Kayla Harrison and A.J. McKee are two of a kind. For all intents and purposes, the duo are the faces of PFL and Bellator, respectively; two homegrown talents who made their MMA debuts with their promotions, grew up alongside their promotions, and ultimately rose to become two of the best fighters in their weight classes despite never stepping foot in the UFC. Harrison’s future with the PFL is locked in — the two-time Olympic gold medalist re-signed a multi-year deal this past week that will keep her under the PFL umbrella for the foreseeable future. McKee, likewise, is finally slated to return in a featherweight title rematch against Patricio Freire on April 15 at Bellator 277 after a nine-month layoff.
But who has the higher promotional ceiling? If two of the brightest talents outside the UFC never actually step foot inside the octagon, who has the best chance to still become a household name? MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew debate the promotional potential of the undefeated duo in today’s roundtable.
Agree? Disagree? We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.
Lee: Don’t count A.J. McKee out of the proverbial MVP race just yet.
First things first, we can all admit that Bellator dropped the ball following McKee’s momentous win over Patricio Pitbull last July to the point that it feels like it happened 18 months ago and not eight. And as fun as their second fight will be, it’s not exactly as if the MMA masses were clamoring for an immediate rematch.
But make no mistake, Bellator has a star in their hands with Antonio’s son because of what he represents: A firm reminder that the best fighters in the world don’t necessarily compete inside the octagon.
That’s an important distinction for a non-UFC promotion to claim, whether it be Bellator or ONE Championship or the PFL or anyone else. Bellator already has contenders at light heavyweight (Vadim Nemkov, Corey Anderson), middleweight (Gegard Mousasi), and women’s featherweight (Cris Cyborg) who are indisputably in the top 5 of their respective divisions (if you want to throw bantamweights Sergio Pettis and Kyoji Horiguchi into the discussion, I won’t fight you), but even among those names McKee stands out.
He’s homegrown, having never fought for any promotion besides Bellator. He’s undefeated. He’s only 26.
Though one could argue that he has to prove himself against the likes of UFC stars like Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway, shouldn’t the opposite also be true? Can anyone argue without a shadow of a doubt that those two are that far ahead of McKee, if at all?
McKee’s mastery of the 145-pound division has been a sight to behold and that’s key (pun not intended) to understanding his promotional value. He’s slick as hell, a supreme athlete, and he hasn’t shown any weaknesses yet. Simply put, it’s impossible to watch this young man fight and not consider the possibility that he is legitimately the best featherweight in the world.
You can’t even knock his level of competition in this discussion as it pertains to Kayla Harrison, because — credit to all the fighters who have stepped up to provide the PFL with enough bodies for a lightweight tournament — there’s no actual 155-pound division in women’s MMA to speak of yet. Harrison might be leading the charge, but her dominance has ironically threatened her credibility (see also: Cyborg, Cris, circa 2008-2016). As long as she remains in the PFL and McKee remains in Bellator, McKee will always have the stronger résumé and that matters. Even Harrison sounds like she’s not looking forward to trucking through the PFL field again, and that can’t be good for business.
It hasn’t been the flashiest climb to the top for McKee, but his championship run is just beginning, and when it’s all said and done and he’s added a few marquee names to his résumé, I predict the history books will look favorably on him and Bellator.
Al-Shatti: I mean, is this really a debate? It’s Kayla Harrison! She’s already a bigger name than A.J. McKee! Just her free agency alone spent the past four months dominating the news cycle, popping up on ESPN tickers, and prompting repeated cutaways on SportsCenter. Anecdotal evidence should always be taken with a grain of salt, but I’ve had multiple non-MMA people in my life ask me whether the Olympic champion who’s destroying women on their televisions in prime time is the real deal. I’ve never once heard an A.J. McKee mention outside of the MMA space. Make of that what you will.
The funny thing is, my guy Alexander K. Lee isn’t even wrong. Everything he wrote applies. McKee does have the stronger résumé and likely always will. He legitimately may be the best 145-pound fighter in the world.
But here’s a dirty little secret: That doesn’t matter, because that’s the not question we’re answering. Alexander Volkanovski is most people’s No. 1 featherweight in the sport and he isn’t even close to becoming a household name. Success doesn’t always translate to fame in combat sports, and the reality is that McKee is fighting more of an uphill battle in Bellator than Harrison is in PFL, if only because Harrison has ESPN as a major mainstream partner to help promote her fights and keep her in the public eye.
Have you seen Bellator’s ratings since moving to Showtime? They’re alarming. Maybe that’s not a surprise when you consider the merry-go-round of broadcast partners they rifled through in recent years only to eventually land behind a paywall, but Bellator hasn’t felt like this much of a hardcores-only viewing experience since the days of Bjorn Rebney. How much can strength of schedule actually matter if only a handful of people are watching?
