The Rise of Bellator’s Homegrown Featherweight Stars

Bellator has made great strides over the past couple of years, putting on great events and adding great fighters through free agency such as Rory MacDonald and Benson Henderson to its roster. With the ambition to become the number one mixed martial arts organization in the world, Bellator has to have a roster of stars, not just great fighters. Though great fighters have risen to great heights in Bellator, none have quite changed the game like a few of their competitors’ fighters have. But it looks as if Bellator has a plan or two to change that and their names are James Gallagher, A.J. McKee, and Aaron Pico.

Not only are they connected as rising stars in the organization but they are in the same division. Pico recently redeemed himself after a disappointing debut by knocking out Justin Linn at Bellator 183. Originally McKee and Gallagher were supposed to fight on the same card at Bellator 187 on November 10 in Dublin. With Gallagher out, McKee will look to further his name in Bellator’s featherweight division.

There is no doubt their paths will cross; Gallagher and McKee are looking to make that sooner rather than later as both have already expressed that sentiment. It’s how it’s handled which is extremely important, as always, there is only one opportunity to do it for the first time. The rise of these young stars will help determine the future of the company. Here is how Bellator has handled their future stars so far.

A.J. McKee started his professional career with Bellator when he made an appearance at Bellator 136 in April of 2015 when he submitted Marcos Bonilla. McKee was tested early in his career facing three fellow undefeated prospects in his first four fights. In his fifth fight, McKee was supposed to face Henry Corrales, who was 12-3 at the time, unfortunately, Corrales suffered an injury and had to pull out of the fight.

McKee was once again scheduled to face a tough test, this time in Emmanuel Sanchez who was 13-3 before the fight. But once again, McKee’s foe had to pull out due to injury. Neither of these bouts was rescheduled and McKee was booked against good fighters but not the test everyone would like to see him against. The most puzzling matchup is his current one, McKee was originally scheduled to face Jeremy Petley who has a record of 11-8-1 but will now face Brian Moore who is 10-5 in the main event of Bellator 187. That asks the question, why is Bellator unwilling to test McKee when they previously were? And why did it take an injury for him to headline an event?

Now that McKee is headlining a show and facing a tougher opponent, it partially answers those questions but not completely. McKee should’ve faced Gallagher’s original opponent which would’ve been a tougher fight. There doesn’t seem to be a plan for him and that needs to change if he’s to become a star.

In fact, the biggest cards of the year haven’t had McKee on them. The pay-per-view event and the cards featuring stars such as Fedor Emelianenko, Chael Sonnen, or Rory MacDonald. Those would have been great opportunities to showcase him and continue the hype.

James Gallagher signed with Bellator with much fanfare, not only did he train with the most famous MMA fighter in the world but he learned how to promote from him as well. He quickly backed up the talk by winning his first four Bellator bouts and finishing three of them. The opponents though not well known all provided unique challenges, Chinzo Machida gave him a recognized name to build off at Bellator’s most prolific event at Madison Square Garden. His next fight was supposed to be a showcase fight on a card he would’ve headlined in Ireland against Jeremiah Labiano.

Let’s evaluate the position Gallagher was put in as if he were still on the card.

Though Labiano is a much more experienced fighter, he doesn’t have a well-recognized name. It would’ve been nice to have Gallagher tested against a fighter such as Justin Lawrence or Noad Lahat. Each of those has a similar amount of fights to Labiano but at a higher level and could really have propelled Gallagher to another level. Bellator has done a nice job of putting Gallagher on cards featuring other popular fighters assuring he will get the proper attention. It would’ve been a true test of how marketable he is by having him headline a card in his home country against an unknown fighter.

The last of the trio is Aaron Pico. Pico was signed to a developmental contract while he pursued the Olympics. He’s been featured in the majority of well-known sports publications and been featured on the biggest cards Bellator has offered this year. Pico has faced tough competition from the beginning and lost his first fight by knockout.

He came back strong knocking out his next opponent and solidifying Bellator’s belief in him. Pico currently doesn’t have a fight lined up though it would be wise to have him fight a fighter with less experience even though his talent is obvious.

It’s clear Bellator has talented young fighters on their hands with the capability of becoming stars. However, Bellator has to be careful. They need the right mix of opponents to make them credible fighters and keep them in the public eye. These three fighters should only be fighting on the major cards of the year if not headlining a card and they should only be fighting fighters that have a credible name which ensures more fame if they win and a way out if they lose. It’s time to see if Bellator can truly make a star.


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