Bellator Champ-Champ Patricio Freire on Getting to the Top, Staying There and Not Looking Around too Much

At 34, with two titles and several records under his belt, "Pitbull" still thinks it's all worth it

Patricio “Pitbull” Freire made his professional MMA debut in 2004.

He has since won 32 fights, finished 23 of them, claimed Bellator’s featherweight title, lost Bellator’s featherweight title, re-claimed it, and added a lightweight title to his collection. At 34, as he prepares to attempt his sixth consecutive 145-pound title defense, “Pitbull” Freire is still the owner of two belts, a series of promotional records — most fights, most title fights, most wins and most finishes — and a seat in the world’s current pound-for-pound Olympus.

Whatever happens at Saturday’s Bellator 263, when he meets unbeaten 26-year-old A.J. McKee in the grand finale of the promotion’s featherweight grand prix, Freire is already one of the most successful mixed martial artists of his generation.

Yet, he’s not done adding to his list of achievements. A longtime proponent of cross-promotional efforts, Freire still believes that unified titles are the next step in MMA’s expansion and the only real way of answering questions about who truly is the best at a weight class at any given point. Freire also thinks about trying his hand at boxing, or even cutting an additional ten pounds to take a stab at a triple championship. He still thinks about expanding his legacy, adding to his records, and continuing to provide for his family by doing the thing he happens to be good at. But he also thinks about how he shouldn’t think about all of that too much.

After 17 years, despite carrying some of the physical and emotional wear-and-tear that a career like his entails, Freire says he still enjoys being a fighter. For all the things that have changed — his approach to training, for one, as well as his approach to the things he can’t control beyond it — Freire still misses not being at the gym, and still finds himself intrigued by new challenges.

pitbull vs aj mckee

Challenges like the one he has ahead of him on Saturday, against an undefeated fighter with less than half of his experience when it comes to professional fights but no shortage of confidence.

I talked to the two-division champion about this and several other topics ahead of his upcoming main-event bout at The Forum in Inglewood, California. For more on his goals for the future, how experience has affected his approach to motivation (and frustration), the key to his longevity, and dealing with (the occasional lack of) public recognition outside the UFC, check out the chat below.

You’ve been fighting for a long time. You’ve fought all kinds of opponents, in all kinds of positions. You’ve been the champion, you’ve been the challenger, you’ve been both. How do you manage to stay motivated and focused through all of it?

What has been pushing me this entire time are the challenges. We have an opponent now who is young, undefeated, and whom the media has been saying that — if there’s anyone who can take gold from me in the division and in the organization — it’s him. But it’s not just that.

I really do want to be at the gym training. I miss it. If I skip the gym one day, if I miss one training session, I feel a little guilty, like “I didn’t train, I didn’t evolve.” I have the will to be at the gym training. Of course, at this point of my career, I’m not doing any random training — the kind of training that you get to the gym, wear yourself out, get injured. I train smart. I have a team of professionals geared toward my longevity.

There’s (Chikão Freitas), whom I call the scientist, because he’s a nutritionist, a biochemist, a strength and conditioning coach. He’s been handling that part of it with a lot of caution. If I have an injury, we adapt the training so it doesn’t hurt me. We’re doing less sparring. I’m 34 now and my training is always reformulated to fit the way my body is. I’m able to want to keep training, to always want to keep evolving — and, obviously, put it to the test in the fights. So that’s where my motivation comes from. Other than that, I’m now able to have a financial gain that allows me to provide a better future for my children.

So, first of all, is the fact that I still have the will, but secondly there’s the opportunity to guarantee a prosperous life for my family.

We’ve seen many athletes who, during this time you’ve been fighting, have reached their peaks and declined. You, however, has been able to maintain a rare kind of consistency. Why do you think that is? Does it have have something to do with this more scientific approach to your preparation?

