It took A.J. McKee only eight seconds to grab his spot in the Featherweight World Grand Prix Quarter Finals. Photo: Facebook/BellatorMMA

Bellator 228: McKee’s steal the show, Pitbull retains FW belt

Bellator returned to the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. with a stacked card, primarily built around the highly anticipated Featherweight title defense of Patricio “Pitbull,” who was set to take on “The Spaniard,” Juan Archuleta. But, there was another featherweight contender on the main card that had other plans for the outer Los Angeles spotlight.

Featherweight World Grand Prix participant, and Long Beach, Calif. native, A.J. McKee, came flying out of the gates in his opening round bout against Georgi Karakhanyan, and made a massive statement to the rest of the quarter-final bound contenders.

McKee, who cornered his father Antonio during his victory earlier on that night during the prelims, had a bit of a chip on his shoulder heading into his own, main card bout. It was no longer just about taking care of Karakhanyan and advancing in the tournament — it was about family pride too. For the first time in U.S. history, a father and son were competing on the same fight card, and after his father, 49, had already completed his end of the bargain, A.J. simply had to go out there in front of his home fans, friends, and family, and get the job done. And boy did he do just that!

Inside eight seconds of the opening round, McKee took advantage of Karakhanyan’s stance change and threw a huge left hand which landed flush on the chin of the Moscow born fighter. Karakhanyan quickly found himself on the canvas, and as soon as he managed to refocus his vision back on McKee, the 24-year-old had an arsenal of ground and pound bombs waiting to put his opponent away.

It was truly even more emphatic than it sounds, and before you knew it, McKee was sticking the landing to an off the cage backflip and demanding the belt atop of the cage, with the Inglewood crowd all on their feet and in a state of euphoria.

That moment was huge in so many ways. “The Mercenary” had just made history alongside his father, maintained his undefeated record (15-0), and sent shockwaves to the rest of the division. And yet, the still young fighter returned back to his composed beyond his years ways almost instantly after leaving the cage, carrying that over into his post-fight media duties, to which he arrived a little late because he was cornering one of his teammates who was competing on the postlims.

“I know I’m a little late, but it’s all about family and teammates, man. It’s all about the support,” said McKee to kick off his post-fight presser which he was sharing with his quarter-final opponent, Derek Campos.

McKee and Campos seemed genuinely excited to face each other in the next round of the tournament, promising a “real scrap” in December when Bellator lands in Hawaii. But among all of this, the most impressive thing was the level head and the ultimate focus on the goal that was shown by the Long Beach native.

Speaking about his highlight reel KO, McKee said that he immediately noticed that Karakhanyan was nervous when he switched stances shortly after the first bell, and that’s when he decided to just step on the gas pedal and go for the kill. That kind of fight IQ is not often seen in too many 24-year-olds.

Overall, it was a tremendous night for the McKee family, and a thrilling quarter-final matchup against Campos for A.J. to look forward to at the end of the year. But at the end of the day, all wins aside, it’s going to come down to who can conquer the reigning champ in Pitbull — who on Saturday cemented himself as by far the best featherweight in the promotion.

Pitbull outclasses Archuleta in a five round battle

Pitbull getting his hand raised following his UD victory over Juan Archuleta. Photo from Facebook/ BellatorMMA

As much as the McKee’s antics clearly stole the show, there was only one man leaving the Forum with not one, but two belts wrapped around his shoulders — and that man was Patricio “Pitbull” Freire.

The Brazilian put on a five round masterclass in his title bout against Juan Archuleta, and really proved to the world who the best 145’er in Bellator is right now. Archuleta had his moments, but there wasn’t really a single round which Pitbull definitively lost. He was better on the feet, sharper in the grappling, and just all around superior to “The Spaniard,” who was riding an 18-fight win streak coming into this fight, on the night.

The Grand Prix format gives everyone an excuse to venture ahead and picture all these contenders with the belt and the $1 million dollars at the end. But a fighter of Pitbull’s caliber can never be overlooked. At 32, Pitbull is likely right now entering the peak of his career, and it showed on Saturday night. And Archuleta, who is the same age, was simply unable to find any answers to what Pitbull was proposing. As soon as the bell concluded round five, you knew exactly who was getting their hand raised. No questions asked.

After a dominant performance, Pitbull was given the “Champ’s Pick” in the Grand Prix Selection Show, which followed his title defense. In that game show like process, all of the quarter finalists were given control of the upcoming matchups, and Pitbull was the last man to go with the whole board available to him. He opted to face SBG Ireland’s Pedro Carvalho in March, 2020. This was in spite of the persistent call outs from Darrion Caldwell, whom he actually replaced in that matchup.

With the tensions high, Pitbull and Caldwell are now on the opposite ends of the bracket, adding a little extra to the hype building around the tournament. Justifying his reasons for that choice in the post-fight press conference, Pitbull explained that he just wasn’t interested in fighting someone who had recently lost two fights in a row, like Caldwell.

The reigning champ also clarified that he did not pick Carvalho because he thinks it is going to be the easiest matchup, explaining that everyone in the tournament is going to present a tough challenge, and that he wanted to go against someone from SBG, as well as the fact that he admires the Portuguese contender’s confidence.

Despite the champ’s praise, Carvalho will go into that title fight as a massive underdog, and on paper, it probably was the “easiest” matchup for Pitbull to take. But, in this sport, you just never know. Any shot at any moment can change everything.

One thing is for certain though, all four quarter-final pairings are interesting. This tournament has shown really just how stacked the Bellator featherweight division is, and now at this point, there is no “easy fights” remaining. And although all roads to the title go through Pitbull, any one of the final eight could go on to win the gold and the cash prize around this time next year.

Featherweight World Grand Prix Quarter-Final Matchups: 

A.J. McKee vs. Derek Campos – December 2019

Adam Borics vs. Darrion Caldwell – January 2020

Daniel Weichel vs. Emmanuel Sanchez – February 2020

Patricio “Pitbull” vs. Pedro Carvalho – March 2020

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BellatorOpinion

Sports journalist based in CA, USA. Twitter: @ArionArmeniakos

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