What does it take to beat the greatest fighter in Bellator history?
That question has perplexed contenders across two divisions for the better part of 11 years, and it’s the question A.J. McKee aims to answer at Bellator 263. Saturday’s main event between featherweight and lightweight champion Patrício “Pitbull” Freire and the undefeated McKee is not only one of the biggest fights of Bellator’s calendar, it’s also one of the most meaningful collisions of homegrown names the promotion has ever put together.
If MMA had a true Hall of Fame, Pitbull’s trove of promotional records would read like a first-ballot inductee: The most wins (20), fights (24), title bouts (12), title wins (10), and finishes in Bellator history (13), not to mention the most knockouts (7) and second-most submissions (5) in Bellator featherweight history. He is the lone athlete currently competing outside of the UFC who could make a defensible claim for being the best in the world at his weight class, and he’s now up against perhaps the most exciting prospect Bellator has ever produced.
So ahead of this weekend’s top attraction, let us dive a little deeper into what awaits McKee. What is it like when the most decorated champion in Bellator history is staring you down with a scowl and four-ounce gloves, and what does McKee need to do to flip the global featherweight landscape on its head? We posed those questions to five men who’d know best, all of them past opponents who previously fell to Bellator’s king. What did we find out?
Well, let’s just say McKee has his work cut out for him.
Editor’s Note: All quotes edited for clarity and concision.
Georgi Karakhanyan (Bellator 37): Man, I feel like we’re living in a day and age where if you do a lot of stupid shit, people just love you. If you start cussing out a fighter or cussing out his wife or family, people are just like, “Yes! YES!” But Patrício’s trait is, he’s a real martial artist.
And this sport, I feel like it understands how good he is, but it does not want to give him that respect. I don’t understand why.
Juan Archuleta (Bellator 228): I think around the MMA community, as far as fighters and coaches, they do. They realize he’s the real deal. You always have your fans that think the UFC is the best place for all the best fighters, so fans-wise, maybe they don’t know.
I remember people were always unsure of how good a Mike Chandler was, and some of the guys that [Pitbull] had fought — Daniel Straus, (Daniel) Weichel. Some of the guys he’d fought had previously come from the UFC and he still beat them, and everyone was like, “Ehhh, OK, he was supposed to win,” so you don’t get that recognition or the credit. Or even up-and-comers like myself; I mean, I was on, what, an 18-fight win streak going into that fight? Full of confidence? And for him to pick me apart, and do what he did to Chandler — and within seconds? Hello. Like, we’ve got a problem on our hands. This guy could compete. He is one of the best fighters in the world. He is going to be someone to remember — and could be a problem for anyone that faces him.
Henry Corrales (Bellator 153): That guy’s an artist. Just straight up. He’s a straight up artist.
He was the most skilled fighter I’ve fought.
Karakhanyan: I think the main thing that defines Patrício is his humbleness, his hard work ethic, and his fight IQ. His fight IQ, I think, is the best (in MMA) right now.
It’s weird, man. When you’re in there as a fighter, you could feel how calculated he is. You could feel it. And what I’m talking about is, I’ve sparred with a lot of great boxers in the past, and you feel that same feeling from those great boxers. Like, you could go all out on them but then they only give you that 50 percent. And that’s how I felt with Patrício. I was like, “Man, I’m going all out…” — and he just cracked me with that left hook. And the same feeling you get when you get on a roller coaster? That’s what was going on with me. I couldn’t see left from right. It was my first loss by a knockout, and man, I was devastated. I couldn’t sleep at night.
If you miss for a millisecond in a fight against him, that’s when he takes over.
Karakhanyan: People who say he’s a brawler, they just see those last moments of him knocking out people. But if you watch Patrício throughout the whole fight, his footwork — he comes in, he comes out, he comes in, he comes out, he goes to the side, he feints, his guard is always high. You try to shoot on him, he’ll take your neck like he did with (Emmanuel) Sanchez. He’s just always on-point.
His pace is never the same. His pace changes like every 10 to 15 seconds, and he keeps doing that [throughout the fight], little feints that he does where he keeps you on your toes.
