After five years of settling for "almost," Bellator lightweight Patricky "Pitbull" Freire (16-7) is finally fighting for the promotion's top prize. Twice Freire advanced to the finals of a tournament to decide the top contender. Twice he fell short. But in the 16th bout of his Bellator tenure, the ferocious 30-year-old Brazilian will fight Michael Chandler (14-3) for the belt Friday night in St. Louis, Missouri.
In some ways, it's a long time coming. In other ways, his brother and grappling coach Patricio Freire says the timing couldn't be better.
"Patricky is a new fighter," Patricio told Bleacher Report through a translator. "He evolved a lot. For this fight, theoretically, we won't be surprised by anything. We defined the strategy really well and had a deep analysis of Michael Chandler. There isn't a single hole we could find that wasn't worked on, either offensively or defensively. If God permits we'll be bringing the belt home. Everything has been carefully planned and executed and I believe in our work."
For Patricky, the key has been the addition of Felipe Lima, a mental coach who helped him get through a rigorous training camp. In the past, Patricky had been sensitive to criticisms, and camps would sometimes devolve into acrimony. With the help of Lima, who sat down separately with the fighter and his coaches, those conflicts were a thing of the past.
"I raised my confidence level, I learned of who I am, what I'm capable of doing," Patricky said through a translator. "It's a great psychological work, I've been remembering things, opening my mind to new things and realizing that I can do a lot of things. I've done a lot of impressive things before and I can do much more than that. That's what he's been working with me.
"He's always strengthening me, always lifting my spirit and showing how much I can do and who I am. I can never forget who I am, what I did and what I'm still gonna do. It's a very important job that I found wonderful."
Patricky's confidence level and approach were so different, he even sparred with his brother, himself a former Bellator champion, for the first time in years. This time out, Patricio was his main opponent during camp, doing a wicked Chandler impersonation and pushing his younger brother to the limit.
"Patricio is a extraordinary guy, highly strategic, he knows how to work the right time to brawl and the right time to use strategy," Patricky said. "Spar with him was awesome. The simple fact of having him as a sparring, but also that we didn't have any conflicts like we had in the past, we didn't get emotional, he was always pressuring me, correcting me and forcing me to do everything I have to do in the fight. It was great. He was with me in every sparring session, two or three rounds."
The difference, those close to him say, is obvious.
"It seems to have lit a fire inside him," Patricky's longtime friend and manager Matheus Aquino said. "He's showing us he wants it. He's facing his demons. He's letting the monster inside him free to fight. He's not content to just let things happen anymore. He's making them happen."
Patricky agrees. Although the physical tools have always been there, he's never combined them with the mental and strategic realms quite as well as he's done in the lead up to his title dreams. And, while Patricky and his team have found much to admire in Chandler, a fighter they respect for his toughness and athleticism, they've found plenty to exploit as well, particularly his refusal to abandon a bad situation when challenged.
On the eve of his first chance to write his name in history, Patricky tells Bleacher Report he's more ready for this than any fight in his long career.
"I'm feeling more confident, more focused, my head is better, my strategies are working." Patricky said. "I see that I'm capable of doing more. I'm feeling a constant evolution, both physically and mentally. That's why I know this is my moment."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.