Kayla Harrison and A.J. McKee are two of a kind. The duo is the face of Bellator and PFL, respectively. They are two local talents that made their MMA debuts alongside the promotions and grew up with them. They went on to be two of the top fighters in each weight class, despite not having ever stepped foot in the UFC. Harrison is now locked into a long-term deal with the PFL. The two-time Olympic gold-medalist has – signed a multiyear contract this week which will see her remain under the umbrella of the PFL for the near future. McKee, likewise, is finally slated to return in a featherweight title rematch against Patricio Freire on April 15 at Bellator 277 after a nine-month layoff.
But who has the higher promotional ceiling? If two of the brightest talents outside the UFC never actually step foot inside the octagon, who has the best chance to still become a household name? Today’s Roundtable features Jed Meshew, Alexander K. Lee and Damon Martin discussing the promotion potential of the undefeated pair.
Agree? Disagree? Are you a disagreeable?
Lee: Don’t count A.J. McKee out of the proverbial MVP race just yet.
First things first, we can all admit that Bellator dropped the ball following McKee’s momentous win over Patricio Pitbull last July to the point that it feels like it happened 18 months ago and not eight. And as fun as their second fight will be, it’s not exactly as if the MMA masses were clamoring for an immediate rematch.
But, make no mistake: Bellator is able to claim Antonio as a star because of the man he represents. It’s a strong reminder that not all the greatest fighters are able to compete in the octagon.
This is a distinction that a non-UFC promotion should make, regardless of whether they are Bellator or ONE Championships or any other promotions. Bellator already has contenders at light heavyweight (Vadim Nemkov, Corey Anderson), middleweight (Gegard Mousasi), and women’s featherweight (Cris Cyborg) who are indisputably in the top 5 of their respective divisions (if you want to throw bantamweights Sergio Pettis and Kyoji Horiguchi into the discussion, I won’t fight you), but even among those names McKee stands out.
He’s homegrown, having never fought for any promotion besides Bellator. He’s undefeated. He’s only 26.
Though one could argue that he has to prove himself against the likes of UFC stars like Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway, shouldn’t the opposite also be true? Is McKee even possible to argue with?
McKee’s mastery of the 145-pound division has been a sight to behold and that’s key (pun not intended) to understanding his promotional value. He’s slick as hell, a supreme athlete, and he hasn’t shown any weaknesses yet. It’s difficult to see this man fighting and not think about the possibility that he might be the greatest featherweight in the entire world.
You can’t even knock his level of competition in this discussion as it pertains to Kayla Harrison, because — credit to all the fighters who have stepped up to provide the PFL with enough bodies for a lightweight tournament — there’s no actual 155-pound division in women’s MMA to speak of yet. Harrison might be leading the charge, but her dominance has ironically threatened her credibility (see also: Cyborg, Cris, circa 2008-2016). McKee has the better resume, as long as she stays in Bellator and McKee in the PFL. Harrison doesn’t sound like she wants to be back in the PFL trucking field, which is bad for business.
It hasn’t been the flashiest climb to the top for McKee, but his championship run is just beginning, and when it’s all said and done and he’s added a few marquee names to his resume, I predict the history books will look favorably on him and Bellator.
Al-Shatti: I mean, is this really a debate? It’s Kayla Harrison! She’s already a bigger name than A.J. McKee! McKee! Although anecdotal evidence must always be considered with caution, I have had several people ask me if the Olympic champ who is destroying women’s lives on prime-time television is real. A.J. has never been mentioned to me. McKee mention outside of the MMA space. Make of that what you will.
The funny thing is, my guy Alexander K. Lee isn’t even wrong. Everything he wrote applies. McKee does have the stronger resume and likely always will. He legitimately may be the best 145-pound fighter in the world.
But, here’s an unsettling secret. It doesn’t really matter because we are answering the question. Alexander Volkanovski is most people’s No. 1 featherweight in the sport and he isn’t even close to becoming a household name. Success doesn’t always translate to fame in combat sports, and the reality is that McKee is fighting more of an uphill battle in Bellator than Harrison is in PFL, if only because Harrison has ESPN as a major mainstream partner to help promote her fights and keep her in the public eye.
Have you seen Bellator’s ratings since moving to Showtime? They’re alarming. Maybe that’s not a surprise when you consider the merry-go-round of broadcast partners they rifled through in recent years only to eventually land behind a paywall, but Bellator hasn’t felt like this much of a hardcores-only viewing experience since the days of Bjorn Rebney. How much can strength of schedule actually matter if only a handful of people are watching?
