Future Contenders: Curran No. 1

Pat Curran is the featherweight champ of Bellator, but he could someday challenge for the UFC belt. Dave Mandel/www.sherdog.com


Jose Aldo has a chance to lock up the UFC featherweight title for a very long time. He is young, extremely talented, lacks an obvious weakness and can finish fights in a variety of ways.

About the only thing standing in the way of an Aldo dynasty in the 145-pound class is the lengthy list of intriguing, and mostly very young, contenders behind him in the division.

In fact, the last weight class we examine in this series may have the deepest pool of future challengers. None have been as impressive as Aldo, but few fighters have ever performed on that level. Many of the fighters are not yet in the UFC, either, but expect that to change in the next few years as the organization works to build the best 145-pound class in the world.

Bellator featherweight champion Pat Curran fits in that category. He has been a juggernaut since returning to his featherweight roots following a lightweight title loss to Eddie Alvarez in April 2011. Not that he was a slouch at lightweight. Curran had rolled through the Bellator lightweight tournament to earn that shot. Featherweight, however, is where Curran's future is extremely bright.

The 24-year-old had been progressing along well early in his career, but his past two fights truly showed not only how great Curran can be, but how good he is right now.

Curran pulled off a highlight-reel head kick knockout of Marlon Sandro in the featherweight tournament final in August 2011. The spectacular finish was shown over and over again, but what has really propelled Curran's meteoric rise up the rankings was his follow-up performance, a knockout of Joe Warren to capture the Bellator featherweight belt in March.

The finishes have given opponents even more to think about against Curran, who began his career as more of a grappler. He was a solid wrestler in high school and began training jiu-jitsu with his cousin Jeff Curran, a former WEC title challenger, when he was just 17.

The emergence of Curran's all-around game will make him an immediate contender as soon as he inevitably signs with the UFC. For now, he needs to stay on track by continuing to defend the belt for as long as he fights under the Bellator banner. That starts with his first title defense on Aug. 24 against another very talented young fighter, Patricio Freire.

Regardless of the outcome of that fight, Curran sits atop the ESPN Insider list of "Future Contenders" in the featherweight division. The "Future Contenders" series focuses on fighters in every weight class who have the best chance to work their way into a UFC title shot down the road. Eligible fighters are those who:

1. Have not held a UFC belt in the weight class
2. Have not fought previously for a UFC title in the weight class

Fighters need not currently be in the UFC to qualify, but they must be active. Also, holding a title or having fought for a title in another fight league does not disqualify a fighter.

Here are other prospects for the featherweight division: