Bellator champion A.J. McKee needs to regain momentum after career-defining title win

·Combat columnist
·4 min read

When A.J. McKee climbed to the top of the cage after finishing Patricio “Pitbull” Freire on July 31, 2021, in Inglewood, California, to win the Bellator featherweight title, he was literally on top of the MMA world.

It was his 18th consecutive victory without a defeat and he’d beaten his greatest rival by putting him to sleep in less than two minutes.

Before the fight, McKee was making the media rounds. He appeared on a Showtime Championship Boxing card and suggested he might like to box to show off his skills. He did scores of interviews where he came across as a budding superstar.

Since that moment, though, McKee’s star has fallen because of inactivity. The time to capitalize on a career-defining moment is right at the time. Instead of making the rounds after the fight, McKee was largely gone and not heard from until his rematch with Freire — which is Friday in San Jose, California, in the main event of Bellator 277 — was announced.

McKee is a flashy, charismatic fighter who has the skills in the cage to back it up. But instead of going on a PR campaign to take advantage of the notoriety his big win provided, he slipped back into obscurity.

He’ll emerge again on Friday and it’s almost as if he’s starting all over. He needs once again to make a statement against Freire, one of the handful of the greatest fighters in Bellator history, to capture the public’s attention.

UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski has fought — and won — twice since McKee last fought and this week is doing the media tour. He was at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday to watch the New York Yankees host the Toronto Blue Jays as part of his victory tour in the aftermath of his UFC 273 win over Chan Sung Jung.

Los Angeles, CA - April 11: Bellator Featherweight Champion A.J. McKee during a press conference for Bellator 277 at the Grammy Museum at LA Live in Los Angeles, Monday April 11, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
A.J. McKee shows off his belts at the Grammy Museum at LA Live in Los Angeles on April 11, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

McKee lost his momentum because he didn’t do a similar thing and now he faces a massive challenge to beat a great fighter a second time.

McKee said at a news conference in Los Angeles that he’s taken the fight at featherweight even though he’d publicly considered a move to lightweight before because of all that Freire has done.

“I would say it’s kind of a respect thing,” McKee said. “He’s been the reigning champion for a very long time. For me, I’d honor him with that rematch at any time. The goals I’ve set for myself, I want to be champ-champ. The Body Shop’s philosophy is to be the champion you have to beat the champion. He’s the 155-pound champ still in my mind and after I get done with this, I see myself as the 145- and 155-pound champ.”

At BetMGM, McKee is now a solid -375 favorite over Freire, who is +280. Last time, McKee won Bellator’s featherweight grand prix and collected the $1 million winner’s prize for his technical submission.

But he faces the daunting challenge of having to repeat his biggest victory a second time. He’s as confident this time around as he was the last time when he was the underdog challenger.

“I walked the dog once already,” he said, beaming.

Bellator has, in its 13 years of existence, had numerous excellent fighters, many of whom later went to the UFC and had success. It’s never had, though, a fighter with the possibility of being a transcendent figure like McKee.

McKee is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, but given that he fights for Bellator, which is in the giant shadow cast by the UFC, it’s not always recognized.

That’s why it was so important for McKee to build himself after that dramatic first win over Freire. It would not only help him but all other fighters under the Bellator banner by showing he was able to create a name for himself.

But he’s talking big again.

“The first fight was just like picking on your brother,” McKee said. “This time, I’m really looking forward to putting on a show. I’m looking forward to being champ-champ. His brother [Patricky] has the [lightweight] belt, but a pit bull is a pit bull to me.”

There’s a lot of pit bull in McKee as well. If he puts it all on display on Friday, the ramifications for all of the fighters and Bellator itself could be huge.