In the annals of sport’s history, there are pioneers and there are champions – often, those two titles are not mutually exclusive.
Take, for instance, NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino.
The Pennsylvania high school phenom, who blew the doors off Pittsburgh University in the early 80’s, went on to become the first-round selection of the Miami Dolphins in 1983. In his first year, he was named to the Pro Bowl and earned Rookie of the Year honors. In his second, he broke passing records left and right, revolutionizing the quarterback position in the process, and earning his first trip to the Super Bowl.
Marino lost Super Bowl XIX to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49’ers. That would be his lone trip to the championship game, and he would never get the honor of holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy. He retired in 1999 as one of the greatest players to never become a champion, and he still to this day is the quarterback most referenced by the gunslingers of the modern day NFL.
Despite never being a champion, Marino left an indelible mark on the sport of football – a mark that will surely be felt for generations to come.
A pioneer, but never a champion.
Enter mixed martial arts’ Jeff Curran.
Over his illustrious 17-year career, the Illinois BJJ powerhouse has long been considered one of the true pioneers of MMA. Despite never having won a major organizational championship, “Big Frog” has spent the majority of his career fighting the best of the best, and along the way, helping to change the landscape of professional MMA from perceived one-dimensional thuggery to the beautiful all-encompassing art it has become today.
For the recently retired Curran, that’s just fine with him.
“I just wanted to be Royce Gracie,” Curran recalled to MMAweekly.com.
“That’s basically what it comes down to; I was a jiu-jitsu fanatic and I just wanted to be like him. I wanted that challenge. The first time I got to fight, I was in a bar in an eight-man amateur tournament and that was something else.”
Nothing like jumping into the business of fist fighting head first…
“I mean, ignorance is bliss,” he recounted. “You don’t know any better. I just wanted to go out there and kick this guy’s ass. He doesn’t know jiu-jitsu like me. And there’s some truth to that; for a long time it was very rare that I come across anybody fighting in MMA that could handle a technical ground game.”
As opponents scrambled to match the skills of specialty fighters like Curran, this afforded Big Frog the chance to work on other aspects of his game. After all, he earned his black belt under the world-renowned Pedro Sauer after 12 years of arduous training, and there was little competition that could be found to challenge the submission expert on the ground.
Having seen the future of fighting, despite the fact that it was still referred to as No Holds Barred or NHB, Curran absorbed all aspects of MMA. In the process, he positioned himself as one of the first true mixed martial artists competing at the time.
“Yeah, I’ll definitely get to go down on that list as one of the pioneers, I think,” said Curran. “I think Pat Miletich is one of the first guys that I saw where I was, like, ‘Okay, this is how you put it all together. This is somebody that has a grappling game, has a wrestling game, and has a kickboxing game.’
“I was already Thai boxing at this point, and I probably wasn’t wrestling as much as I should have been then. I was kind of putting together, that, ‘Hey! We need to be well-rounded like Bruce Lee‘s mentality.’ That was kind of what was going through everyone’s head.”
Starting his professional career in 1997, Curran competed in an age where athletic commissions were non-existent, or at the very least, lax. This was especially true in the Midwest, where organizations were popping up left and right as promoters scrambled to earn a dollar off this new sport commonly referred to as cage fighting.
For the martial artist inside Curran, these were trying times. But looking back, those times as a grinder are also, ironically, what he finds most appealing when recounting his lengthy career.
“I’m just proud, I guess, to have gone through that and still took an interest in it,” he said.
“Because a lot of those moments were pretty big turnoffs for a lot of people. I got a lot of students that would follow me everywhere and they wanted to be fighters and when they saw how it actually was they were scared away from it. Nowadays, we wouldn’t attract the same quality of fighter if you had to see what fighters went through then.”
He points to his cousin, current Bellator featherweight champion Pat, who made his professional debut in 2008 – more than a decade after his then-established cousin, Jeff.
