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How Patricio 'Pitbull' broke A.J. McKee's undefeated record and spirit

Motivated by personal loss and trash talk entering Bellator 277, the champ is back with the featherweight title.
patricio-pitbull-freire

The Bellator featherweight title is back in the possession of Patricio "Pitbull" Freire.

Freire defeated A.J. McKee on Friday in the main event of Bellator 277, which was especially satisfying after dropping the belt to him in under two minutes last summer.

Revenge tasted sweet for Freire (33-5 MMA, 21-5 BMMA), who won by unanimous decision and reclaimed the featherweight belt for a third time. He also broke an undefeated record, making McKee (18-1 MMA, 18-1 BMMA) suffer his first-ever defeat in the cage.

"I took something precious from him," said Freire, speaking partially through a translator from his in-laws' house in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil. "I took the zero away from his record. And I brought physical pain to him in the fight. That's an emotional and mental pain for the rest of his life. That serves him right for everything he did and said leading up to the fight."

Freire took umbrage with McKee, with the Bellator title in hand, openly flirting with the idea of fighting for the UFC in the buildup to their bout. That captured the way these two fighters have a stark contrast in personality and approach, and it ultimately led to a tremendous five-round encounter this past Friday.

Prior to the loss against McKee last July, Freire had no peers in Bellator. He was the reigning featherweight and lightweight world champion, and there was even talk of competing for a third title in the bantamweight division. That all changed, suddenly and succinctly, when McKee exploded with an offensive arsenal last summer, stunning Freire on his feet before finishing the fight with a guillotine choke. It appeared the 34-year-old Freire's run of brilliance had come to an end, replaced by a man eight years younger.

Freire entered the rematch as a significant underdog, which, given his credentials, was hard to imagine. Yet that was a reality he refused to accept.

"Even if the world falls apart, I'll never lose confidence in myself," Freire said. "I know what I'm capable of, and I knew I could beat him."

There was a modicum of controversy over the unanimous decision finish, and the look on McKee's face was apoplectic upon learning Freire had won. Yet McKee fought on the back foot for most of the fight, and he was not willing to engage.

"We studied every part of AJ's game so we could dictate this fight, studying all 18 of his fights and my posture in the last fight," Freire said. "Approaching the fight the way I did frustrated him the most. It was mental. The moment he saw I was not going to do what he wanted, that's when his breakdown started.

"AJ shouldn't be surprised by the results. I was the one willing to initiate, and it was pretty clear who was the winner once it was over."

More than settling a personal score, Freire felt an obligation to secure a victory in this fight for his recently deceased friend. Freire dedicated the fight to Daniel Santa Cruz, who lost his life last November at the age of 30 in an accident when he was run over by a truck.

"It was a way for me to give a proper send-off to my friend," Freire said. "The last fight of mine he was able to see was my loss. Me having the belt meant a lot to him. Our relationship was more like father and son, and he was like my oldest son. I dedicated this fight to him."

Freire was holding a hat when he entered the cage, as well as during the announcement of the official decision. That Vaqueiro hat belonged to Santa Cruz, and Freire held it close to his heart.

"That hat came from his grandfather," Freire said. "It's a symbol of the Vaquiero [the Brazilian name for cowboy], and he treasured it. I hold onto it dearly. Doing this for him, it was most important to me."

Now championed as "The King of Rematches," Freire has now won all six of his rematches. For one of the sport's greatest winners, it is the rare losses that bring out the absolute best in him as a competitor.

"Defeats are inevitable," Freire said. "But to remain defeated and stay down, that is a choice. I refuse to remain defeated. So I thank God. Every time I have set my mind to overcome an obstacle, I have been able to do it."

The next order of business for Freire is fulfilling the trilogy against McKee with a third fight. That could prove complicated as McKee has already stated that he wants their third fight at 155 pounds, a point of contention for Freire.

"You can't lose a fight and make demands," Freire said. "He is already chickening out, saying he doesn't want to fight at 145 again. I'm happy to do this at 145. And if it's in Brazil, then that's even more perfect. We need the trilogy. We each have one win, so we need the tie-breaker.

"I didn't do all that I was capable of doing on Saturday. If we have a third fight, I'm going to finish him–and it's going to be fast."

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.