The many options for AJ McKee and Patricio Pitbull after Bellator 286

What were the biggest moments of Bellator 286? Jeff Wagenheim and Marc Raimondi offer up their takeaways from an action-packed event in Long Beach.

AJ McKee will be just fine at lightweight, has options

Coming off the first loss of his career and moving up to debut in a new weight class, AJ McKee didn’t do anything Saturday night to make anyone worry about his future. In his hometown of Long Beach, California, McKee beat Spike Carlyle by unanimous decision in a bloody war that McKee mostly dominated. Carlyle came out roaring to start the fight and McKee still ended up dropping him. For the rest of the battle, Carlyle was mainly on the defensive, with McKee hurting him on the feet and trying to pull off a highlight-reel submission on the ground. McKee, the former Bellator featherweight champion, gave an impressive first performance at lightweight.

The question now for McKee is what’s next and what makes the most sense. He has options and they are mostly good ones. A trilogy fight with Patricio “Pitbull” Freire is arguably the biggest fight Bellator can make currently. McKee said he would only go back down to featherweight for a title shot and has earned that right — he finished “Pitbull” in 2021 before dropping a close decision back in April. Freire has talked about going down to bantamweight after cleaning out the division, but that was under the assumption Aaron Pico would be a challenger soon. Pico lost via injury stoppage to Jeremy Kennedy at Bellator 286.

The other possibility for McKee? Entering into the Bellator Lightweight World Grand Prix, which begins in 2023. McKee has already won the featherweight version of the grand prix and the $1 million that came with it. He could try for a second million and the Bellator lightweight title, which will be on the line in the tournament. Oh, by the way, Freire’s brother Patricky is the current 155-pound Bellator champion. If I’m McKee, I tell Bellator to give me one of the “Pitbull” brothers — either Patricio for the featherweight belt and the trilogy fight or Patricky in the first round of the lightweight tournament for that belt. Oh, by the way, Freire’s brother Patricky is the current 155-pound Bellator champion and will defend his title against Usman Nurmagomedov in November.— Raimondi

Maybe it’s time for Pitbull to also consider his options?

The fans booed for most of the main event’s 25 minutes. That reaction was predetermined, in a way, because Bellator 286 was in Long Beach, California, and the fighter in control for every second of the feature bout was Patricio “Pitbull” Freire. Just six months ago, the featherweight champion had handed Long Beach’s favorite son, AJ McKee, the first and only loss of his career.

But would Freire’s performance in this weekend’s unanimous decision win over Adam Borics have been a crowd pleaser in any arena in any town in the world? Highly doubtful. It wasn’t that Freire was lacking. It’s just that he was efficient in a sport that rewards spectacular. The victory was the 34th in the career of the Brazilian, his 11th by decision. He has won by knockout 11 times and has 12 submissions. Talk about well-rounded. Talk about having no calling card.

Freire is in his third reign as Bellator’s featherweight champ. He also has been a lightweight champ. He has won nine of his last ten fights, beating some of the best who have ever set foot in the round cage. And yet, this all-time great somehow flies under the radar.

When fans have discussed which non-UFC fighters can claim to be the best in the whole sport, other Bellator names have come up more often than Freire’s. Gegard Mousasi, when he was middleweight champ. Corey Anderson, who’s not a champ but has looked dominant since coming over from the UFC. “Pitbull” is no less worthy. He just gets noticed less.

That could change in his next fight, for which he has options. The 35-year-old could settle the score in a trilogy bout with McKee, who put on a heart-thumping performance in the co-main event. Or, Freire could drop down to bantamweight in pursuit of an unprecedented accomplishment in MMA — winning a championship in a third weight class.

Both options have their downsides. Freire would be robbing his brother, lightweight champion Patricky, of that spotlight bout by pursuing a McKee fight. And as for Patricio moving down to 135, I’m never in favor of fighters cutting more weight.

But some have done so successfully, including Freire’s countryman Jose Aldo. And the 5-foot-6 Freire has the stocky physique to pull it off. He might find his dieting motivation in the stakes in front of him: The opportunity to make history. — Wagenheim

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