Last weekend it was a rarity night of action as both Bellator and UFC had fight nights that were pit against each other at the same exact time. Luckily for fight fans, the UFC fight night ended just in time for fans to tune into a barn burner of a co-main event at Bellator 263 between Emmanuel Sanchez and Mads Burnell. That co-main event would set the stage for the world to witness the changing of the guard in Bellator MMA as challenger AJ McKee faced champ-champ Patricio Pitbull for the featherweight title.
In what had been hyped up as the biggest fight in Bellator MMA featherweight history, and possibly Bellator history, AJ McKee was looking to take home the $1 million grand prize, the featherweight title, and while the tournament was ending, his superstar career was just about to begin.
Just minutes into the first round, not only did Bellator MMA crown a new featherweight champion but the Mixed Martial Arts world crowned a new superstar, with worldwide potential as AJ McKee choked out Pitbull.
— Spinnin Backfist (@SpinninBackfist) August 1, 2021
The victory for McKee improved him to 18-0 on his career, a professional career that has only seen him compete under the Bellator MMA promotion. Making his debut in 2015, McKee and former teammate Aaron Pico were two of the hottest young stars that Bellator was focused on building up, and while Pico suffered some early setbacks, he’s bounced back in a major way, and now AJ McKee is champion. Bellator decided to invest in a long-term future with McKee and paved a road for him to be a contender, and at just 26 years old he’s become a champion and a superstar.
It is very ironically similar to how the UFC built up Conor McGregor when he was a young featherweight making his way up the rankings, and eventually his first title. Even similar so much in the energy that both McKee had in his walkout at Bellator 263, to McGregor’s walkout back at UFC 189 against Chad Mendes.
This is not to say that there will be a fall from grace like there has been for other superstars, quite frankly because Bellator knows how to build their talent and most importantly, work with their talent so no one fighter ever feels bigger than the entire promotion.
Following his victory, both AJ McKee and Bellator President Scott Coker discussed the possibility of a move to 155 pounds, similar to what McGregor did after obtaining his first championship as well. But the thing about AJ McKee and Bellator is, he’s not the next McGregor, he’s not the next superstar you have to be sold on, because he’s doing it all himself with the promotion fully pushing him.
There were even suggestions of McKee headling events on CBS and pay-per-view in the future, and the possibility of facing Pitbull in a rematch at lightweight, where he currently holds the title.
The rise of AJ McKee is bigger than a new champion, bigger than a new Bellator star who would be overshadowed by UFC fighters and casual fans, this is a fighter who can change the conversation about Bellator as a whole. McKee is ready and willing to fight any top featherweight or lightweight, no matter the promotion,, and he might very well beat them all.
Gone are the days that the top superstars only resided in the UFC and casual fans only knew them from press conferences. While his father Antonio is a legend who never got the spotlight he deserved from a bigger audience, AJ McKee has the potential to be a game-changing fighter in an era that needs more global superstars.
He’s got the talent, the storylines, the charisma, and the promotion behind him to get to levels never before seen with a Bellator MMA champion, and homegrown product AJ McKee is just getting started.
Mike Pendleton is a current contributor to MyMMANews, BJPenn.com, and TheScrap.Co while also hosting his “On The Mic” podcast and works as an Associate Producer on Sirius XM’s Fight Nation channel.
With a special passion for interviewing and talking to some of the very best around the fight game, you can read or listen to Mike’s work across his multiple outlets.
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