Bellator champ-champ Patricio Freire facing ultimate challenge in A.J. McKee

·Combat columnist
·4 min read

Eric Albarracin scoffed at the simple premise of the question: Would Patricio “Pitbull” Freire be the best featherweight in the world if he wins the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix on Saturday in Inglewood, California, by defeating unbeaten challenger A.J. McKee.

The question, in the veteran trainer’s opinion, was phrased incorrectly.

“Would he be the best featherweight in the world?” Albarracin asked, disdain in his voice. “Come on, man. He’s already the best fighter in the world.”

Freire will defend his featherweight championship Saturday (10 p.m. ET, Showtime) at The Forum against the 17-0 McKee in the biggest fight in Bellator history. Freire is the Bellator GOAT, given his 10-2 record in title fights, championships in two divisions, 23 finishes in 32 victories and his long reign at the top.

Freire is ranked seventh pound-for-pound by Yahoo Sports and ninth by MMA Fighting. Neither MMA Junkie nor ESPN rank him in their pound-for-pound Top 10.

Part of that has to do with UFC versus Bellator: The UFC is clearly the world’s No. 1 MMA promotion with the largest number of elite fighters on its roster. It draws the best television ratings, sells the most tickets and does the best pay-per-view numbers.

So if you’re outside of the UFC, as Freire has been for his whole career, you’re starting behind the eight ball to begin with. Freire and Albarracin, though, aren’t worried about outside opinions.

“There is no debate,” Freire says of his status. “Look at what I’ve done compared to everyone else.”

He’s held the Bellator featherweight title on three occasions, the most recent beginning in 2017 when he choked out Daniel Straus in the second round to win their personal series 3-1. Since then, he’s defeated Emmanuel Sanchez twice, Michael Chandler, Daniel Weichel, Juan Archuleta and Pedro Carvalho.

Inglewood, CA - July 22: Champion Patricio
Champion Patricio "Pitbull" Freire during the Bellator 263 open workout at The Forum in Inglewood, Thursday, July 22, 2021. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

He’s a threat on his feet and on the ground, and has a strong gas tank that enables him to go deep into fights with pace.

But in McKee, he’ll be facing a younger, and perhaps hungrier foe. It’s his ultimate challenge, at least in the featherweight division.

“Trust me when I tell you, he’s never seen anyone like me,” McKee said.

Perhaps, but it’s fair to say that McKee has never seen anyone like Freire, either. And Freire has plenty of motivation to win on Saturday, and not just because of the talk coming from McKee and his father/trainer, Antonio McKee.

Freire is a prideful man and it’s clear that the slights from the McKee camp have hit home.

“Talking is easy because you have to try to convince yourself you can do this,” he said. “I don’t have to convince myself; I already know I can do it because I’ve done it time after time. I know if I go out there and pay attention and do what I need to do, I’ll be all right.

“It’s a challenge and it’s got me motivated. I know I’m the best and I’m going to continue to keep proving it. When a guy like this has so much hype behind him, what can they say once I finish him?”

Albarracin believes that’s exactly how the fight will end. He said Freire, who is a -125 favorite at BetMGM, has been on point and has peaked at the right time.

He praised McKee’s skills but said he doesn’t have near the total package that Pitbull does.

“In my opinion, this ends in the second round,” Albarracin said. “I think he’ll either KO A.J. after hurting him with something or he’ll submit him after A.J. shoots and gets caught. But I think [Freire] finishes it in the second round and he’ll show all you guys again that what we’ve been saying is true.”

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