“My cousin, Pat, for example; he watched a bunch of old fight footage. He watched a bunch of old tape from my old days and he was not too sold on it. He thought it was cool, but three years later I get him tickets to a UFC, and he says, ‘Yeah, I can see myself doing this.’
“Yeah, of course you can. You see yourself here, but you don’t see yourself in the smaller shows. My cousin fought for maybe a year and a half — maybe two years — on the local level. And he even got a fight in Europe and in Virginia and out and about, but even he was getting antsy. He was like, ‘Something’s gotta happen or I’ll be done.’ I mean, people think differently than we did back then.”
Those early days of MMA are nothing to scoff at.
As John McCain was running his smear campaign, calling the sport “human cockfighting” in the late 90’s, MMA was pulled off television and sent into the dark ages. Fans formed a grass roots movement around their respective states to keep the sport thriving.
Nobody was more familiar with this scene than Curran. Having fought for Midwest promotions Hook ‘N Shoot, Ironheart Crown, King of the Cage and other regional promotions, Curran traveled the globe competing in every show imaginable, and often under a myriad of hilarious, almost unbelievable, circumstances.
“We were real roughneck, man. We were behind the times,” he said with a chuckle.
“I remember showing up to a fight one time, I was about 145 pounds and I was supposed to fight some guy — I don’t know who it was — so we drove six-and-a-half hours,” he recalled about a fight in the late 90’s in southern Indiana.
“I was supposed to get paid like $500 for the fight and I got out there and they were all like, ‘the opponent has been changed, you’re fighting this guy instead.’ I’m like, ‘whatever.’ I go out and I hit him early and he buckles. I tackled him to the ground and I choked him out — it was, like, 40 seconds.
“So they tell me, ‘We can’t pay you the $500 because the fight went so fast.’ And this was in a totally tagged outbuilding, had a bunch of graffiti, was just tagged out with a bunch of ghetto logos everywhere, fluorescence, everything.
“They pay me $45 in gas money — it was almost a seven-hour drive. I had two carloads of people that all bought tickets. They gave me $45 and a T-shirt and I was like, ‘Really?!’ I didn’t care. I was just happy I choked this guy so quick.
“So we jumped in the car and they put us up in this hotel that was condemned. They knew someone who owned the hotel, but it was closed down. So they had no towel service or blanket service. They said bring your own pillows, bring your own blankets, the hotel is basically closed. They basically had a couple of doors unlocked for us and we got to stay in this condemned hotel. And everybody thought it was the coolest thing. There was like six people per bed, just kind of stacked up. I was just stupid. Nobody knew any better.”
These stories are not uncommon, said the Crystal Lake native. With over 50 professional fights to his credit, and countless students trained under him at Team Curran, the grizzled vet has a treasure trove of historical MMA insanity that fans should be well aware of if they are going to give the fighters, and the sport’s history, their proper due.
“You show up to a parking lot and there’d be a guy handing out flyers at the fight saying this is where the fight is at. I’d be like, ‘I thought the fight was here.’ And he’d say, ‘no, we’re just trying to avoid the cops.’
“It was like a race. You’re showing up to different locations and they’re giving you flyers to different locations. We are all just racing to get there. Crazy, man.”
Curran tells a story about how he once fought for a regional belt at some local Midwest promotion. That night, Curran defeated the organizational champion. Not only did he never receive his fight purse for that particular fight, he didn’t even receive his championship belt due to the fact that the promotion was broke and on the verge of being out of business.
Not the end of the world, to be sure, but it definitely highlights the finer points of MMA in its infancy.
Not only were condemned hotel rooms, $45 fight purses and free t-shirts a part of the landscape; so were fight-day rule meetings in which the fighters discussed the more nuanced details of their upcoming bouts.
“I remember having rule meetings where everyone was arguing about rules,” he said.
“Like, should we do 20 minutes straight or do two 10-minute rounds or three five-minute rounds? One place was like, ‘Do you want to allow groin strikes or do you not want to allow groin strikes?’ Those are the types of arguments that were happening.”
