After a stunning first-round submission of two-division champion Patricio "Pitbull" Freire on Saturday in the finals of the Bellator MMA Featherweight World Grand Prix, AJ McKee appeared to seize the mantle as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the promotion.
McKee (18-0), who took home a win bonus of $1 million following his fourth victory in the tournament, lived up to his bright potential -- and then some -- with such a dominant performance.
Let's take a closer look at the biggest takeaways from an exciting Bellator 263 inside The Forum in Inglewood, California.
1. Crown him: AJ McKee is who he said he was
The paraphrasing of former NFL head coach Dennis Green's infamous post-game rant couldn't be more apropos in this instance as the 26-year-old McKee called his shot in reference to his future greatness and backed it up in as eye-opening a way as possible. The backstory of McKee could fit a Hollywood script as he grew up under difficult circumstances not too far from the site of his star-making victory in Long Beach, yet he was groomed from the very beginning for greatness. His father/trainer Antonio was a pioneering MMA fighter and trainer, which allowed AJ to grow up in gyms watching the likes of Tito Ortiz and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson ply their craft. At age 12, McKee claims he wrote himself a check for $1 million, which turned out 14 years later to be the exact prize money given to the winner of the Featherweight World Grand Prix he ran through with relative ease. McKee also began calling out Freire shortly after his pro debut, which came under the Bellator banner back in 2015. Six years later, with a poise and confidence that belies his experience, McKee essentially put the great Pitbull to sleep using his opponent's own finishing move of choice -- a guillotine choke. Let's face it, McKee is a phenom. He only raised his already bright ceiling of potential by defeating Bellator's most decorated champion in a way no one else has done to date.
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2. It's hard to understate just how big this night was for Bellator
Somewhere inside The Forum, Bellator CEO Scott Coker had to be smiling that his investment in McKee created such a handsome return. Although Coker wasn't around when the promotion was founded in 2008, his arrival in 2014 marked a change in direction for Bellator's strategy. Creating an identity took time as Bellator quickly dropped its tournament format and initially found success under Coker by leaning on circus fights involving the likes of the late Kimbo Slice and a number of aging UFC washouts to garner big ratings. But Coker also began a very quiet grassroots campaign with hopes of creating future stars entirely within his own promotion. Young fighters were heavily recruited at the developmental stage, including uber prospect Aaron Pico who was signed while still in high school. McKee had just turned 20 when he made his own Bellator debut and the victory over Freire turned out to be the ultimate culmination of that building from the inside out model Coker sought to create. Not only does McKee now hold Bellator records for most consecutive wins, he moved into a tie with Freire for most finishes and is just two more wins behind Pitbull for the top spot. More importantly, Coker can now publicly make the claim that he just might promote the best fighter in the world at 145 pounds. Sure, the same transfer of power within the promotion would still have taken place had McKee won by boring decision. Yet the fact that he did so in such highlight-reel fashion gave Coker a must-see attraction moving forward.
3. This one felt a lot like Conor McGregor-Jose Aldo from 2015
Most MMA pundits had trouble finding the perfect comparison throughout the sport's history for which fight McKee-Pitbull best resembled. Bellator analyst "Big" John McCarthy needed to go outside the cage to make a comparison during Saturday's broadcast when he brought up the 1964 heavyweight boxing title bout between Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, against Sonny Liston. It turns out, the abrupt and spectacular nature of McKee's win was much more comparable to what McGregor did at UFC 196 when he unified the promotion's 145-pound title by knocking out Jose Aldo in just 13 seconds to end the Brazilian's nearly decade-long reign atop the division. The brash McGregor, a native of Ireland, has a persona that's anything like McKee's, which fails to make the comparison perfect. But Freire, like Aldo a native of Brazil, was almost a perfect match for the kind of reverence and dominance that Aldo brought with him into that fight. McGregor's shocking victory took him from the status of rising star and catapulted him, almost overnight, into global superstardom. McKee's situation is certainly muted in comparison yet it's hard to ignore the feeling that a star was born right before our eyes given the relative ease in how he dispatched such a battle-tested foe at the peak of his physical and mental prime.
4. It's very possible we see McKee and Freire tangle again
As the two most talented fighters the promotion has ever seen, it's only natural to imagine a return date would eventually be booked, especially considering how little we actually learned about how their styles contrast because the fight lasted just 117 seconds. Freire, historically, has also grown from his defeats in exponential fashion not only by redeeming them in most cases (see Pat Curran and Daniel Strauss), but by closing up any holes in his game that were exposed. But a rematch could come even quicker than expected should Coker allow McKee to carry out his originally intended plan of defeating Freire for his featherweight title and then moving up 10 pounds to lightweight and challenging Pitbull for that belt too. Whether or not Coker allows for it might depend upon whether Freire follows his own goal, which he stated before the fight, of cutting down to 135 pounds in hopes of becoming Bellator's first three-division champion by challenging new bantamweight king Sergio Pettis.
5. The Dagestan invasion is taking Bellator by storm
The Bellator 263 undercard proved to be an exciting one on Saturday, mostly due to the explosive efforts of four Russian fighters with Dagestan roots, all who were trained by the American Kickboxing Academy duo of head coach Javier Mendez and former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. After retiring earlier this year with a 29-0 record, Nurmagomedov has been seemingly just as perfect as a coach. "The Eagle" went 4-0 on this night, highlighted by his first cousin, lightweight Usman Nurmagomedov, scoring a vicious first-round TKO against Manny Muro via knee to the body. Islam Mamedov, Gadzhi Rabadanov and Khasan Magomedsharipov (the brother of UFC featherweight Zabit) were just as impressive in their own ways as Coker continues to fill out his roster with dominant European fighters on the rise. Given the success of fellow Russian-based fighters who recently claimed Bellator titles -- including light heavyweight Vadim Nemkov and welterweight Yaroslav Amosov – it's safe to say the promotion has found a pipeline to its future.