Emmanuel Sanchez (Bellator 209, Bellator 255): What I will give him, outside of all his highlight reel and just the length of that highlight reel, the years that he’s been dominant and on top, is just how smart he is. Because obviously he’s outsized in a lot of his fights. And not necessarily in terms of strength, but obviously in terms of height and reach. So in that aspect, he’s shown how to be so dominant even with working with what he’s got.
Because, I mean, I’ve seen bantamweights bigger than me, or an inch or two near me, and I’m just thinking like, “Damn dude, I fought him and I have four or five inches on him.” So he’s a very smart fighter. Even though that he does have all that power, he doesn’t just rely on that.
Corrales: He’s evolved even more since I fought him and now he just uses that karate stance and that distance, and he does that so well. He really knows how to stay on the outside, on the borders, but he’s always in position once you cross that barrier and get in there. He’s ready to fucking trigger on some big shots.
Just look at his last fight: He’s the shorter guy, he was outsized in that sense from length and reach, but he still found a way, in a weird way, to fight like the taller guy.
Not too many shorter guys do that.
Archuleta: He was, by far, the toughest opponent I’ve ever faced in real-time competition.
He’s able to make you miss and come up short or overthrow on him, because he’ll be right there. And I was actually telling my coach about this yesterday, I said, “Man, when I fought Pitbull, he did a really good thing of hopping back and then shuffling into position,” which, you see the hop back so you know you’ve got extend a little farther and commit on your shot, and then he shuffles back really fast. From then on his pinpoint accuracy is one of the best tools in his arsenal, because the first thing you have to do is close distance and touch someone. Once you’ve got your touch and you’ve got your range finders, from then on everything’s all about putting your combos together, putting your sequences together.
But when you’re making someone miss and they’re trying to throw big shots and take your head off, that [messes with] your opponent.
Sanchez: It’s being baited. He baited a lot of these guys to want to come in and hit him, and that’s when he would crack them or take them down or do something significant to make them [worry] about wanting to come in so hard.
As he’s gotten older, he doesn’t need to always go forward. I know that was him in his younger years and that’s why you see a little more of the more vicious stoppages, but now he almost waits for guys to come to him. Since he knows they have the height and reach advantage, he doesn’t always need to engage. He will, but he most definitely waits for that opportunity to put you in checkmate. Because when guys try to come at him, the more devastating blows he’s able to land. And I got a taste of that this last time around.
Archuleta: It’s very hard for fighters with egos, because when you get hit hard, your instant mindset is like, “Oh, I’ve got to get this back.” Like, “I’ve got to get that punch back or I can’t lose this position or this sequence of the fight.”
You start tripping up on your feet. At least for my style of fighting, that’s what was going on with me. I was tripping up on my feet because of his IQ of just managing that range.
Weichel: I think also leading up to the fight, I was conscious that he is one of the technical best fighters that I’m going to fight, but also one of the toughest fighters. He combines the two things.
So I knew it would be tough — that he would keep going and I’d have to go through it.
Karakhanyan: Oh yeah. Like, “Oh, you want to be technical with me? OK. I’ll be technical with you, but I’m going to to beat you at the technique. Oh, you want to fucking start brawling with me? I’m going to brawl with you.” But guess what?
He has bombs in both hands, so if he touches you with one of those — I’ve been hit really hard, but he hits you with a perfect technique. And when I say with the perfect technique, it’s like it doesn’t hurt, but you’re out. [Laughs.] We’ve got to keep it real, but that’s how it is, you know?
Weichel: Right, exactly. He mixes it. He brings it. He has a skill set that is complete, that is sharp, and his mentality is strong definitely.
Archuleta: Definitely. Because when things got tough in the fight, he bit down just like I did. And we had some good exchanges, but then it was just like, alright, he went back to [his toolbox]. You know, “I lost this tool or I lost this piece, let me go back to the whole chessboard and figure out what tool I want to use next.” He bombarded me and had me on my heels the whole time, and had me constantly questioning and rethinking my strategy while I was in there.
