In 2011, a young fighter by the name of Jon Jones entered the Octagon to face a legend in Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight championship. The upstart with endless potential dominated Rua to become the youngest fighter to win a UFC championship at 23. Ten years later, undefeated rising star AJ McKee met another legend in Bellator two-division champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire in the World Featherweight Grand Prix Final at Bellator 263.
Like Jones, McKee dominated Pitbull and stopped him with a first-round bid to win the $ 1 million Grand Prix prize and become the new 145-pound Bellator champion at 26.
And just like that, a star was born who will likely usher in the new era for Bellator MMA.
McKee ended Pitbull’s four-year run as the featherweight champion in front of his hometown crowd at the Los Angeles Forum. And there was no doubt who the better man was as McKee towered over Pitbull and finished off a man who had never been knocked out or subdued in his 17-year MMA career.
After a brief feeling session, McKee kicked the left head that ricocheted off Pitbull’s temple. With the champion struggling, McKee got to work and took down Pitbull with a barrage of strikes. Thinking the fight was over, McKee started celebrating until he realized the referee hadn’t called the fight. Recognizing his shaken opponent’s attempt to stand up, Mckee rushed forward and broke a guillotine choke. Pitbull’s body went limp and McKee fulfilled his dream of becoming Bellator champion to crown a dominant race through the Grand Prix where he finished his four opponents on the verge of winning gold and a million dollars.
The fight unfolded strangely the same as Jon Jones and Shogun ten years ago. Shogun had just captured the UFC light heavyweight champion by handing Lyoto Machida his first career MMA loss and cementing his legacy as one of the greatest mixed martial artists on the planet. Jones had a scorching run in the Division which saw him finish five of his last six opponents as the world was set to crown the prodigy as the next big thing. A fight with Shogun was meant to be a tough test for the rising star; However, it was a test that Jones passed with flying colors and became arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
McKee entered Bellator as a much-vaunted prospect and made his way through the featherweight division after making his professional debut in 2015. Twelve finishes in sixteen wins raised eyebrows to many, but as McKee climbed, Pitbull etched his name. in Bellator history by winning the featherweight title in 2017. He followed 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 it was assumed that a clash with McKee in the final was inevitable.
After the two won their semifinal clashes, the fight quickly became one of Bellator’s most anticipated fights of all time. And like Jones, McKee made the act of pulling out a living legend easy by completing the job in under two minutes.
That McKee has a career like Jones is a story to be written another day, but the new champion is already carving a legacy with a star performance that will be talked about for some time.