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Bellator 263, The Morning After: Bellator finds its star in AJ McKee

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Here’s what you may have missed last night!

Bellator 263 Open Workouts Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Tournaments have been an aspect of mixed martial arts (MMA) is one form or another since its inception.

Lining up four, eight or 16 combatants in brackets serves different purposes to different entities. For the fighters and fans, it’s typically seen as the most concise method for determining the best athlete. Of course, injuries, alternates and iffy officiating can muddy those waters, but that is mostly the truth.

For promotions, however, the goal is to generate drama. Tournaments produce stars, because no matter how the match ups shake out, one man steps upon a major pedestal and takes home all the glory.

A.J. McKee was that man last night.

Fighting very likely the most decorated fighter on Bellator’s roster, McKee did not appear overwhelmed by the moment. No, the 26-year-old Featherweight smartly made use of his range advantage, hanging back and poking at the champion with long kicks. After a couple minutes of targeting the lower body, McKee promptly kicked Patricio Freire in the face.

A quick flurry and guillotine choke later, and the Brazilian was asleep.

It was a spectacular result from “The Mercenary” in a tournament full of them. To win Bellator’s Featherweight strap and the $1 million grand prize, McKee first knocked out Georgi Karakhanyan before submitting Derek Campos with an armbar. A pair of incredible wins to be sure, but McKee upped the ante further by landing a rare neck crank submission over former Bellator kingpin Darrion Caldwell!

Four terrific victories in four trips to the cage — how can you deny McKee as one of the best in the world? His first title defense is must-watch if you care about MMA beyond the UFC even a teeny bit.

McKee’s victory is also a win for Bellator. He’s one of their gambles, one of the fighters they signed to a significant contract from the genesis of his professional careers. Bellator does this from time-to-time, offering relatively big money to talented, but unproven, athletes. Prior to McKee’s rise, the most notable example was Aaron Pico.

The tricky part about this strategy is that no set of wrestling credentials or connections in the fighting business guarantees success. Setbacks can occur in the blink of an eye, and they can be downright demoralizing even to top-tier prospects. Bellator will surely lose money on several athletes trying to home-grow someone like McKee.

Somehow, things never seem to work out for Bellator. On their biggest events, every fight goes to a decision, or a strange nut kick-related disqualification hampers the show. Some mayhem or mishap strangles what should have been a great night of action.

Last night was a win for A.J. McKee, for the promotion, and for MMA as a whole. A touch of competition in the MMA sphere is a good thing, after all, and maybe another couple standouts like McKee could really change Bellator’s position in the grand scheme of combat sports.

For complete Bellator 263 results and play-by-play, click HERE.