Bellator 255: Even as a two-division champ, Patricio Freire still fighting like a 'Pitbull' for recognition

Patricio "Pitbull" Freire, Bellator's only current two-division champion, puts his featherweight belt will be on the line Friday. Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports

HENRY CEJUDO WAS in front of his television on Aug. 26, 2016, watching a Bellator MMA card headlined by a bout between Patricio "Pitbull" Freire and former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson.

It was four months after Cejudo's first career loss, which came in a UFC title fight against flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson. Cejudo wanted to watch Freire, who was similar in size to him and shared the same coach, Eric Albarracin, against the bigger Henderson. What Cejudo saw was an evolved Pitbull working out of a karate stance. Freire lost the fight due to a leg injury, but he was very effective against Henderson that night.

Cejudo was sold. He flew down to Natal, Brazil, with Albarracin and spent a month training with Freire and his karate coach, Mano Santana. Cejudo took the fighting style back with him to the UFC -- and it produced runs to the UFC flyweight and bantamweight titles.

"I stole his stance," Cejudo told ESPN. "I stole his distance. ... I owe a lot of my success to Patricio Pitbull."

Cejudo, who is now retired yet constantly teases a return, is one of only four fighters in history to hold UFC titles in two weight classes at the same time. He has seen firsthand the best the UFC has to offer, and in his view, Freire is perhaps the greatest in the world. Freire, too, is a two-division champ, currently reigning in Bellator at both featherweight and lightweight. He owns a first-round knockout win over Michael Chandler, who will be fighting for the UFC lightweight title on May 15.

Yet, in large part because he fights for Bellator and not the UFC, Freire is not widely recognized among the best fighters in MMA. His name does not appear in ESPN's pound-for-pound rankings.

On Friday, Freire will try once again to gain recognition when he puts his featherweight belt on the line against Emmanuel Sanchez in the main event of Bellator 255 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. The bout also is a semifinal in the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix. Freire, whom ESPN does rank No. 4 among featherweights, is looking to add a tournament title to a miles-long list of accomplishments.

"Until somebody knocks him off, I think he's the best featherweight in the world right now," Bellator president Scott Coker said.

FREIRE SAT ALONE in his Natal living room watching UFC 257 on Jan. 23. When Chandler, making his UFC debut, knocked out Dan Hooker in the co-main event, Freire let out some excited expletives. He was happy for his fellow longtime Bellator fighter. But there was also some empathy.

"Chandler, just like myself, has spent most of his career in Bellator and he spent his entire time as a top fighter with people doubting his skills, his opponents and his results," Freire said. "He claimed he was No. 1. I relate to him. I'm going through that right now.

"Of course it crossed my mind that I could go in there [to the UFC] and do the same thing. It's not a good position to be in, but it's the nature of this sport. Of course, I would like to show everyone."

At Bellator 221 on May 11, 2019, Freire moved up to lightweight to challenge for the title -- and knocked Chandler out in 61 seconds. For Freire, it was perhaps the biggest win of a career that has seen many victories. Freire has the most wins (19) in Bellator history and is one of only two of the promotion's fighters to become a double champion, along with heavyweight/light heavyweight Ryan Bader. He has the most featherweight victories in Bellator history (18) and is tied with Chandler for the most title fights (11). Freire is on a six-fight winning streak and he has made six featherweight title defenses.

Despite all that, he suffers from the perception that Bellator doesn't have the level of talent that the UFC does. There is certainly an element of truth to that, though it doesn't necessarily mean Freire wouldn't beat the top UFC featherweights and lightweights. Look at what Chandler did to Hooker. And another former Bellator lightweight champion, Eddie Alvarez, became a UFC champion in the same division.

"There's still some people that don't think that highly of me," Freire said. "There are still some people that don't have me in the top five when I should be No. 1. I think of myself as the No. 1. There's only one real way to know that for sure, and it's to have us fight each other in cross-promotions."

That is very unlikely, though. The UFC historically has not been at all interested in promoting events with another MMA company. And last August, when UFC president Dana White was asked at a press conference about what he thought of Freire as a fighter, he said he didn't know.

"It was just Dana White being Dana White," Freire said. "The same crap just because I'm [in Bellator]. I'm pretty sure he knows who I am."

After hearing White's comments, Freire challenged UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski to a fight, offering to bet White $1 million that he would win. There has been no response.

One way to settle the question of who's best: Freire someday signing with the UFC. He is just 33 years old. Chandler made the jump at 34. Freire said he has thought about it, but has never actually become a free agent. He's happy with Bellator and the money he makes there. He's the top fighter in the organization, and Freire said his fight purses are more lucrative than those of some top-five fighters in the UFC, including some champions.

IF FREIRE NEVER does test himself in the UFC, the question likely will remain about whether or not he'll get the respect he deserves as an elite fighter. Coker thinks that Bellator now airing on Showtime, with a renewed commitment from parent company Viacom, will help Freire's case. Coker said the three keys to building a star are "continuity, consistency and a great TV partner." Bellator has bounced around among several outlets over the years, from Fox Sports to Spike TV to CBS Sports Network.

"What would Michael Jordan be if they didn't have him on TV?" Coker said. "Now we have a home. It's great for the company. ... There's a propaganda machine over there [at the UFC], and they have a very good one. To me, it is what it is. Our victories over there will be a reminder to people that, 'Hey, it's not the league, it's the athlete that's fighting that really makes a difference.' Michael Chandler is a good example."

If Chandler wins UFC gold when he faces Charles Oliveira next month, it'll feel like another mark in the win column for Freire. But with no impending matchups against the likes of Volkanovski, Max Holloway or Brian Ortega -- the best 145-pounders in the UFC -- it's very hard to pinpoint exactly where Freire stands in MMA's featherweight hierarchy.

At least for many people. Not Cejudo.

Freire has been a mentor for Cejudo for several years, the former UFC double champ said. He was the last person Cejudo would call on the phone for advice before his fights. That is how highly someone considered one of the best fighters in the world values the man known as Pitbull.

"Man, to me he's pound-for-pound," Cejudo said. "Look, he got rid of the guy fighting for the belt [Chandler] ... in a minute. In my eyes, that's the pound-for-pound king."