For sure, the most decisive factor is the scientific part. The studies, the science, they have evolved and us fighters need to befriend this knowledge. Fighters, a lot of times, don’t even do physical therapy. But I, personally, have two physical therapists following my training from start to finish. Two. We know that demands a bit of an investment but that is worth it. I think that’s not somewhere where you can save. I spend a lot of money on my training and on my health and on the people who follow me.

Several fighters, if they don’t get the treatment for free, they don’t want to pay. Because they’re famous and can put some outfit on on instagram and the guy will be satisfied with that. I make it a point to hire people and have the best professional by my side. I’m always looking for the best when it comes to that.

And another aspect is just something particular to you. You have to know which context you’re in the sport, know who your opponents are, go about your camp in a correct, safe and smart manner. You can’t break yourself at every training, every fight, every camp, or you won’t make it far. There will come a time when you’ll break even mentally. We’ve been able to handle that masterfully up until this point. Everything that is in my power to stay at the top, I’ll do it. I truly do live like a champion. I abdicate things. I don’t live at parties, I’m not ostentatious. I’m married, I’m a father. At 9 pm my son calls me on FaceTime asking me where I am and asking me to tuck him in. I live a quiet life that truly is geared toward my next opponent.

You did mention still wanting it, missing the gym. Is there some of that too, of your head still being in the sport?

Oh yes. At the gym we have a lot of promising young guys and I’m still able to spar with superiority. The day I feel like I’m starting to be outworked in fights and in training, then I’ll stop to think “I’m old, I’m not the same anymore. Now is time to fight only legends and give up fighting for titles, unless it’s at the right time.” But I still have a lot to give. I’m feeling good. 34 is not that old.

It’s also not that young, though. I had my debut in 2004, so despite being young I’ve been in this sport for a long time. I have a series of injuries — they’re under control, but I have them. There is the physical wear-and-tear of the day-to-day, there’s the emotional wear-and-tear. Repeating the same thing every day: getting the bag ready, getting the car, hitting the gym, training.

There are demands  from your trainers around your performance. If you don’t train well everyone asks what’s happening, injuries… It’s a tough life, but one that is worth it for me, because I was able to hit my goals, I was able to bring some stability for my family and, thank God, put my little name there in a small part of MMA history.

We know that for a lot of up-and-coming fighters there’s a lot of motivation behind the idea of becoming champion, getting that belt. You’ve done that, more than once, in different divisions. So how do you go about your objectives? What do you establish as goals for yourself after having achieved so much already?

A while ago I stopped thinking about the things I have already achieved — titles in two categories, being the biggest record-breaker in the promotion — and I’ve stopped thinking about goals that are too far away from me.

pitbull workout closeup

My focus is 100 percent on the next step. More specifically, on my next opponent. I’m focused on the strategy, on what to do, and as a consequence of the win, my legacy will extend itself, records will be broken more and more times, and then we’re able to make it further. So, right now, that’s the focus of my career.

But yes, I do think about some things — eventually a boxing bout, maybe a belt at the bantamweight division. But these are things that don’t depend on me right now. I have to do a series of things — defend the featherweight belt, defend the lightweight belt, and then maybe, if possible, go down to 135 pounds, or fight a relevant name in boxing. So there are some things I can aspire to, but always with my feet on the ground and doing the work.

We’re now at Showtime, and they’re experts in boxing challenges. I think Logan, Jake or both (the Paul brothers) are signed with them, as well as several other great fighters. Floyd Mayweather had a big part of his career with Showtime. They’re used to creating big names in the sport, so who knows if we can get a boxing bout, too. We’ll see.

I think it’s a human thing to get frustrated about things, even when they’re entirely out of your control. And we know the life of an MMA fighter involves a lot of such things, whether it’s timing, injuries, or decisions by the promotions. Was this attitude of focusing on what you can effectively control something you had to learn to control over the years?

Life and experience have taught me that. If I’m not mistaken, in order to even get my first title shot at Bellator, I had to fight between 10 and 13 times. It hasn’t been an easy journey. I had my first loss in Bellator, via split decision. Then I fought for the title and I lost a split decision, too. There have been several peaks and a few valleys. I’ve been through defeats that made me evolve as a person and as a fighter.