MMA in the late 90’s/early millennium was something special… the Wild West days of the sport.
So what kept Curran plugging through? What kept this undersized Midwestern kid from quitting altogether? Especially since, at this particular time, not the UFC not what it is today, it didn’t even have a weight class for anybody under 155 pounds; the weight that Curran fought in for the majority of his career.
“The same thing that carries me through to this day, I never really fought to get rich” said Big Frog.
“I fight to represent my martial arts and I like fighting for the honor of my team. Those sorts of things weigh heavy for me.”
As the fighting chapter of his life narrative comes to a close, Curran shifts his focus to his team in Crystal Lake, Ill., Team Curran. Over the years, the Midwest gym has become a staple in the regional landscape, producing quality fighters on a regular basis.
However, as the current landscape of MMA changes, and teams become less familial and more self-serving, Curran worries that perhaps some of the things that once made this sport and art so great is being lost.
“Yeah, I think it’s headed that way,” said Curran when asked if the tenets of honor and loyalty are being lost on the current generation of fighters.
“If the coaches, as a whole, don’t expect their fighters to be martial artists, I think that’s what will happen. There’s too much jumping around. There’s too much lack of loyalty. You’ll see a fighter go from one coach to the next, one team to the next. When you start doing that, the loyalty mindset goes away and nobody really cares about anybody unless they’re making money.
“I know because people call me. People from other teams want to join my team and sometimes I have to say, ‘You know, I don’t think it’s a good fit.’ I like being built from the ground up.”
He continued, “I like dealing with fighters who deserve a good coach and need a good coach; someone like Ronnie Mann, who was in the U.K. and needs and wants a leader. He’s a martial artist, he’s respectful, and he’s in circumstance where he lost his coach, Shawn Tompkins. Shawn was a great friend of mine. I considered him a brother. When (Ronnie) lost Shawn, I was like, of course I can fill that void for you. It’s got a sense of purpose.”
So how does Curran manage that sense of loyalty and honor at his own gym?
“It’s not easy. It’ll unravel if you let it. People always have their opinions on how things need to be and you really just need to hold your course and make sure that the instructors and the staff that I have, that everybody holds the same standard.”
Over his career, you would be hard-pressed finding a fighter with a more extensive resume than Curran. Not only did he compete in the aforementioned regional shows that shaped the MMA landscape during its formative years, Curran is also one of the select group of MMA pioneers who competed in the big-four of MMA promotions: Pride FC, UFC, Strikeforce, and the WEC.
If you are feeling froggy, you can add Bellator and the IFL to that list as well.
But there is one company he loved more than any other. The place where lighter weight fighters like Curran had a home: the WEC.
“I love fighting locally,” stated the 36-year-old. “I love fighting for the XFO. Even though I owned it, I separated myself just like Ray Sefo does with the World Series of Fighting. You separate yourself from those duties and you fight. I always fought good talent on my shows, so I liked that. I like to be a part of something bigger than just fighting for a paycheck.
“But, dude, WEC was the best. I was so sad when they closed. Even when the UFC took it over, I was kind of like, ‘Man, we had something special here.’ With the WEC, it felt like our own little home for the smaller guys.”
Ten states, 17 years, 3 countries, 36 wins, 26 promotions, and a handful of other numbers make up Jeff Curran’s career. When asked if there was anyone whom he would have liked to compete against, Curran paused, and proclaimed, “As far as fighting anyone that I didn’t get to — no, nobody comes to mind. I pretty much fought everyone.”
He fought everyone. He fought everywhere. He fought on the ground, and he fought on the feet. He fought for the fans, and he fought for legacy, tradition and honor. He fought for no money. And he fought for championship belts that he never would receive. He fought for a non-existent TV audience, and he fought in a weight class where nothing was ever promised. He fought for himself, his family, and for future fighters everywhere.
He fought for $45 and a t-shirt.
(Follow @RyanMcKinnell on Twitter)
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