A.J. McKee capped off a shutout performance for the fighters from Bellator MMA as they went a perfect 5-0 against Rizin in the New Year’s Eve card from Japan.
The one-time featherweight champion, who was competing at lightweight on Saturday, showcased great grappling defense and some solid ground and pound as he constantly thwarted attacks coming from Rizin’s champion Roberto de Souza. McKee was smart with his offense both on the feet and on the ground while de Souza just grew frustrated as he was unable to really threaten the American even when he had some advantageous positions during the fight.
When it was over, all three judges scored the fight for McKee, who moves to 2-0 as a lightweight after previously picking up a win at 155 pounds in Bellator.
“Dream come true,” McKee said about fighting in Japan. “Hopefully I get to come back and put on another show for you.”
Despite the potential dangers on the ground, McKee stuffed an early takedown and then happily stayed on the canvas after de Souza pulled guard. From there, McKee stayed out of any trouble while peppering away at de Souza with short inside elbows and punches as he started marking up the Rizin champion’s face while having him trapped in the corner.
A strong start from McKee saw him gain confidence heading into the second round but de Souza was able to take his back during a scramble as the lightweights hit the floor again. This time, de Souza was searching for a rear-naked choke but McKee was never really threatened and he eventually earned a reversal to get back on top again.
McKee hammered away at de Souza with some stiff punches before returning to his feet where he invited de Souza to join him. As the fighters came out for the third and final round, de Souza was obviously desperate to drag the fight back into his world on the ground but McKee continued to surprise him — he even locked on a D’arce choke as he looked for a submission of his own.
With time ticking away, McKee got a little looser with his striking while still displaying world class submission to defense. De Souza did manage to take the back one last time as he tried to lock on the rear-naked choke again but McKee didn’t seem bothered by the position as he just stayed patient until he made his escape.
As the final bell sounded, McKee was confident in his victory as he moved to 20-1 in his career and helped Bellator complete a dominant showcase over the fighters from Rizin during the final card of 2022.
Patricio Pitbull did just enough to win his co-main event fight against Rizin champion Kleber Koike but that’s about all that happened over three rounds.
Going up against a submission specialist, Pitbull was methodical with his striking attacks as he constantly backed Koike up against the corner but never really unleashed any combinations with his signature power. Instead, Pitbull was resigned to just popping Koike with selective shots and then backing away to prevent a potential takedown.
Even when Koike did manage a throw or a takedown, he failed to really keep Pitbull underneath him for any significant amount of time. At one point, Koike pulled guard to bring the fight down to the ground but even that tactic failed as Pitbull quickly broke free of his grip to get back to the fight.
Based on his performance, Pitbull appeared wary to really engage with Koike too much to negate any long grappling exchanges even though he easily shrugged off his opponent any time they got into scrambles on the ground. Rather than take many risks, Pitbull opted to just pick and choose his strikes to rack up enough damage to secure the unanimous decision victory.
Afterwards, Pitbull credited Koike for his toughness while noting that he would like to meet again one day, this time with both of their titles going up for grabs.
Former Bellator and Rizin champion Kyoji Horiguchi returned home to Japan and his old stomping grounds at flyweight where he earned a lopsided victory over Hiromasa Ougikubo.
Round after round, Horiguchi was just bullying Ougikubo around the ring as he chopped away with a brutal series of leg kicks followed by blistering power in his hands. Horiguchi took Ougikubo off his feet a couple of times including a shot in the opening round just seconds before the bell sounded.
Horiguchi actually leaned outside the ring to throw some ground and pound in an attempt to put Ougikubo away but he ran out of time. He scored another knockdown during an exchange on the feet that saw both fighters slinging leather but it was Horiguchi’s power and precision that sat Ougikubo down on the canvas momentarily.
To his credit, Ougikubo continued to scramble out of bad positions but he just couldn’t mount any offense of his own with Horiguchi punishing him for the better part of 15 consecutive minutes.
Horiguchi has stated that he feels more at home competing in the flyweight division but it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to convince Bellator to potentially promote a 125-pound weight class in the future.
Juan Archuleta had his hands full but he still managed to eke out a split decision victory in a hard fought battle against Soo Chul Kim.
The difference in the fight seemed to come down to Archuleta’s striking in the opening round and then combined with his wrestling and grappling prowess during the second half of the fight. Kim gave him everything he could handle as he chipped away at Archuleta with some nasty calf kicks combined with a few stiff combinations on the feet.
Late in the fight, Archuleta uncorked a beautiful jumping knee strike that clipped Kim but appeared just inches away from potentially scoring a knockout. He also staved off a last second ninja choke submission from Kim as the South Korean fighter attempted to pull off a finish of his own before time ran out.
It was a back-and-forth battle throughout but Archuleta did enough in the eyes of two of the judges to claim the split decision victory and also help notch another win for Bellator over Rizin.
Archuleta will now head back home to the United States where he will undoubtedly attempt to jump back in the thick of the bantamweight title race with designs to also compete at featherweight in the future as well.
Gadzhi Rabadanov secures unanimous decision win after nearly earning first-round finish
While he ultimately had to go to the scorecards to get the victory, Rabadanov nearly earned a first round finish after the blasted Takeda with a punch that put him down on the canvas. Rabadanov followed up with a flurry of punches as he sought to end the fight but Takeda just kept finding a way to survive.
The exertion during that near finish seemed to wear down Rabadanov as he moved into the second round, which allowed Takeda to mount a comeback. Takeda opened a cut over Rabadanov’s eye while also thwarting takedown attempts from the Russian.
Still, Rabadanov was relentless with his wrestling and grappling as he kept coming after Takeda and making him work for every position across one side of the ring to the other. Takeda definitely made an account for himself after he was almost knocked out early in the fight but it wasn’t enough to sway the judges.
The win marks Rabadanov’s fifth in a row overall including his fourth win since joining the Bellator MMA roster in 2021.
Bellator MMA vs. Rizin
A.J. McKee def. Roberto de Souza via unanimous decision
Patricio Pitbull def. Kleber Koike via unanimous decision
Kyoji Horiguchi def. Hiromasa Ougikubo via unanimous decision
Juan Archuleta def. Soo Chul Kim via split decision
Gadzhi Rabadanov def. Koji Takeda via unanimous decision
Seika Izawa def. Si Woo Park via split decision
Junior Tafa def. Tsuyoshi Sudario via knockout (R1)
Boxing: Ren Hiramoto def. Genji Umeno via knockout (punch) (R2)
Johnny Case def. Nobumitsu Tyson via knockout (punches) (R1)
Chihiro Suzuki def. Yoshiki Nakahara via knockout (punch) (R1)
Sho Patrick Usami def. BeyNoah via knockout (punch) (R1)
Yushi Sakura def. Tatsuya Nakazawa via unanimous decision