Alexander Volkanovski and Chan Sung Jung will battle for the UFC featherweight championship this Saturday at UFC 273 in Jacksonville, Fla., but should the winner be called the unequivocal best 145-pound fighter on the planet?
But Patricio Pitbull — the No. 6 featherweight in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings and one of the greatest competitors to ever enter the Bellator cage — is set to make his own attempt to reclaim his spot near the top of the 145-pound class when he rematches A.J. McKee one week later on April 15, when Bellator 277 lands in San Jose, Calif. He believes the debate over the true featherweight king — or the best of any other weight class, for that matter — will only end when UFC president Dana White embraces cross promotion.
“I think that’s the next step in MMA, one other promotions have already taken,” Pitbull said on this week’s episode of MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca. “Bellator has taken that step, RIZIN too. Maybe Bellator against PFL [next].
“I wish the UFC would join as well, because we know there’s [that debate], who’s the best one, the UFC or the Bellator [champion]? It doesn’t matter who I think wins, what really matters is who actually wins. So, to be sure, we have to put the champions [in a position] to fight each other. To me, that’s the next step we have to take in MMA.”
The last time the UFC agreed to lend a star to another MMA promotion to compete was in 2003, when future light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell joined the Pride FC grand prix in Japan. “The Iceman” stopped Alistair Overeem but then lost to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson three months later and was eliminated from Pride FC’s tournament field. Liddell ultimately returned to the UFC and eventually won that promotion’s belt.
“When Pride was the MMA giant, [White] risked his fighters to fight there and do a cross promotion,” Pitbull said. “Now that he has this monopoly of the bigger promotion, he’s afraid that his champion will go there for a superfight like this and end up losing and taking away that credibility and name they have.”
In Pitbull’s eyes, those opportunities are inevitable. Even if White never agrees to partnering with another MMA company, Pitbull believes fans will get a chance to watch top UFC stars clash with names from other promotions once more and more choose to test free agency.
“You’re seeing a big [exodus] of fighters [from the UFC],” he said. “The heavyweight champion, Francis [Ngannou], is talking about leaving because of money. [Henry] Cejudo stopped [fighting] because of money. Many fighters are migrating to other organizations because of that, so it’s a matter of time.”
A former two-division champion in Bellator, Pitbull would love to test himself against a champion from another promotion in the future, but he needs to avenge his defeat to McKee first. Driven by challenges, the Brazilian doesn’t rule out competing in a different weight class again — this time at bantamweight, if offered an interesting opponent.
Sergio Pettis, the 135-pound champion in Bellator, isn’t a name that “motivates” him right now, Pitbull said. Also, with teammates Leandro Higo and Matheus Mattos looking to climb that bantamweight mountain, he doesn’t feel the fire to cut extra 10 pounds.
“It depends on the challenge,” Pitbull said. “If it’s a fight that excites me, I’d do it. But if it’s a fight that doesn’t make much sense at this stage, I wouldn’t go through that, because even though I’m short, I’m very solid and compact. I’m stronger that the norm at featherweight. You could say I’m a ‘Toquinho’ [Rousimar Palhares] of 145 in terms of body type. People like us have a lot of muscle, legs, ass, strong upper body and back, and it’s not easy to lose muscle to fit that weight class.
“My [weight class] is 145, really. If there’s a great challenge at 155 or 135, we’ll do it. But until then, my division remains the same. My focus is on A.J. McKee and bringing that belt back.”