Some of the biggest names in Bellator MMA history, past and present, were atop the marquee on Saturday in Long Beach, California.
Patricio Pitbull, the most decorated fighter in the promotion’s history, made the first defense of his third reign as featherweight champion in the main event and AJ McKee successfully returned from his first pro defeat.
Let’s take a look at the biggest takeaways from Bellator 286.
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1. Patricio Pitbull remains Bellator’s best then, now and forever
Fresh off of regaining his 145-pound title in April by outpointing McKee in their rematch, Pitbull put forth yet another strong five-round performance to disarm Adam Borics. At 35, the Brazilian slugger proved he’s thinking about anything but retirement as controlled distance so clinically against a younger, taller and longer kickboxer. Pitbull also routinely met any Borics advancement with hard counter shots, typically with the right hand. The former two-division champion is pound-for-pound the best fighter Bellator has ever known and isn’t close to slowing down anytime soon.
2. Spike Carlyle never, ever fails to entertain
Everyone’s favorite TV fighter left nothing to chance in an outright reckless 30-second start to Round 1 against McKee that was as chaotic as it was intoxicating. Carlyle, already big for the 155-pound division, also succeeded at providing a physical challenge and test for McKee in his lightweight debut even if theMcKee landed just about everything he wanted, but Carlyle kept coming forward despite the blood and swelling he had acquired. Carlyle may not be close to McKee’s level from a technical standpoint, but his athleticism paired nicely with his fearless tendencies to produce magic.
3. The Pitbull-McKee trilogy window is quickly closing
According to Pitbull’s post-fight interview, he was hoping to defend his featherweight title one more time against Aaron Pico before an eventual move down to 135 pounds to seek a title in a third weight class. The Pico fight appeared to fall apart afterwith Jeremy Kennedy, which was declared a TKO loss. The idea of Pitbull moving to bantamweight is both potentially historic and worthy of respect. But he may find the immediate future his last chance at fighting McKee a third time, especially considering next year’s Bellator MMA Lightweight World Grand Prix tournament will likely keep McKee occupied for nearly two years. It’s not that Pitbull has all that much to gain by fighting McKee again, however. He’s fresh off a disputed decision win and would likely be the betting underdog. But for Bellator to capitalize on the potential of this rivalry coming to a conclusion, it may be now or never again.
4. McKee will be stronger in the long run for having absorbed a loss
Heading into fight week, McKee’s revelation about having endured a complete mental breakdown in the aftermath of his first pro defeat became a talking point as questions abound as to whether his focus was where it needed to be. It turns out McKee was just fine, in a new weight class, no less. While his performance was expected given the talent disparity between he and Carlyle, McKee passed every single test when it came to his intangibles and whether he would be physically strong enough to compete in the new division.
5. Whether necessary or not, Pico showed a superhuman desire to keep fighting
A dislocated left shoulder suffered in Round 1 against Kennedy led to some of the most bizarre theater MMA has seen in years. Pico tried unsuccessfully to pop his own shoulder back into place while attempting to fight off the standing clinch and ground attack of Kennedy. Between rounds, head trainer Brandon Gibson attempted the same thing in an increasingly aggressive manner. Finally, the cageside physician and referee conspired to waive the fight off, despite protests from Pico while his left arm was left dangling. While the loss likely cost Pico an immediate title shot against Pitbull, his intense reaction to the injury must be respected. Pico showed the heart of a champion — maybe too much heart — and was willing to risk permanent injury to keep his shots at winning alive. While such extreme energy can easily be misused, it speaks to Pico’s toughness and commitment. He may have endured very public setbacks over the years, which saw his original billing as “MMA’s best prospect in history” called into question, Pico still has enough time at age 26 to fulfill his bright potential.