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In contrast to MMA organizations with fairly consistent promotional philosophies over the course of their runs, Bellator MMA has dabbled in all sorts of different approaches. Under Bjorn Rebney, the promotion was structured around tournaments where wins and losses dictated what happened next. When Scott Coker took over, the tournaments initially were abandoned. Since then, the promotion has had nearly as many strategic approaches as television partners.
Bellator had its attempts at pay-per-view, built around in their prime stars. The company attempted freak show fights targeted at broad television audiences, a la K-1. It tried to groom prospects and grabbed high profile blue-chippers that it hoped to bring along slowly. The promotion targeted Europe, attempting to be a dominant player in that region. It even returned to tournaments, albeit more along the lines of Coker’s Strikeforce tournaments, that were in turn modeled on Pride Fighting Championships Grand Prix tournaments rather than what Rebney used to produce.
As a result of Bellator’s often changing promotional vision, the fights that are most remembered and discussed from Bellator’s past tend to be bizarre bouts involving superstars Bellator brought in, rather than high-stakes battles between elite fighters. Kevin Ferguson vs. Ken Shamrock, Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie, “Kimbo Slice” vs. Dhafir Harris and Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar typify that trend. Quinton Jackson vs. Fedor Emelianenko, Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva and Muhammed Lawal vs. Quinton Jackson may not have been as strange but they fit the same pattern.
It remains to be seen how well remembered this Saturday’s bout between Patricio Freire and A.J. McKee will be. A lot of that depends on the eventual legacies of the respective fighters. The unfortunate reality for fighters competing outside the Ultimate Fighting Championship is that they need to prove how talented they are time and time again in order for the general public to fully buy in. Freire’s class as a fighter has been evident for over a decade but media rankings for years rarely had him higher than the fifth best UFC featherweight and often lower than that. It feels like the tide has finally turned on that front but there’s a marked difference between a win Saturday being the crowning achievement in one of the all-time great featherweight careers and an excellent win for one of the best featherweights of his generation.
The bigger variable is of course on the other side. McKee shows the potential to be not just the best fighter in Bellator but the best fighter in the sport. If he can reach that status, the importance of the “Pitbull” fight in Bellator’s history could be all the more pronounced. It could be analogous to Jon Jones’ victory over Mauricio Rua, the emphatic statement that there’s a new dominant American MMA star with the unseating of a proud and accomplished Brazilian champion.
While Bellator hasn’t always been centered on the best of the best squaring off, Freire-McKee has some healthy competition for the status of the best competitive fight in Bellator history. The name that comes up the most in that conversation is Michael Chandler, Freire’s top competition for the most accomplished Bellator fighter. Chandler, as an elite fighter competing at the deep 155-pound weight class, saw plenty of strong competition come his way.
The most famous Chandler fights in Bellator were likely his two bouts with Eddie Alvarez. There are a number of reasons for that. Both men went on to UFC, where Alvarez became lightweight champion and headlined the first show at Madison Square Garden against Conor McGregor. Alvarez at the time had a global rep while Chandler was the unbeaten homegrown Bellator star. Their first fight was also a particularly thrilling one, arguably the best fight of that year. However, Chandler’s high end fights in Bellator went beyond his bouts with Alvarez. His fight with Patricio Freire in a champion vs. champion bout in particular belongs in any conversation of the most competitive high end matchups Bellator put together.
Another of the best showdowns between top Bellator fighters took place at Bellator 97 where 11-0 Ben Askren defended his welterweight title for the fourth time against 13-0 Andrey Koreshkov, fresh off winning a Bellator tournament. Askren handed Koreshkov his first loss and both men continued to prove their class in the following years.
While Bellator usually has been unable to pick up star fighters when they’re still near their career peaks, there have been exceptions. Two of the most notable were Rory MacDonald and Gegard Mousasi. MacDonald signed at age 27, not far removed from his all-time classic with Robbie Lawler, while Mousasi signed at age 31, leaving UFC on a five-fight winning streak. MacDonald quickly won the Bellator welterweight title while Mousasi quickly won the Bellator middleweight title, setting up a top flight champion vs. champion showdown. Mousasi won the contest, another among his 47 wins across Pride, UFC, Strikeforce, Bellator and Dream in one of the all-time most underappreciated MMA careers.
Will Freire vs. McKee stand out above all of those bouts when we look back in a few years? It’s certainly possible. Either way, it’s an exciting weekend for the promotion and a good sign of what the promotion can put on when it invests in high quality talent and gives them time to grow and showcase their skills.