Pat Curran's cousin, Jeff Curran, had long been one of the best fighters in the world, competing in both the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting organization as well as the UFC.

He saw his cousin defeating some of the world's elite mixed martial arts fighters and thought to himself, "I could do that."

Getting into the cage, though, was an entirely different story. 

"In the beginning, it was kind of [intimidating]," Pat Curran said. "I didn't know anything about the sport, other than what I knew from watching on TV. I saw guys getting knocked out left and right, sometimes turned into a bloody mess, and it was like, 'Whoa.' It could get to you.

"It took years of experience and getting my [expletive] kicked every day before I finally got it figured out."

Pat Curran has now become one of the world's elite fighters. He's the Bellator featherweight champion and is generally regarded as one of the world's top-five 145-pounders.

He's 18-4 and has wins over the likes of Marlon Sandro, Patricio Freire, Roger Huerta and Mike Ricci, among others.

On Thursday, he'll defend his title against Shahbulat Shamhalaev in the main event of Bellator 95 on Spike TV in Atlantic City, N.J.

If he's at the top – and despite his title and lofty ranking, he insists he's still learning – it was a decidedly rocky road. Serving as a human punching bag for two of the world's best fighters isn't exactly most folks' idea of a pleasant job experience.

But Curran dueled with his cousin and Bart Palaszewski day after day, taking poundings as he learned the nuances of the business.

"They just beat me up the first couple of years," he said. "I mean, every time we sparred, I was just beaten up. I mean, beaten up. I told myself that I'd proven I could take any punch and it is really the case. I had conditioned my body over the years to taking the punishment and continuing to fight."

He saw progress coming slowly, and the one thing that Pat Curran had going for him was that he was not in a rush. He wanted to learn, and wanted to become an elite fighter.

What he didn't want to do was take shortcuts and trick himself into thinking he was better than he was. So, as a result, he accepted the punishment he was taking as part of the job and slowly, but surely, began to get better.

Eventually, it got to the point where he was giving as good, if not better, than he was taking.

He began with a base of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but it is the improvement in his striking that has helped him to become one of the world's finest featherweights.

He's quickly becoming one of the faces of the Bellator promotion. The fight with Shamalaev figures to be a stand-up battle that should attract plenty of attention.

Curran has become one of Bellator's biggest boosters. While it's a distant second to the UFC in the MMA pecking order, he's convinced that the promotion is about to rise to new heights.

Over the last several years, it got little national exposure. Switching to Spike and its nearly 100 million television homes in January has made a difference.

Bellator's number seems to be about 750,000 average viewers each week, not a bad figure but certainly nothing overwhelming. Curran, though, believes it's only a matter of time before the rest of the country catches on to the Bellator story.

Strikeforce formerly held the spot of the unofficial No. 2 promotion behind the UFC. It was undone by a variety of reasons, not the least of which was its fighters openly pining to compete in the UFC.

Other than lightweight Eddie Alvarez, Bellator hasn't had that kind of public fissure, and Curran believes dramatic growth is close at hand.

"I know 100 percent that Bellator is going to explode," he said. "We've got the talent. We've got the main stage now. Our fighters are incredible and we're putting on great shows week after week.

"Look at what UFC is doing [cutting fighters]. They're letting guys go left and right. Bellator is a new, up-and-coming organization. As a fighter, why wouldn't I want to be a part of that? ... We're really on the edge of the place where we're going to explode and everyone will be talking about us."

Look for everyone to be talking about Curran after his bout with Shamalaev. For a guy who spent years being pummeled while learning the game, it's a fresh change to become the guy handing out the beatings.

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