The Bellator MMA Featherweight Title: A Visual History

By Ben Duffy Aug 3, 2021
On Saturday, A.J. McKee completed his undefeated journey from prospect to contender to champion, and made his case to be considered the top featherweight in the sport.

In the main event of Bellator 263, the 26-year-old Californian needed less than two minutes to obliterate a dominant champion in Patricio Freire. A head kick and uppercut rocked the Brazilian badly, and after a premature walk-off, McKee jumped back in and applied a guillotine choke for the finish. By so doing, the “Mercenary” picked up the Bellator featherweight grand prix title as well as Freire’s regular title, and extended what is almost certainly the longest undefeated streak for a fighter within a single promotion in MMA history.

Considering that McKee and “Pitbull” dominated most of the division’s upper echelon on the way to their tournament final, it’s entirely possible their next fight will be against one another. That means that for the foreseeable future, Freire will remain right in the featherweight title picture; it would be difficult to overstate the extent to which Freire has been synonymous with the featherweight belt. There is a certain amount of round-robin parity; along with Freire, Pat Curran and Daniel Straus are both two-time champs, as they snatched the belt from one another repeatedly for a couple of years. However, “Pitbull” came out of that free-for-all as the clear alpha dog. In the entire history of the division, there have been 18 title fights, and Freire has been in 12 of them, going 9-3.

Before any of those gentlemen, however, there was Joe Soto, Bellator’s first featherweight champion. Soto was in fact the promotion’s first champ, period, preceding Hector Lombard and Lyman Good by a week. He and Joe Warren—who was a late starter in MMA and physically better suited to bantamweight—held down the fort until the triumvirate of Freire, Curran and Straus arrived.

Ben Duffy/ illustration

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