my training camp, my training, my [most recent] fight. I wasn't myself in that fight. It wasn't just my fighting in general. I was losing friends, wasn't getting along with my head coach and my cousin Jeff and my team.
So I was definitely alone and in a dark place. But moving forward, I got past that. Now we're onto the third fight. I'm going to show everyone this is the new Pat Curran. I'm going to go out there and dominate him.
What measures did you take to get help?
My depression got to an all-time low. Especially after my last fight. I went to my cousin Jeff and my manager Brian. They recommended I go see a sports psychologist. I saw him a couple times. ... He helped me work through some of the issues.
He also got me on medication for anxiety and depression, Lexapro 10 mg a day. And that really, really turned me around, 180. I feel great from it. ... The skies are clearing. Actually notice colors are a little brighter. It definitely, definitely helped out a lot. I have no problem admitting it, because it's just the cards I'm dealt with. I just have to live my life and be happy.
Do you think wrestling is still the most important tool you can have in MMA?
Yes. Oh absolutely. Especially as a fighter coming up, or if you want to pursue fighting as a career, [I] definitely recommend getting into wrestling at an early age. Not even at an early age so much, just in general.
Get a few years, three, four or five years' experience with wrestling and that's your foundation, that's your basis for mixed martial arts. I only say that because I started with wrestling and when I switched over to MMA, I had a solid foundation. I was a good scrambler, I had a good base for Jiu Jitsu, I picked up the ground game really quick, and that helps. Wrestling taught me how to be mentally tough, how to push myself past my limits, how to cut weight.
What are Straus' best attributes and how are you going to handle them?
Straus, he is a very well-rounded fighter. He has a very good gas tank. So his conditioning is very [good]. He's strong, good wrestling, he likes to mix it up a lot. So it's really hard to get timing down and see what he's going to do because he's kind of all over the place.
He has a long reach too. But I'm not too worried about it. I've been thinking a lot about the fight, but I'm not overthinking it, and everything that he has to offer, especially in our last fight, I'm not worried. I'm more confident than ever. I know I'm a better fighter than I was my last fight, so I'm not too worried about it at all [The two first fought in November at Bellator 106.]
Are you happy with the state of MMA? Are there a lot of opportunities for fighters now?
Absolutely. Absolutely. The sport still isn't where it should be, but it's up and coming. It's only getting bigger and bigger every week, every month. It's definitely growing, getting more fans every day.
Especially now with UFC and Bellator being the two main shows, now fighters have the option to negotiate between [them] and it gives the fighters the opportunity to make more money. And that's what we need as fighters. When you look at boxers in boxing, they make millions. They make a lot more than MMA fighters. It just doesn't sit well, it' not fair. MMA fighters, we're very strict athletes and we're finally getting taken seriously. Definitely feel like we can be underpaid.
Do you follow any Chicago teams?
I follow the Blackhawks. Last season I got a chance to shoot the puck [between periods during a game] and made it, the season that they [most recently] won. I brought two of my friends with. They gave us free seats.
I was able to go down on the ice, they gave me a free jacket. I was able to practice in back with the hockey stick and puck. I'm from Florida, I never played hockey, so first time handling a hockey stick. It was a hell of an experience. Just walking out on the ice and looking around, seeing the fans and seeing how big of a stadium that is. It was an unreal experience.
Scott King is a RedEye special contributor.
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