“Pitbull,” Bellator’s franchise star, had a proposal for Coker, the promotion’s president, that night in April 2022. A month earlier, bantamweight champion Sergio Pettis had fallen injured with an ACL tear and needed surgery. Freire’s weight cuts had only gotten easier over the years. So why not move down and try to win the 135-pound title, too?
Coker was flummoxed. “Pitbull” was a three-time Bellator featherweight champion, winning the title for the first time nine years ago. He even once moved up to lightweight to win the 155-pound title. No one in major MMA history has won titles in three weight classes in the same promotion. Furthermore, Freire is in his mid-30s — a time when athletes in this sport are looking for big-money fights, not grueling first-time weight cuts before facing younger, elite opposition.
“I was skeptical at first,” Coker said. “I thought to myself, ‘How is this guy going to make 135?’ He’s so muscular and a pretty beefy guy.”
“Pitbull” looked Coker in the eyes and told him he could do it. And Coker believed him. Coker said Freire has always been a straight shooter with him, whether being positive or critical about the promotion. He’s also a tough guy to doubt, considering all he’s accomplished, including setting just about every significant record in Bellator history.
The timing wasn’t right, though. Bellator was moving forward with its Bantamweight World Grand Prix, in which the winner would become interim bantamweight champion in Pettis’ absence. Who would “Pitbull” face in his pursuit of bantamweight gold? Patchy Mix, who ended up winning the grand prix and interim belt? Or wait for Pettis to heal up?
Fast-forward 14 months later and things have fallen into place. “Pitbull” will try to make history on Friday, challenging a returning Pettis for the title in the co-main event of Bellator 297 in Chicago. It’s a story of continuing to chase accolades, cementing himself as an all-time great and embracing science as he’s grown older.
“I think everything just converged to this,” Freire told ESPN through an interpreter.
This is not something “Pitbull” needed to do for his legacy. He could walk away from MMA tomorrow as Bellator’s best fighter ever with no one even close in the rear-view mirror. He’s the only fighter in Bellator history with four title reigns. Freire has the most wins (22), most wins in title fights (12) and most fights period (27) ever in the promotion. To put that in perspective, Jon Jones, arguably the greatest fighter to ever step in the cage, holds the UFC record with 15 title-fight wins. “Pitbull” would be just two off that mark with a win Friday.
Freire, 35, is also tied for the most finishes in Bellator history (13) with Michael Chandler, the man “Pitbull” knocked out to win the lightweight title in 2019. Chandler has become a top UFC lightweight contender, coming within inches of winning the title. He’s now rubbing shoulders with the biggest star in the sport’s history, Conor McGregor, on this season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show.
Despite all those achievements and favorable comparisons, the Brazilian spark plug remains somewhat overlooked. He’s not ranked on ESPN’s pound-for-pound MMA list and is only No. 4 among featherweights. The fact he has never fought in the UFC has hurt his Q rating, and, as a result, he isn’t always given the credit he deserves. “Pitbull” and most of his opponents are just not as well-known as their peers in the UFC, the world’s biggest MMA promotion.
Freire’s greatness will be hard to ignore if he beats Pettis, though. Winning a third divisional championship would be a marvel. Seven fighters in UFC history and three in Bellator (including Freire himself) have won titles in two divisions. No one in either promotion has won titles in three. On top of that, “Pitbull” will have been a simultaneous double champion twice if he wins Friday — once at lightweight and featherweight and once at featherweight and bantamweight.
“He’ll be the first triple-crown winner of, let’s say, modern MMA or maybe in MMA history,” Coker said. “This will cement his Mount Rushmore status and [status] as one of the greatest fighters of all time in MMA. Because no one has ever done this before.”
Freire said he hasn’t considered what that incredible feat would mean. He’ll have Pettis standing in front of him and can’t afford to think of anything else but Pettis, one of the best bantamweight fighters in the world.
“Every time I have a title fight ahead of me, I don’t think about the consequences or meaning that they could have,” Freire said. “I just focus on the opponent. I try not to put the cart before the horses. Right now, I have to beat Sergio Pettis. And all the consequences and value of that, I’m going to take that out after the fight is over.”
“Pitbull” is coming off a unanimous decision win over Rizin featherweight champion Kleber Koike Erbst last New Year’s Eve in Japan. It was a nontitle bout, but it showed once again Freire’s level against a champion from another promotion. “Pitbull” said it was the easiest weight cut of his career, and it only made sense to drop down to bantamweight at this juncture.
Early in his career, Freire had a different approach. He came up as a teenager training with the likes of Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the Chutebox camp in Brazil. Toughness and aggression were the credos of that legendary gym.
Now, as he’s well into his 30s, Freire has a much different philosophy, one centered on physiology. He tracks everything he does, from sleep to strength and conditioning to food to MMA training. Nothing is unaccounted for. It has allowed him to be utterly confident in moving down to a new weight class in his 19th year as a pro MMA fighter.