Let’s also not forget a point AK touched on just a few paragraphs ago — after the botch job they had with McKee last year, do any of us have faith in Bellator’s ability to propel fighters to stardom right now? The Pitbull win should’ve been the layup of all layups from a promotional standpoint. Instead, McKee disappeared for nearly a year and lost all the momentum he once had. PFL isn’t exactly churning out Conor McGregors either, but until I’m proven wrong, my trust in Bellator to capitalize on the moment is low.
One last point in Harrison’s favor: Without question, the Cyborg fight is the biggest fight available to either of the names in question here. Cyborg will soon be out of contract, even if Bellator refuses to co-promote. PFL knows that fight is exactly the kind of marquee attraction that could capture mainstream eyeballs and catapult Harrison to another level. McKee, what potential matchup?
I’m as big of him fan as anyone — McKee might be the best homegrown talent Bellator has ever produced, and he’s definitely a top-3 featherweight in MMA — so I hate to be this guy, but ultimately we’re talking about someone with less than 7,000 followers on Twitter. In terms of being recognizable, Harrison has a clearer path to the promise land.
Martin: Right now, Kayla Harrison is certainly the bigger name, but over time A.J. McKee has a much better opportunity to usurp her in terms of superstar status, and it really comes down to just one major factor.
As much as Bellator blew it by not pushing McKee to the stratosphere after he went scorched earth on Patricio Pitbull in his last outing to become featherweight champion, he remains an electric personality with the potential to become an all-time great across two divisions in the Paramount-owned company. McKee will first have to dispatch Pitbull for a second time, and while a rematch at lightweight prior to the Brazilian relinquishing his 155-pound title made more sense, it will still be a very interesting second fight between them.
Assuming McKee is victorious, he can then pursue a fight against Patricky Pitbull, who is the current reigning Bellator lightweight champion. McKee expressed an interest in possibly switching to boxing, after he was an analyst for a pair of card headlined Jake Paul. To add to that, Paul has said he welcomes the chance to have a MMA/boxing hybrid card promoted by Showtime, which could be another huge boost to McKee’s relevance across combat sports.
Kayla Harrison, meanwhile, is an incredible athlete and one of the best pound-for-pound women’s fighters in the sport, but has far less opportunity for marquee matchups. She’s currently staring down a field of bloated bantamweights to face her at 155 pounds in the PFL, with a possible fight against ex-Bellator champ Julia Budd as the highest rated opponent she could face this year. Although the PFL is pushing Bellator to promote a card in which Harrison might meet Cris Cyborg, it appears highly unlikely that this will happen.
With the PFL on ESPN and Bellator owned by Paramount, putting those two entities together in a co-promotion will be a difficult endeavor, especially considering there’s no guarantee that Harrison vs. Cyborg would actually do big business.
Harrison already competes in a nonexistent weight class for women at 155 pounds, and even if she drops down to 145 pounds, things don’t get that much better. At least McKee has interesting matchups available to him at both featherweight and lightweight, with Bellator having the ability to pursue even more opponents for him through free agency. That all adds up to McKee getting more exposure and facing better competition, while Harrison will likely face Larissa Pacheco for the fifth time by the end of 2023.
Meshew: The answer is Kayla Harrison and it’s not particularly close. You know why? She is already a greater star than McKee. Harrison competed in a category that doesn’t technically exist for almost all of her career. But people noticed and she became a free agent. Yes, it is possible to boost your Q score by winning two consecutive Olympic gold medals.
But Harrison isn’t just a recipient of the Olympic golds. It’s everything else too. Harrison is a sex-offender and cuts pro-wrestling promos from the microphone after the match. In her free time, she hangs out with Henry Cejudo and Khabib Nurmagomedov, who are some of the most prominent names in MMA. She’s a trash-talking, gold medal flaunting, certified female badass who markets the crap out of herself every chance she gets. She’s basically Strikeforce Ronda Rousey except everyone loves her.
But it’s not just Harrison’s pedigree or performances that make her a bigger star, it’s the promotions that the two fighters compete for. The PFL has shown a concerted interest in bringing in new talent to face Harrison, signing Julia Budd to the organization last year, one of the best featherweights in the world. You can also bet that Cris Cyborg will make a huge offer from the PFL to host that fight when her deal with Bellator expires. Those two fights are enormous fights for Harrison, the biggest ones available outside of an Amanda Nunes scrap that has suddenly lost some of its luster. Meanwhile, A.J. A.J. Add in that PFL is on ESPN and Bellator is on Showtime and Harrison is really running up the score here.
Harrison is going to spend 2022 putting the boots to Julia Budd and then winning another lightweight tournament, and building a fight with Cris Cyborg, who will sign with the PFL in the fall. By this time next year, Harrison may well be a household name. Meanwhile, McKee will still be struggling in ignominy, fighting the Mads Burnells of the world and waiting for his contract to run up.