Although there have been bigger fights commercially in the 13-year history of Bellator MMA involving everything from retired stars making a comeback to novelty bouts involving the late Kimbo Slice, it's safe to say the promotion has never booked a fight more important than Saturday's 145-pound duel between Patricio "Pitbull" Freire and AJ McKee.
The stakes for this five-round fight, which headlines Bellator 263 from The Forum in Inglewood, California (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET), simply could not be any bigger.
Freire (32-4) will bring a seven-fight win streak into the bout as he looks to make his sixth consecutive defense of the featherweight title. In addition to the championship, the two fighters will be competing for the $1 million prize money awarded to the winner of the 16-man Bellator World Featherweight Grand Prix that began back in 2019. McKee (17-0) will also be looking to unseat Freire as Bellator's top pound-for-pound fighter
But if you look closer, there's even more at stake for McKee, not to mention the promotion at large, than meets the eye.
The 34-year-old Freire made his Bellator debut in just his 13th pro bout in 2010. The native of Brazil has gone on to become just the third Bellator fighter to win titles in two weight divisions and the second to do so simultaneously. Even more, Freire's first-round knockout of Michael Chandler in 2019 gave him largely undisputed status as the greatest fighter in the promotion's history.
Even though McKee has only been fighting professionally for six years, a victory over Freire on a stage this big would transfer to him all of the accolades mentioned above, including that mythical label of "face of the franchise," which has a profoundly deep meaning for Bellator and CEO Scott Coker.
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Throughout its existence, including the time before Coker took over the reins from Bjorn Rebney in 2014, Bellator has had a revolving identity. Originally known for its tournament format, the promotion found its greatest commercial success shortly after Coker's arrival through circus and carnival fights involving UFC castoffs.
In recent years, Coker and company have worked hard to redevelop Bellator's foundation as less of a landing pad for free agents who have previously built their name under rival banners -- although key acquisitions the likes of Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, Yoel Romero, Ryan Bader, Benson Henderson and Rory MacDonald have certainly filled that bill -- and more of a grassroots shift towards building fighters from the ground up.
The biggest example of that strategy is undoubtedly featherweight Aaron Pico, an internationally ranked wrestler and boxer as a youth, who signed an unprecedented contract with Bellator while still in high school in 2014. Three years later, Pico would make his Bellator debut at the age of 20 under huge fanfare being billed as the best prospect in the history of the sport.
But even though Pico (8-3), now 24, has shown enough promise and evolution throughout a recent four-fight win streak to suggest a future as a world champion is still in the cards, the native of California has struggled mightily to get there, not only losing his pro debut at New York's Madison Square Garden in just 24 seconds, but dropping consecutive fights via knockout in 2019.
In many ways, the 26-year-old McKee has the chance to be everything Bellator hoped Pico would become with a victory on Saturday.
"When we signed McKee from no fights to where he is today, he has grown into becoming an amazing fighter," Coker said during last month's Bellator 263 media teleconference. "And when McKee started this incredible 17-0 run, Pitbull was our champion back then. So you are talking about the O.G. versus the new guard, and let's see what happens."
Although his upbringing was anything but easy in Long Beach, California, McKee's maturation into a world class fighter was certainly helped by the mentoring of his father and trainer, Antonio. The elder McKee, who fought professionally as recently as 2019 under the Bellator banner at the age of 49, turned pro in 1999 and accumulated a record of 30-6-2 having fought for everyone from Dream and IFL to WSOF and even UFC, where he made his lone appearance as a 40-year-old rookie in 2011.
The younger McKee was just three days removed from his 20th birthday when he won his pro debut at Bellator 136 in 2015. Since then, McKee has gone on to set Bellator records for consecutive wins (17) and specific featherweight marks for submissions (6) and stoppage wins (12).
The brash McKee has also been publicly calling out Freire long before "Pitbull," or most hard-core MMA fans for that matter, ever really knew he existed.
"This is something I have dreamed of the entire time. I have been calling Pitbull's name since the first time I stepped in that cage," McKee said. "He has ignored me and acted like he don't know who I am but at the end of the day, there is nowhere else to run or hide. He has to look me in the eyes and we will get down to the nitty gritty."
While both fighters have been impressive in dispatching three opponents en route to the Grand Prix final, no one has been more dominant than McKee. Along with a third-round submission of Derek Campos, McKee scored a pair of lightning quick finishes that included an eight-second knockout of Georgi Karakhanyan and a 71-second submission of Darrion Caldwell.
"Everybody says I haven't been tested and I'll agree, I haven't been. But I promise you guys, the day I do get tested, you're going to see a different animal come out," McKee said. "If that's the stink [Freire] wants to draw then, hey, that's for us to go in there and tangle with."
The beauty of Freire and McKee facing off in the final for the promotion is that Bellator brass did nothing to manipulate the brackets to make sure this matchup had a greater chance of taking place. In a unique spin back in 2019, Coker concocted a selection show in which the fighters themselves were able to choose between either picking their first-round opponent for the 16-man field or deciding to choose the date of their first fight.
Asked if a Freire-McKee final was best for business, Coker could only smile.
"This is the fight that everybody wanted to see," Coker said. "We had so many great athletes in this division that we went through this lottery system and then we had this great event where the fighters picked. But at the end of the day, I really had it in my heart where I was hoping it would be McKee and Pitbull at the end."
Although Freire enters as a slight betting favorite against McKee, according to William Hill Sportsbook, as the more accomplished fighter and defending champion, McKee has already decided what his next move will be should he capture the featherweight title, the tournament championship, the $1 million prize money and the status of Bellator MMA's greatest fighter with a victory on Saturday.
"I want to run it back for the second belt [Freire's lightweight title], as well, to solidify that stamp on it," McKee said. "Before Conor [McGregor] did being the champ champ, these are all things I said I was going to do and things I still plan on doing. Speaking into fruition and now it's actually coming to within the reach and being able to actually grasp everything and bring it all together, I'm ready. It's all here. I have been through the trials and tribulations and I'm hungry again. I have a passion for what I do. It's going to be fun."