“When I wake up, my heart rate is measured,” he said. “We have an app that shows how much I recovered during the night, if I’m ready for practice that morning with the heart rate and exertion that we planned. If not, we adjust on that. My meals, they’re monitored daily, whether I need to eat more or eat less [depending on training].
“Everything from the most irrelevant detail to the most relevant, everything is monitored and addressed day by day, so that way we can anticipate any kind of problem. I have physical therapy before and after every training session. So I wake up, I eat, I train, I rest, then I eat again, I go [to] training again. And before those training sessions I have a physical therapist with me. So, we are doing everything only focused on my performance.”
Freire is so confident that he says he is considering going down to flyweight for another potential title. Bellator is starting its 125-pound division next month.
“Right now, I’m weighing as much as the flyweights from my team do during camp,” Freire said. “I could arrive on fight week at bantamweight. So, why not make 125?”
When Coker was told what Freire had said by a reporter, the promoter stammered.
“One step at a time, man,” Coker reacted to that notion. “One step at a time.”
“Pitbull” has had former UFC double champion Henry Cejudo and UFC middleweight contender Paulo Costa as part of his camp. Cejudo is coming off a tight loss to UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling and has been the UFC bantamweight champion himself. Few better can help Freire prepare for the challenge of Pettis, whom Cejudo has beaten in the past.
Cejudo said he decided to go down to Brazil to train with “Pitbull” in 2016 after he saw Freire fight former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. Cejudo and Freire have similar body types — short and stout — and Cejudo wanted to see what made Freire so effective against a much bigger opponent like Henderson. Plus, “Pitbull” had a prior working relationship with Cejudo’s head coach, Eric Albarracin.
“Patricio is so f—ing good, man,” said Cejudo, who also had aspirations for a third divisional title in the UFC. “Patricio ‘Pitbull’ is the uncrowned pound-for-pound fighter, he really is. Before he had lost to AJ McKee, I thought he was pound-for-pound. Just the fact that he’s able to avenge every loss that he’s ever taken — even now, to me, he’s still the pound-for-pound king. Especially if he goes out there and actually wins at 135 pounds? Guys, what else does this man need to do?”
Former Bellator bantamweight champion Juan Archuleta fought “Pitbull” in 2019, losing by unanimous decision. Archuleta trains regularly with former UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw and UFC featherweight contender Brian Ortega and has also trained with Sterling. Freire, Archuleta said, stacks up well with any of them.
“He’s definitely capable of winning those fights and putting on great shows with those fighters, as well,” Archuleta said.
“Pitbull” has few holes in his game. He’s a proficient striker with knockout power, can stop takedowns and wrestle offensively and is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Freire has 11 wins by knockout and 12 by submission in his career. But Duke Roufus, Pettis’ coach, said Freire’s best attributes might be his heart and toughness. Roufus watched from the corner as Freire had two fierce fights with his fighter Emmanuel Sanchez and came out on top both times.
“I think he could do quite well [against] the UFC featherweight champion,” Roufus said. “It’s not gonna happen, but I’d love to see him and [Alexander Volkanovski] fight each other. ‘Pitbull’ is legit. He’s top of the MMA food chain.”
One of the biggest questions in Freire’s next chase for gold is simply, why? He could very easily continue piling up title defenses at featherweight or demand “money” fights against star fighters in other divisions or organizations. Instead, he’s taking the path less traveled, going down another 10 pounds of weight to face Pettis, an excellent fighter in his own right and six years younger.
The answer is that he’s doing it for himself, to see just how much greatness he can achieve before he leaves the sport.
“I don’t expect the media’s perception to change, even after I accomplish that,” Freire said. “But I wonder how history will look. I know my name will go down in history as one of the greatest. I wonder how people will look back in the past and be like, how come this guy with 12, 13 title wins and getting the third belt … how come this guy was never talked about before? How come he never got Fighter of the Year?
“And now perhaps I need this third belt to be recognized, and after it there’s a chance I even won’t be. So, I know my place in history. I know how it’ll look several years from now. But will these journalists, these fans be ashamed when they look back and they say, ‘Hey, we have this great fighter here and we never gave him his due deeds?'”
When Coker took over Bellator nine years ago in 2014, “Pitbull” was already one of the faces of the promotion. He’s been with Bellator since 2010 and has beaten almost everyone from every generation, including the 28-year-old McKee, the company’s newest golden boy. “Pitbull” and McKee are 1-1 against each other.
Thirteen years after his start, one of the best fighters of his generation is still going for more.
“I think that this guy has, year after year after year, proven that he’s still at the top of his game,” Coker said. “And it’s something that, as a fan, to watch. As a promoter to watch this, it’s pretty special. And I think when the history books are written in the future, ‘Pitbull’ will get his accolades. And I think this is a big step towards him cementing his legacy.”