Corrales: He also fights like the champion. He doesn’t fight like the challenger. Like, he’s right there. “Hey, I’m the fucking champ. You want it? Come get it motherfucker.” He stands his ground and he’s really composed. But at the same time, if you fuck up and leave that neck out there, he going to snatch that shit up.
Karakhanyan: Especially in these last few fights. Like with Pedro Carvalho, you saw a guy go in there with a fucking crazy amount of confidence — and [Carvalho] went in there and his confidence went out the window. Patrício just touched him up a few times and he was done. So if you go head-to-head with Patrício or punch-for-punch, you’re definitely fucked.
Corrales: Dude, the biggest thing was the finish. When he finished me, it’s just — I’ve never been squeezed like that before. Not even in training. Like, that guy has a fucking next-level squeeze. Once he wrapped up my neck (in his guillotine), I was like, “Ho, fuck, I’m done.” Instantly.
Sanchez: That’s his patented move, man. Time and time again, how many guys have we seen get finished with that?
Corrales: I think it’s just the length and shape of his arms for his guillotine, and just the squeeze that he can [put on you with little effort]. He’s just strong in that position. There are just certain people who have things like that, you know? And that’s his.
But praise him, dude. He’s fucking killing it, and he schooled me in our in our fight.
Sanchez: Shit, he was able to get right on my neck. And I remember feeling the ref and hearing my coaches, you know, “just fight it, fight it!” And I really was. I was trying to turn my neck out and I felt the ref grab my hand and I’m like, “Alright, just breathe and just go for it,” because I believe he had my arms still, so it wasn’t just my neck. But me trying to find that space, and since he’s got such short arms too, he just cranked on it right — I wasn’t able to turn my neck anymore. And before I knew it, I was like, “Oh, shiiiiiiiit.”
That’s what happens with him. You can’t. You can only tough it out for so long before you go night-night. And shit, I was out for a minute.
Karakhanyan: Man, something is up with people. I don’t know if after COVID people are thinking a little differently — like if the sport, the MMA community, is now recognizing Patrício Pitbull, who the Pitbull brothers are. But this guy needs to get more respect. People need to talk about him more. It seems like he fights and then — boom, people forget about him. They focus on Jake Pauls and stuff like that, so the hardcore fans know who [the Pitbull brothers] are, they respect them, they know the hard work they put in. But the average casual fans are like, “Oh, do you know who the Pitbull brothers are?”
“No, we don’t.”
Sanchez: Even with him having [so many] rematches and new blood that he’s been fighting for all these years, Pitbull still being this dominant and showing very few holes in his game — you’ve got to take your hat off to him. That’s massively impressive. Because to most people, no matter what organization or what weight class or wherever they’re fighting, sometimes someone can [have a bad night]. And he’s stayed on top for so long. Man, that’s a legend.
Archuleta: I’ve got to take my ego aside and let everyone know: This is one of the best fighters in the world. This is one of the guys that has the full package. That has power, that has the quickness, that has the fight IQ to go in there and win any fight any way he wants to. You’ve seen him put people to sleep and hit certain submissions that are just like, “Man, that was fast. He got on that thing and didn’t let go.” And then you see his knockout power, the way he’s able to be precise with it and how fast he is with it. Look at Pedro Carvalho.
[Carvalho] went in there and was moving his head side to side, and [Pitbull] just put it exactly where his head was moving and just knocked him silly. Then same thing with Emmanuel Sanchez. You thought you were going to get a barn burner on that one. I thought it was for sure going five rounds. And just his dynamic accuracy and his power and his striking ability was just phenomenal in that fight.
Corrales: That’s high-level, dude. So there’s only [so much you can do]. You honestly have to look up to a guy like that, unless you’re super delusional and not in touch with reality.
Weichel: He is definitely in Bellator, in Bellator history, he is pound-for-pound No. 1 in my eyes.
Corrales: I think so. I think he would beat (UFC champion Alexander) Volkanovski, to be honest.
Karakhanyan: Absolutely, he’s the best [featherweight in the world]. As an active fighter, I’m just saying; as an analyst, fuck yeah, he’s the best. Compare his numbers to Volkanovski. Man, [Pitbull] has done a lot more. And so what, you don’t want to give him the credit because he fights for who? Oh, he’s not in UFC, he’s in Bellator?
