Bellator champ Patricio Pitbull relieved to avoid fighting slain friend’s son after trying year

Rarely, if ever, has the road through mixed martial arts been easy for Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, but the last year sticks out as especially trying.

There was the loss to Sergio Pettis last June, a failed bid to become the first from a major North American MMA promotion to capture championships in three different weight classes.

Patricio Pitbull walks out to the cage before facing Sergio Pettis on June 16, 2023, in Chicago. Bellator MMA

A six weeks later, the younger half of the Pitbull brothers was flattened in Japan by the less-heralded Chichiro Suzuki, the first time in 42 career bouts in which he was knocked out by strikes — he’d previously only been stopped by a leg injury and a technical submission.

By August, Pitbull had gone under the knife to fix his neck, never ideal for a professional athlete and less so at age 36.

By the time he was to return to the cage in February, Bellator — Pitbull’s promotional home since 2010 — had been sold to PFL, and he was to represent his longtime organization against the new bosses’ most recent featherweight season winner in a champion vs. champion clash; that never came to pass, as Jesus Pinedo pulled out a week before with a back injury and replacement foe Gabriel Braga never made it to the scale.

At this point, it’s almost a victory in and of itself if Pitbull (35-7, 23 finishes) gets to compete at all Friday in Belfast, Northern Ireland when he puts his Bellator 145-pound title on the line again — for the first time under the new regime — against Jeremy Kennedy.

“[Kennedy] doesn’t care if it’s ugly or not. He’s a good opponent,” Pitbull recently told The Post via an interpreter over video call. “He’s a good test, and I’m looking forward to getting there in Belfast and defending my title once again.”

As much as Pitbull was disappointed to have two fights fall out in about a week last month, the former Bellator lightweight champion dreaded the hastily booked second bout against Braga.

Understandable, given that Pitbull trained over the years with Braga’s father Diego, who in January was killed by suspected drug traffickers in their native Brazil in a case of mistaken identity. 

Patricio “Pitbull” Freire (left) and Scott Coker Lucas Noonan

Clearly, both men would have been fighting with a heavy heart at PFL vs. Bellator in Saudi Arabia for the same reason, tasked with looking to hurt each other after watching each other grow for many years — Braga from a boy into a 25-year-old PFL finalist, Pitbull from up-and-coming featherweight buzz saw into the esteemed Bellator record holder with 23 victories for the promotion.

“When I got onto the scale and I saw he wasn’t at the waiting room, and then everyone else said that he wouldn’t be fighting, I felt a bit of relief because that’s not a fight I was wanting to do; I don’t want to fight if I don’t have to,” Pitbull explains. “So it was actually a relief for me that we didn’t fight, especially under these circumstances.”

Pitbull remembers the elder Braga, who was a 44-year-old MMA veteran of 16 years, as a great man, friend and father as well as “a very good example for everyone.”

“He’s a great guy that had opened doors everywhere,” Pitbull says. “He was always welcoming wherever he went to. He always shined where he was. And it was great to train with him all those years. The sport of MMA, everyone loses a lot with him being away.”

Having avoided a heart-wrenching matchup, Pitbull turns his attentions to Kennedy and the Bellator — officially rechristened Bellator Champions Series after PFL’s acquisition of its rival for second banana to the UFC — featherweight division, defending a championship he last put up for grabs in October 2022 while chasing history and facing cross-promotional opponents from Rizin FF.

Friday also marks Pitbull’s first chance to see how his body holds up in a real fight after cervical spine surgery in early August, shortly after the knockout loss to Suzuki at 154 pounds — essentially a lightweight contest.

“It was several months of recovery,” Pitbull said. “Took me a long time to be close to 100 percent. I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent again because, once you make those surgeries, there are some minor setbacks. But I feel ready to compete with the best in my weight class and to continue defending my title.”

This won’t be the first time Pitbull has experienced a changing of the guard at the top of Bellator.

At 22, Pitbull debuted during the second season — as was the format at the time — while Bjorn Rebney was president of the fledgling organization, and he won the featherweight title for the first of three times just short of three months after former Strikeforce boss Scott Coker took the reins in June 2014.

This time, however, when signs were pointing to PFL acquiring Bellator from previous owner Paramount, the loyal Pitbull expressed some interest in testing free agency and allowing some consideration to a jump to the UFC, one he’d avoided despite a decade as one of the elite worldwide at 145 pounds.

The jury remains out if that will come to pass when Pitbull’s contract runs out — soon, he says, without going into specifics — and he’s focused on the fight directly in front of him first.

“When the time comes, we’ll see what’s on the table, what Bellator/PFL has to offer to me,” Pitbull said.”There are other opportunities out there. I don’t close the door to anything.”

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