In 2011, a young fighter named Jon Jones entered the Octagon to face a legend in Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight championship. The upstart with infinite potential dominated Rua to become the youngest fighter to win a UFC championship at age 23. Ten years later, undefeated rising star AJ McKee met a fellow legend in Bellator’s two-division champion, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, in the World Featherweight Grand Prix final at Bellator 263.
Like Jones, McKee overpowered Pitbull and stopped him with a first-round submission to win the $ 1 million Grand Prize prize and become Bellator’s new 145-pound champion at age 26.
And thus, a star was born that will likely usher in a new era for Bellator MMA.
McKee ended Pitbull’s four-year career as featherweight champion in front of his hometown crowd at The Forum in Los Angeles. And there was no question who the better man was, as McKee dominated Pitbull and took down a man who had never been knocked out or subdued in his 17-year MMA career.
After a brief sensation session, McKee launched a kick to the left head that bounced off Pitbull’s temple. With the champion in trouble, McKee went to work and defeated Pitbull with a series of strikes. Thinking the fight was over, McKee began to celebrate until he realized that the referee had not called the fight. Acknowledging his shaken opponent’s attempt to stand up, Mckee rushed inside and released a tight guillotine choke. Pitbull’s body went limp and McKee realized his dream of becoming a Bellator champion to cap off a dominant career at the Grand Prix, where he ended all four of his opponents on his way to capturing gold and a million dollars.
The fight unfolded eerily similar to Jon Jones and Shogun a decade ago. Shogun had just captured the UFC light heavyweight champion by handing Lyoto Machida the first loss of his MMA career and cementing his legacy as one of the greatest mixed martial artists on the planet. Jones had a steamy run through the division that saw him finish with five of his last six opponents as the world was ready to crown the prodigy the next big thing. A fight with Shogun was supposed to be a difficult test for the rising star; however, it was a test that Jones overcame with flying colors and became arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
McKee entered Bellator as a highly touted prospect and made his way through the featherweight division after making his professional debut in 2015. Twelve finishes in sixteen wins surprised many, but while McKee was climbing, Pitbull was etching his name in Bellator history. by winning featherweight. title in 2017. He followed up with the lightweight title in 2019 when he knocked out Michael Chandler to become the lightweight champion. Pitbull entered the tournament as a favorite, but a clash with McKee in the final was assumed to be a foregone conclusion.
After both won their semi-final matchups, the fight quickly turned into one of the most highly anticipated fights of all time for Bellator. And like Jones, McKee made the act of eliminating a living legend seem easy by finishing the job in less than two minutes.
Whether McKee will continue a career like Jones’s is a story that will write itself another day, but the new champion is already forging a legacy with a star performance that will be talked about for quite some time.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.