In 2011, a young fighter by the name of Jon Jones stepped into 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 23 years old. Ten years later, undefeated rising star AJ McKee met a fellow legend in two-division Bellator champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire in the finals of the Featherweight World Grand Prix at Bellator 263.
Like Jones, McKee dominated Pitbull and stopped him with a first-round submission to win the $1 Million Grand Prix prize and become the new Bellator 145-pound champion at 26 years of age.
And just like that, a star was born that will likely usher in the new era for Bellator MMA.
McKee put an end to Pitbull’s four-year run 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 finished a man who had never been knocked out or submitted in his 17-year MMA career.
After a brief feeling-out session, McKee rifled a left head kick that ricocheted off of Pitbull’s temple. With the champion in trouble, McKee went right to work and put Pitbull down with a barrage of strikes. Thinking the fight was over, McKee began to celebrate until he realized that the referee hadn’t called the fight. Recognizing his shaken opponent’s attempt to get to his feet, Mckee rushed in and snapped on a tight standing guillotine choke. Pitbull’s body went limp and McKee realized his dream of becoming Bellator champion to cap a dominant run through the Grand Prix where he finished all four of his opponents on his way to capturing the gold and a million dollars.
The fight played out eerily similar to Jon Jones and Shogun a decade 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 torrid run through the division that saw him finish five of his last six opponents as the world was ready to crown the prodigy as 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 aced with flying colors and went on to become arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
McKee entered Bellator as a highly touted prospect and tore through the featherweight division after making his professional debut in 2015. Twelve finishes in sixteen wins raised the eyebrows of many but while McKee was climbing, Pitbull was etching his name in Bellator history by winning the featherweight title in 2017. He followed that up with the lightweight title in 2019 when he knocked out Michael Chandler to become the lightweight champion. Pitbull entered the tournament as the favorite but it was assumed that a clash with McKee in the final was a foregone conclusion.
After both win their semifinal matchups, the fight quickly became one of Bellator’s most anticipated fights of all time. And like Jones, McKee made the act of taking out a living legend look easy by finishing the job in under two minutes.
Whether McKee will go on to have a career like Jones is a story that will write itself another day but the new champion is already carving out a legacy with a star-making performance that will be talked about for quite some time.