Patricio Freire stands as one of the most notable and longest-tenured fighters in Bellator MMA’s nine-year history. Despite having headlined many events during his career, the Brazilian feels underutilized by the promotion as he approaches his latest featherweight title defense at Bellator 209 on Thursday in Tel Aviv, Israel.
“Pitbull” holds organizational records for appearances, wins and finishes. However, as the company has grown, he has become frustrated with what he views as a lack of a legitimate push.
“My complaint was that I always brought in the ratings,” Freire told Sherdog.com, “but I didn’t get the promotion.”
Throughout Bellator President Scott Coker’s tenure, many events have been headlined by established but past-their-prime fighters like Tito Ortiz, Chanel Sonnen, Quinton Jackson and Fedor Emelianenko. Significant promotional muscle was put behind those shows but focused less on the homegrown talents filling out the cards. Freire, 31, aired his grievances with BloodyElbow.com earlier this year: “They should use these fights to build us, not the other way around. Once these guys are gone, so are their numbers.”
Little has changed, as evidenced by the fact that the Brazilian will headline another non-tentpole event for the organization in a matter of days. Freire believes he has built a strong following with his fan-friendly style, which has resulted in 20 stoppage wins in his 31-fight career.
“I always had bigger ratings than those guys and much bigger than the average right now,” he said. “People like to see me fight. I’m a violent fighter.”
Freire’s claims hold some truth. In three of the last four events he has headlined, Bellator has averaged better than 700,000 viewers; his Bellator 178 title bout against Daniel Straus did 949,000 viewers. The lowest-rated event of the four featured his most recent appearance -- a rematch with Daniel Weichel -- and averaged 391,000 viewers. However, it took place in Italy and aired on tape delay in the Western Hemisphere.
“I am one of the biggest draws in Bellator history, [and] I have the numbers to prove that,” Freire said. “The problem is the organization doesn’t push me correctly. They do not give me the promotion that I should have. If they did, my numbers would be much higher.”
His latest assignment figures to aggravate “Pitbull” further. Once again competing abroad, his fight will not be shown live to all audiences.
“Look at this year. I wanted to fight but I had to wait until July, and I fought in Italy on tape delay,” Freire said. “Now I’m going to fight in Israel, and that’s going to be on tape delay, [too]. The numbers of my last fight [had] better ratings than Michael Chandler’s last fight. [He’s] the guy that’s pushed more than anyone in Bellator. They make him their poster boy, but the ratings for his last fight were trash.”
Chandler appeared in the main event for Bellator 197, which averaged 242,000 viewers on April 13 -- a new ratings low for the company on the Paramount Network. When asked about what he believed to be the motives behind his perceived lack of support, Freire was at a loss.
“It’s a question I ask myself all the time, because I don’t know,” he said. “I know the value that I have. I know that people like to watch me, so I don’t understand why I haven’t fought on some bigger cards, or why my cards aren’t being made bigger.”
Freire’s latest challenge comes in the form of Roufusport export Emmanuel Sanchez, who has established a reputation as a grinder who likes to make fights ugly. He has gone the distance in 12 of his 20 pro bouts. While Sanchez’s stats may not jump off the page, Freire does not plan to underestimate him.
“He is a guy that doesn’t look like he hurts you, but he compensates with constant pressure. He’s very good in the stand-up, [and] he has an aggressive ground game,” he said. “I believe he is going to be a tough challenger for me, and it’s going to be an interesting puzzle for me to solve. He will come in [and] he will try his best, but when the fight is over, you’ll realize that everything he did to prepare for this fight just isn’t enough to get this belt. He hasn’t fought a guy that hits as hard as me, and my ground game is much better. I’m a far superior fighter than him.”
Should he retain his championship at Bellator 209, the possibilities seem endless for “Pitbull.” Bantamweight titleholder Darrion Caldwell has already dipped his toes in the 145-pound waters, setting the stage for a potential champion-versus-champion showdown; the undefeated A.J. McKee has set records during his run in the promotion; former multi-division King of the Cage champion Juan Archuleta seems primed for shot at Bellator gold; and uber-prospect Aaron Pico has himself on the radar with four consecutive first-round finishes.
“I believe Bellator is going to choose the one that talks more trash,” Freire said. “All of these guys that have been talking about me, they’re going to get their beating.”
In relation to the current crop of contenders, Freire admits McKee has drawn his attention more than all the others. The 23-year-old last appeared at Bellator 205, where he knocked out John Teixeira da Conceicao in just 69 seconds to improve to 12-0.
“At the moment, A.J. McKee is the one that has done the most [at featherweight] and perhaps he could be champion, but that’s only going to happen after I retire,” Freire said.
“Pitbull” could also test himself in other divisions, even though Bellator officials have been resistant to the idea thus far.
“We could have me fighting even at welterweight,” Freire said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I told them I could fight at 135 or 170 [pounds]. I’ve already asked to fight in those weight classes. They were the ones that didn’t want to put me in them.”
The recent Demetrious Johnson-Ben Askren “trade” between the Ultimate Fighting Championship and One Championship opens up another possibility for Freire. He would not be opposed to a change in scenery, as long he gets the chance to prove doubters wrong against the other top 145-pound fighters in the sport.
“If Bellator trades me to the UFC or if they get [fighters like Max Holloway, Brian Ortega or Frankie Edgar] from the UFC …,” Freire said. “Every single guy that people think is ranked above me I would like to fight and prove people wrong.”