A.J. McKee stops Patricio Freire in first round to claim Bellator featherweight title, $1M

·Combat columnist
·3-min read

A.J. McKee began the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix with an eight-second knockout victory. He ended it on Saturday at The Forum in Inglewood, California, with a finish that topped his opener.

McKee choked out Patricio “Pitbull” Freire at 1:57 of the first round to win the Bellator featherweight title, capture the grand prix championship and earn the $1 million check that came along with it.

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When he was a little boy growing up in Long Beach, California, McKee wrote a check to himself for a million dollars. He dreamed of that kind of payday ever since and made it come true with a dominant victory over an opponent who was considered the greatest fighter in Bellator history.

“Man, all my dreams are coming true,” McKee said after the victory that ran his record to 18-0, all of which have been in Bellator. “It’s amazing. But it’s just beginning.”

The 26-year-old was groomed for this by his father, veteran fighter and trainer Antonio McKee. Antonio McKee years ago predicted his son would be a world champion and days before the fight vowed the match with Freire would be easy for his son.

That raised a lot of eyebrows among those who felt he was just trying to hype the fight. But the elder McKee never wavered in his belief in his son’s ability and A.J. made him look good.

He hit Freire with a kick to the side of the head, which was the beginning of the end. One of the sport’s best finishers — he finished all four of his fights in the tournament, including three in the first round — McKee was on Freire instantly.

He hit him with a flurry of punches and a left uppercut put the Brazilian champion on the ground. McKee raised his arms in victory, but when referee Mike Beltran didn’t stop it, McKee rushed back in. Freire was just getting up and McKee caught him around the neck with a standing guillotine.

Freire didn’t tap, but seemed to go limp briefly and Beltran stopped it, giving McKee the biggest win of his life.

Inglewood, CA - July 31: AJ McKee blue gloves, kicks Patricio PitbullFreire, red gloves, during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, CA., Saturday, July 31, 2021. McKee defeated Freire to win the 145-pound World Grand Prix tournament million dollar prize and the championship belt. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
AJ McKee kicks Patricio Freire during Bellator 263: Pitbull vs. McKee at the Forum in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

McKee said his success is rooted in the sweat he expends in the gym every day.

“Mentality is the key,” he said. “I put in the world. My dad always tells me, hard work always beats talent. If you have all the skills in the world but don’t work hard, it ain’t easy.”

Bellator had been grooming McKee for years, believing he could be the type of homegrown talent that could give them the superstar they’ve lacked.

They now have a charismatic champion who is well-spoken, media-friendly, highly successful and a deadly finisher.

He did his job Saturday with the poise of a 20-year veteran, recognizing the opportunity and quickly taking advantage of it when it came.

He spoke before the fight of getting a bout with retired Hall of Fame boxer Floyd Mayweather, and of one-day earning nine-figure checks for his work like Mayweather did several times in his career.

He got the first seven-figure check of his career Saturday and is on his way to a similarly dominant career. We’ll see if he can keep it up, but there’s little doubt that he’s been remarkable from the day he first entered the Bellator cage until Saturday, when he methodically cut down its greatest fighter.

A.J. McKee is the real deal, and there are plenty of featherweights who are soon about to find that out, just like Freire did on Saturday.

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