CAPE TOWN – Will there be a changing of the guard in the Bellator featherweight division?
If this week's virtual media day interaction was anything to go by, then No. 1 ranked AJ (Antonio De Carlo) McKee (17-0), has already taken one of the promotion’s greatest athletes, Patricio Pitbull’s (Freire) (32-4) strap.
The two athletes will meet in the cage on July 31 at the culmination of the Bellator featherweight World Championship Grand Prix.
The tournament - which initially saw 16 athletes start out in a quest for a one-million dollar grand prize - takes place at the Forum in Inglewood, California.
Most times, it can do a world of damage when you are able to climb into the psyche of your opponent.
But aside from the mental warfare, AJ has proven over time that he can back his belief system and strong personality up, racking up 17 wins since his Bellator debut in 2015.
His road to the final of the featherweight Grand Prix started with a KO in round one his fight with Georgi Karakhanyan at Bellator 228 before claiming submission wins over Derek Campos and Darrion Caldwell respectively to add to his long and distinguished list of victories.
During the interview, AJ exuded confidence, stating he has everything it takes to topple his Brazilian opponent.
“It’s been a great journey and this is something I’ve dreamed of my entire career,” said the 26-year-old No 1 Bellator featherweight and Grand Prix featherweight finalist.
“I’ve been calling Pitbull’s name since I first stepped into that cage and he’s ignored me, pretending like he doesn’t know who I am. At the end of the day, there is nowhere else for him to run and he has to look me in my eyes. I’m looking forward to it. Everyone says I haven’t been tested and I agree. But, when you do see me get tested, a whole different animal will come out.
“After I beat Pitbull and become the face of BELLATOR, we can run it back for that second belt too,” added AJ alluding to Patricio’s double-champ status after the latter beat now-UFC top contender, Michael Chandler for the lightweight title in 2019.
Of course, and with all due respect to AJ, many athletes have come (spoken a big game) and gone, with Patricio leaving them in his wake. There is a reason why he is one of the organisation’s greatest - if not, its greatest athlete.
“I’m a little bit older and faster than the rest of my division and I’m going to use this in my favor,” says Patricio, who was the more-reserved personality during the virtual press conference shared with media houses across the globe.
“Of all the opponents I’ve faced, AJ is the most dangerous, and I know that. With that being said, I know that I’m going to win this fight.
“At the beginning of his career, he faced very low-level guys. He has a few wins over tough opponents, but he’s never fought anyone like me. He claims that he is ready for me, but he isn’t, and he’ll learn that very quickly in front of his home crowd,” added the older 33-year-old, Patricio.
“I’ve been preparing for this fight for six years because Pitbull has been at the top for so long. Once again, I have a foot longer reach on him, so he has to come to me,” says AJ who enjoys an incredible 10cm height and 21cm reach advantage over his opponent.
“He says he is training with gold medal wrestlers, but I will do the same thing to him that I did to Pat Curran and Darrion Caldwell. I’m comfortable off my back. Just because he’s Brazilian, that doesn’t mean anything in terms of Jiu jitsu,” added AJ.
“This is without a doubt going to be the biggest Bellator fight of all time,” said BELLATOR President Scott Coker.
“AJ has the opportunity to realize his dream of becoming a world champion.
“For Pitbull, a win over McKee in this tournament final would be a statement piece to add to his long list of accolades and legacy as the best 145-pounder on the planet.”
BELLATOR 263: Pitbull vs. McKee airs live on SHOWTIME. The preliminary portion of the event streams live on the BELLATOR MMA YouTube channel, SHOWTIME Sports YouTube channel, as well as Pluto TV.
This event will mark Bellator’s first domestic event hosted away from “The Fightsphere” since February 2020.