[Chandler] went to the UFC, got one fight with Dan Hooker, and he fights for a belt — OK, but what about Patrício? Why don’t we talk about Patrício? Patrício just finished [Chandler] in 60 seconds. There was even an interview with (UFC president) Dana (White) that he didn’t know who Patrício was. I just find that so funny. It gets so political and it’s so crazy. Like, that’s not even Patrício’s weight class — and he’s still holding onto the (lightweight) belt.
Corrales: It’s pretty plain and simple just an organizational thing. He fights for Bellator, and in the people’s eyes, that’s second on the totem pole in the MMA world. That’s it. And that’s why it makes it so [unique] — for someone to get the notoriety that he’s getting now, that just lets you know how special he is, because it’s very deserving. They don’t just give that to people off the bat from a different organization, you know?
Karakhanyan: That’s why, to me, this (fight against McKee) interests me so much as a fan. This is what interests me as a fighter. It’s like, OK, you have undefeated A.J., but then you have calculated, best-fight-IQ-fighter Patrício, both riding that wave.
Because in this game, when you ride the wave — and I’m talking about the wave of winning — you’re fucking dangerous. When you’re riding that wave, the opponent in front of you already lost before facing you.
Sanchez: I would tell [McKee] to fight smart. I understand you’re undefeated and you’re younger, you have the reach, the height, and you can finish the fight anywhere. But don’t think that this is an easy fight by any means. [Pitbull] is dangerous everywhere too. You’ve got to fight very intelligently in order to take him out of his realm and out of his element. Once he gets comfortable and once he knows he has his range, he has his power, then that’s where he’s most confident and that’s where I know he can be so dominant. Because once he knows he can touch you with that one, then OK, the next two or three are going to be there — and that could be the beginning of the end.
Archuleta: This is all ego involved in this fight, from coaching all the way down to fighters. It’s going to be the guy that can set his ego aside and fight egoless and stick to a game plan.
Don’t be so eager to make it a dog fight. Every time he hits you, hit him back. Every time he wants to establish range, make him follow you. Don’t let him sit back, make him fight. And what he’s going to try to do is come over with big shots on your big shots. He’s going to try to time you and be faster than you. So with that, stay solid, be ready to switch things up with wrestling and then mixing your shots in with your standup and kind of make him flustered.
Weichel: I would say control the pressure. Keeping the guard tight and putting nonstop pressure, and also mixing it up with wrestling. I feel as if many times with Pitbull, it ends up more striking. But the more people mix their aggressive offensive wrestling, you get more unpredictable in your striking, so I think this is a good strategy to fight him: Pressure and mixing wrestling with striking.
Archuleta: If A.J. stays young and faster — and what I mean by that, if he hits him and gets out of the way real quick and then bombards him with combinations — I think that’s how you fluster him a little bit more. Throw your ranger out there because you know he’s going to try to establish his range, and then once he commits, be ready to roll or slip, and then that’s your only chance to get your two to three shots in that you need to start making him really come forward.
Karakhanyan: I fought them both, so I actually like that I know for a fact that it’s going be war. And I know it’s going be a war because we can’t count A.J. out. A.J. has looked phenomenal during this tournament. He finished me, he finished Derek Campos, he finished (Darrion) Caldwell. It’s going to be a great fight. But I am going with Patrício on this one — I think Patrício wins a unanimous decision.
Weichel: It’s really hard to predict because A.J. is constantly evolving. You see him every time with new stuff coming up. But I favor Pitbull, just because of his experience and his composure that he brings to the fight. I think his timing and his power will make the difference.
Corrales: I’m going to go with Pitbull, but I would not be surprised in any way if A.J. comes out here and pulls it out.
Archuleta: For me, honestly, this is a really big fight and Pitbull’s been here before. I’m going go with Pitbull, as much as I want to A.J. win it and stay on top. I just think the IQ, and he’s fought guys like this before — it’s Pitbull’s time right now. He’s the best in the world.