Let’s also not forget a point AK touched on just a few paragraphs ago — after the botch job they had with McKee last year, do any of us have faith in Bellator’s ability to propel fighters to stardom right now? The Pitbull win should’ve been the layup of all layups from a promotional standpoint. Instead, McKee disappeared for nearly a year and lost all the momentum he once had. PFL isn’t exactly churning out Conor McGregors either, but until I’m proven wrong, my trust in Bellator to capitalize on the moment is low.
One last point in Harrison’s favor: Without question, the Cyborg fight is the biggest fight available to either of the names in question here. Even if Bellator doesn’t play ball on a co-promotion, Cyborg’s contract is up soon. PFL knows that fight is exactly the kind of marquee attraction that could capture mainstream eyeballs and catapult Harrison to another level. What potential matchup of that magnitude in sitting in front of McKee?
I’m as big of him fan as anyone — McKee might be the best homegrown talent Bellator has ever produced, and he’s definitely a top-3 featherweight in MMA — so I hate to be this guy, but ultimately we’re talking about someone with less than 7,000 followers on Twitter. In terms of being recognizable, Harrison has a clearer path to the promise land.
Martin: Right now, Kayla Harrison is certainly the bigger name, but over time A.J. McKee has a much better opportunity to usurp her in terms of superstar status, and it really comes down to just one major factor.
As much as Bellator blew it by not pushing McKee to the stratosphere after he went scorched earth on Patricio Pitbull in his last outing to become featherweight champion, he remains an electric personality with the potential to become an all-time great across two divisions in the Paramount-owned company. McKee will first have to dispatch Pitbull for a second time, and while a rematch at lightweight prior to the Brazilian relinquishing his 155-pound title made more sense, it will still be a very interesting second fight between them.
Assuming McKee is victorious, he can then pursue a fight against Patricky Pitbull, who is the current reigning Bellator lightweight champion. McKee has also expressed interest in potentially crossing over to boxing after working as an analyst on a pair of cards headlined by Jake Paul. To add to that, Paul has said he welcomes the chance to have a MMA/boxing hybrid card promoted by Showtime, which could be another huge boost to McKee’s relevance across combat sports.
Kayla Harrison, meanwhile, is an incredible athlete and one of the best pound-for-pound women’s fighters in the sport, but has far less opportunity for marquee matchups. She’s currently staring down a field of bloated bantamweights to face her at 155 pounds in the PFL, with a possible fight against ex-Bellator champ Julia Budd as the highest rated opponent she could face this year. The PFL has already started to push Bellator to co-promote a card where Harrison could meet Cris Cyborg in a superfight between champions, but it seems highly unlikely that will actually happen.
With the PFL on ESPN and Bellator owned by Paramount, putting those two entities together in a co-promotion will be a difficult endeavor, especially considering there’s no guarantee that Harrison vs. Cyborg would actually do big business.
Harrison already competes in a nonexistent weight class for women at 155 pounds, and even if she drops down to 145 pounds, things don’t get that much better. At least McKee has interesting matchups available to him at both featherweight and lightweight, with Bellator having the ability to pursue even more opponents for him through free agency. That all adds up to McKee getting more exposure and facing better competition, while Harrison will likely face Larissa Pacheco for the fifth time by the end of 2023.
Meshew: The answer is Kayla Harrison and it’s not particularly close. You know why? Because she already IS a bigger star than McKee. Remember when Harrison spent almost her entire career competing in a division that functionally doesn’t exist but people paid attention and when she was a free agent everyone came calling? Yeah, winning back-to-back Olympic gold medals has a way of really boosting your Q score like that.
But it’s more than just the Olympic medals that boost Harrison’s case. It’s everything else too. Harrison is obliterating women and cutting pro-wrestling promos on the mic afterwards, and in her spare time she’s hanging out with some of the biggest names in MMA, like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Henry Cejudo. She’s a trash-talking, gold medal flaunting, certified female badass who markets the crap out of herself every chance she gets. She’s basically Strikeforce Ronda Rousey except everyone loves her.
But it’s not just Harrison’s pedigree or performances that make her a bigger star, it’s the promotions that the two fighters compete for. The PFL has shown a concerted interest in bringing in new talent to face Harrison, signing Julia Budd to the organization last year, one of the best featherweights in the world. And when Cris Cyborg’s deal with Bellator runs up later this year, you can bet your bottom dollar that the PFL is going to make her a monster offer to set up that fight. Those two fights are enormous fights for Harrison, the biggest ones available outside of an Amanda Nunes scrap that has suddenly lost some of its luster. Meanwhile, A.J. McKee has already beaten the top talent in Bellator and doesn’t have many compelling options left, and certainly none that casual MMA fans have ever heard of before. Add in that PFL is on ESPN and Bellator is on Showtime and Harrison is really running up the score here.
Harrison is going to spend 2022 putting the boots to Julia Budd and then winning another lightweight tournament, and building a fight with Cris Cyborg, who will sign with the PFL in the fall. By this time next year, Harrison may well be a household name. Meanwhile, McKee will still be struggling in ignominy, fighting the Mads Burnells of the world and waiting for his contract to run up.
If they never sign with UFC, who is more likely to become a household name?
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