"Pitbull" is not ready to pass the torch just yet.
Patricio Freire, Bellator's franchise fighter, gutted out a unanimous decision win (49-46, 48-47, 48-47) over previously undefeated prodigy AJ McKee to win back the featherweight title in the main event of Bellator 277 on Friday night in San Jose, California. McKee beat "Pitbull" for the title via submission in just 1:57 of the first round last July.
Freire is now a three-time Bellator featherweight champion.
"That day, I came in peace," Freire said, referring to his loss to McKee last summer. "Today, I came for war. And I'm bringing the belt home."
It was a hard-fought, close battle between two of the best fighters in the world outside the UFC. ESPN had McKee ranked No. 3 and "Pitbull" ranked No. 5 in the world at featherweight coming in.
There was plenty of talk leading into this fight about how McKee, a 27-year-old whom many believe is a future superstar, would fare in a fight with UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski. But "Pitbull" silenced those discussions Friday night. He did solid work in the early rounds, peppering McKee with leg kicks and punching combinations. In the third, he dropped McKee briefly with an overhand right and grabbed a tight guillotine.
McKee was able to escape that submission and do some of his best work in the late rounds. McKee landed solid combinations in the fourth round and several takedowns in the fifth, nearly getting Freire's back at one point. In the closing minutes, McKee did his most damage, landing combos with his hands, a takedown and a hard elbow against the cage.
"He's a tough guy," Freire said. "He's a great opponent. It was a hard fight to me."
Freire (33-5) has won eight of his past nine bouts, including a 61-second knockout of current UFC lightweight contender Michael Chandler at lightweight back in 2019. The Brazil native held both the Bellator featherweight and lightweight titles from 2019 to 2021. He lost the featherweight belt to McKee and relinquished the lightweight gold last November to focus on featherweight.
Freire, 34, has the most wins (21), the most featherweight wins (20) and the most title fight wins (11) in Bellator history.
McKee (18-1) had his Bellator record 18-fight winning streak snapped with the loss. The California native beat Freire last July to win the title and the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix tournament, which netted him $1 million. McKee, whose father and coach, Antonio, was a longtime MMA fighter, has an unclear future with Bellator. As a titleholder, he was locked into a contract due to the promotion's champions clause. But now he no longer holds the belt.
The Bellator 277 co-main event ended in a bizarre no-contest. Corey Anderson landed an accidental head clash from top position onto Vadim Nemkov, who was cut badly due to the illegal blow. Referee Frank Trigg stopped the bout and ruled it a no-contest at 4:55 of the third round.
Nemkov retained the Bellator light heavyweight title. The two were also competing in the finals of the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix tournament, for $1 million. It seems likely there will be a rematch to decide that prize. Anderson seemed en route to a win when the head clash happened. When Trigg informed him of the no-contest decision, he threw a bottle of water across the cage.
Trigg ruled it a no-contest because of the accidental nature of the foul. Had the bout gone into the fourth round, it would have gone to the scorecards for a technical decision. But because the stoppage came within the first three rounds, it had to be either a no-contest or a disqualification by rule.