Bellator 263: Will the Next Generation Arrive in Pitbull vs. McKee?

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Patricio Pitbull and A.J, McKee, Bellator 263 weigh-in
Patricio Pitbull and A.J. McKee, Bellator 263 ceremonial Weigh-In Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

Bellator featherweight champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire has already secured his legacy, but he now faces the best prospect of the last decade in AJ McKee in the Grand Prix Final at Bellator 263.

To say that Patricio “Pitbull” Freire has been on a great run in the last four years is an understatement.  He goes into Saturday’s contest on a seven fight win-streak that has seen him become a simultaneous two-division champion and dispatch foes like Michael Chandler, Juan Archuleta, Emmanuel Sanchez, Daniel Straus, and Daniel Wiechel.  He is widely considered the best current fighter to have never competed in the UFC and is Bellator’s all-time leader in numerous categories including championship victories, victories overall, finishes, and more.

Saturday’s contest in many respects is one of the most pivotal of his career.  After achieving everything there is to have achieved in Bellator, a win over a young prospect like McKee would assert that not only is he the best of an era, but that he also is still ahead of the upcoming one.  Though he has frequently expressed his content with his current contract in Bellator, a tournament victory would essentially be a sweep of the elite in his weight classes and a possible move to the UFC could be his only avenue to add to an already impressive resume.

AJ McKee, no exaggeration, may be the most talented prospect the sport has seen since Jon Jones became a UFC champion at 23 years old over a decade ago.  Son of UFC and IFL veteran Antonio McKee (who is also his coach), McKee has spent his entire life training all facets of mixed martial arts and was signed by Bellator in 2015 before his first professional fight. He was developed from the beginning, building his 17-0 record solely inside the promotion and slowly facing increasingly difficult competition as his career progressed.

Now 26 years old, “The Mercenary” has recently added former champions such as Darrion Caldwell and Pat Curran and veterans such as Derek Campos, Georgi Karakhanyan and John Macapa to his resume.  Most importantly, he has been able to dispatch opponents with style as he holds the record for fastest knockout in Bellator history with his stoppage of Karakhanyan and has a Submission of the Year candidate with his modified guillotine finish of Caldwell.  Talented inside the cage, and a natural at self-promotion outside of it, his popularity could skyrocket should he dispatch “Pitbull” in devastating fashion to announce himself as the next big thing in the sport.

Stylistically, Freire will have to deal with the speed and range of McKee in the center of the cage.  “Pitbull” is one of the best in the lighter weight classes at controlling distance, but he faces an unorthodox striker and much taller and longer opponent in McKee.  Freire’s best course of action is to counter with volume each time McKee tries to find his distance with single punches or kicks, thus making him more hesitant to settle into his combinations as the fight goes on.  Though Freire is a great grappler in his own right, he should avoid getting into exchanges on the mat as McKee’s active guard will make it difficult to set up positions for strikes and submissions.  For McKee, maintaining the fight at long range and avoiding time in the pocket will be key as Freire’s power will be neutralized if he can keep him at a distance for the majority of the fight.

A victory for Freire would essentially be a sweep of the Bellator roster at featherweight and many would argue he has nothing more to prove in the promotion when surveying the current list of names he has not faced.  While he is still under contract and is yet to defend his lightweight title, most argue he would be competing more against himself than against any opponent to remain in Bellator.  McKee has already said he expects a pair of fights with Freire, with a win at featherweight, and a move up to take his title at lightweight as well would firmly assert himself as the promotion’s best at 145 and 155 pounds.  While talented prospects such as Adam Borics and Jay Jay Wilson may be working their way towards him, McKee has also mentioned that a shot at beating the names in the UFC is the best way to add to his legacy after more than half a decade in Bellator.

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