I had to learn the hard way that I can’t control fate. So I try to do what’s within my reach. And I have, thankfully, been able to do that well. It’s hard to make it to the top, and I’ve made it, but I can tell you it’s much harder to stay there. Everyone’s tired of hearing me say that, but I’m living proof that at least what we’re doing is working out.

Speaking of AJ McKee, specifically — as we’ve discussed, you have a lot of experience with all kinds of fighters, in all kinds of stages and circumstances. What does McKee present to you that’s different, or more challenging than other opponents?

I think it’s his confidence. Most of the fighters I faced weren’t living as good of a moment as he is. He finishes fights quickly, via knockout or submission. He’s undefeated in 17 fights. He has that feeling that I had when I was young, of being an undefeated guy who knocks out or submits everyone he touches. And walks away with a win. His confidence is, for sure, what I will need to break during the fight. I’m prepared for that.

aj mckee workout
AJ McKee, at the open workout

Our strategy is solid. He’s a guy who can look scary, because he puts people to sleep quickly, whether it’s with knockouts or submissions, but what I see when I look at it coldly — which is how I look at my opponents’ fights — there are gaps that I can explore and ways that my game can work against him. I see several opportunities and I will capitalize on them. I’m a patient guy, I was once clumsy like he is. So I believe we’ll get this win for Brazil, if God permits.

This confidence that you talk about, McKee also shows it outside of the cage. He’s known to talk a little, taunt some. At this point of your career, seeing a fighter talk about you, or saying he’ll beat you like this or like that, does that affect you in any way? And I don’t even mean negatively — maybe it motivates and push you? Do you pay attention at all at this point?

To be honest, it doesn’t even matter anymore. Whether he talks or doesn’t, my focus is on the win. If he tries to be my friend, I’ll try to beat him up anyway. If he tries to be my enemy, I’ll try to do the same. I think sometimes by talking he’s just trying to confirm things to himself. When we stare at each other in the eye, the eyes say a lot. And his confidence while fighting and talking didn’t show through when he faced off with me. But maybe that’s just my impression.

There’s no way of knowing, really. We’ll remove all those doubts on July 31.

You’ve talked a lot in the past about public recognition around fighters who aren’t in the UFC — more specifically, about how sometimes you’ve felt like you weren’t being recognized properly. We’ve talked a bit about how you’ve learned how not to get too frustrated about things that are beyond your control, but does it bother — or maybe motivate — you to feel like you’re maybe not as valued as you should be? Or maybe you do now feel like you are getting the appreciation you deserve?

Speaking of the specialized audience, specifically — something has changed after my journey and with Alex Volkanovski as the UFC’s champion. A lot of people in the specialized media have been saying I’m currently the best featherweight in the world. But I have felt that way for a long time. Only I’ve learned over time that whoever has more strength in the media is going to have more popularity, they’re going to have the “I think this guy is the best,” because they have a bigger platform. Especially in Brazil.

But I know the power I possess. I know what I’m capable of. The feeling I always have in my chest is that I am the best. I’ve prepared for this. My whole life, I’ve programmed myself for this moment. I’m only reaping the fruits that I’ve sowed. But that’s a fighter’s life; until they stop, this goes on forever. One day they’re going to have to stop, and when that moment is approaching they will probably be beaten. If they stop undefeated, they’re unbeaten because they stopped — if they return, one day they will lose.

pitbull w. kid fistbump

We know that there are several variables. Today I might be bigger than the champion in another organization, but then some other guy might appear and be better than the two of us. Or I can continue being the best, or the second best.

But I will say it again: We will only truly know who the best fighter is when they both fight. The rest is just speculation. That’s why I say that, one day, in order for us to take the next step in the sport, we need to have champions vs. champions. So that we can remove the doubt and have unified titles like they do in boxing. Only then the sport would have even more visibility than it already does.