Scott Coker couldn’t have booked it better himself if he’d scripted this whole thing like Vince McMahon.
Twenty-two months after the start of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix, the unequivocal stars of the 16-man bracket meet in the final this Saturday at Bellator 263 as two-division champion Patricio Pitbull fights the man who would be king, undefeated Bellator born-and-bred contender A.J. McKee.
Pitbull and McKee—ranked No. 3 and No. 6 respectively in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings—conquered a loaded field of some of the best at 145 pounds, filled with former champions, elite talent from the bantamweight division, top prospects, and other homegrown Bellator names all of whom could have upset the apple cart. Instead, the eventual finalists deftly navigated the potentially calamitous terrain and with each win built anticipation for a clash that will determine not just who is the greatest featherweight in Bellator history, but who will lead the promotion into the coming decade.
Somehow, you get the sense that this isn’t the last time these two megawatt talents will face off, but they’ll be determined to be the first to claim bragging rights in what could be a rivalry for the ages.
In other main card action, longtime featherweight contender Emmanuel Sanchez fights former UFC and Cage Warriors standout Mads Burnell, undefeated lightweight Usman Nurmagomedov fights the streaking Manny Muro, newcomer Islam Mamedov meets former champion Brent Primus in a battle of top lightweights, and Chris Gonzalez looks to improve to 7-0 when he faces Bellator vet Goiti Yamauchi in a lightweight bout.
What: Bellator 263
Where: The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
When: Saturday, July 31. Preliminaries begin at 7 p.m. ET on MMA Fighting (un-aired prelims will take place after the main event). The five-fight main card airs at 10 p.m on Showtime. The main card will also be available for free on YouTube outside of the U.S. (may be geo-blocked in some regions).
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Patricio Freire (3) vs. A.J. McKee (6)
Pitbull’s torch is about to be snatched.
There’s no fighting the future and as much as I’m inclined to steer towards champions in these scenarios and approach undefeated fighters with a touch of skepticism, there’s no more denying A.J. McKee. He’s literally born for this, the son of journeyman Antonio McKee and the product of 20-plus years of MMA training and preparation. Bellator didn’t sign McKee, he was chosen. All 17 of his pro bouts have taken place under the Bellator banner and his homegrown story comes to a head in the grand prix finals.
Pitbull can never be counted out. He hasn’t truly been defeated in in almost six years, during which time he’s established himself as being a cut above his peers. The one fighter who can claim to have had as much success in Bellator is former lightweight champion Michael Chandler, and Pitbull disposed of him in about 60 seconds. He’s seen it all, done it all, and if he beats McKee it will lend credence to the argument that the best featherweight in the world resides in Bellator, not the UFC.
McKee has a considerable size advantage over Pitbull, a major factor in why I think McKee wins this one. Though Pitbull is no stranger to being the smaller fighter, even he hasn’t dealt with an opponent who has nearly a foot in reach on him. Add in how well-rounded McKee’s skill set is and you can see why this could literally be a game of inches. McKee will beat Pitbull to the punch and press his advantage for the remainder of the fight.
In my eyes, this one doesn’t get past the second round. McKee will get a knockout finish, one that is definitive enough so that there is no controversy surrounding the beginning of McKee’s reign, but not enough to preclude an immediate rematch.
We’ve only just begun with these two.
Emmanuel Sanchez vs. Mads Burnell
Mads Burnell is a lethal ground fighter, but if he wants to turn this into a jiu-jitsu contest, Emmanuel Sanchez will be right there with him. The master of the Pervuian necktie faces serious adversity from Sanchez no matter where the fight goes.
As improved as Burnell was from when most fans first met him as a raw grappler at UFC Rotterdam in 2017, he’s still primarily a submission fighter. That’s not a bad label to have when you’re as adept at snatching necks as Burnell is. However, I think Sanchez’s own grappling acumen is more than enough to turn this into a stalemate on the mat and that means the standup should determine the winner here.
Fortunately for Sanchez, he’s grown leaps and bounds when it comes to his striking. He throws punches in bunches and loves to make a fight grimy. Burnell will have to match him in the grit department to have a chance here. Neither fighter has knockout stats to write him about (just one on each fighter’s pro record), but Sanchez is the better striker.
Sanchez by decision.
Usman Nurmagomedov vs. Manny Muro
On paper, this is a showcase fight for Usman Nurmagomedov and that’s no disrespect to the tough Manny Muro. Nurmagomedov, 23, is just that highly touted and it’s going to be a few fights before whoever Bellator finds to face him isn’t viewed as a huge underdog.
Nurmagomedov is an outstanding technical striker with an arsenal of kicks that would make Edson Barboza blush. Once he finds Muro’s rhythm, be on the lookout for any number of spinning strikes that Nurmagomedov could utilize to set up a highlight-reel finish.
That said, Muro is the right test for him at this stage of his career. “The Dragon” is a difficult target to get a bead on. He uses a lot of movement to explore the cage, so Nurmagomedov’s cardio will have to be on point lest he tires himself out just trying to get Muro into ideal striking range. Muro has also shown flashes of impressive aggression, but he doesn’t have the speed to seriously threaten Nurmagomedov, who should see much of Muro’s offense coming from a mile away.
Muro is susceptible to getting caught, so I see Nurmagomedov taking his time picking Muro apart before finding a finish in the second.
Islam Mamedov vs. Brent Primus
Islam Mamedov enters his Bellator debut with a ton of hype behind him and an unbeaten streak that has lasted for 12 years. A longtime training partner of Khabib Nurmagomedov, you’ll be shocked to hear that he’s a sambo expert who specializes in pounding his opponents into dust on the ground.
If he can consistently score takedowns, that’s the formula to beat Brent Primus as we saw in Primus’ first pro loss against Michael Chandler. Primus is dangerous when it comes to submissions, but he’s yet to show he can deal with effective pressure when he’s on his back. That’s what Mamedov brings to this matchup.
I also think that Mamedov’s level of competition stacks up well to that of Primus, who outside of his two bouts with Chandler hasn’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of lightweights. Add in the fact that Mamedov is five years younger than Primus and you can see why he’s favored to topple the former Bellator champion.
Mamedov by decision.
Chris Gonzalez vs. Goiti Yamauchi
This might be the toughest main card fight to pick outside of the main event.
Chris Gonzalez, a Team Alpha Male product, is a strong wrestler in the classic mold of the famed California camp. Whether he attempts to smother Goiti Yamauchi or use his wrestling for sprawling and brawling will shape how this fight plays out. Yamauchi could also force takedowns with his own wrestling, but as long as the fight ends up on the ground, he’ll be happy. Any mistakes made by Gonzalez in the grappling will result in Yamauchi tapping him out.
We haven’t seen enough of Gonzalez yet to determine his ceiling, so if he’s sharpened his striking and submission defense at all, then this is his fight to lose. The more experienced Yamauchi has never lost two consecutive fights, but he’s also shown flashes of inconsistency in his career and lost to opponents he should have beaten.
I’m a believer that Gonzalez will be a player at 155 pounds for Bellator going forward, so he gets the nod here.