Since returning from its pandemic-enforced hiatus, Bellator has bounced back in style and is all set to stage what could be the biggest fight in the promotion’s 13-year existence.
Bellator 263 takes place Saturday night, July 31 at The Forum in Inglewood, California, with a stacked card topped by the final of the promotion’s featherweight Grand Prix.
It’s the matchup many fans were hoping to see from the very start, too.
Reigning two-division champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire will put his featherweight strap on the line against the man many believe is ready to take up the mantle as Bellator’s biggest fighting star, undefeated A.J. McKee.
There’s a lot on the line, with the Bellator featherweight title, $1 million and the status of being Bellator’s top pound-for-pound talent all up for grabs as two of the very best 145ers on the planet get set to throw down for all the marbles in California.
Unbeaten at 17-0, McKee’s run to the final has been emphatic. He kicked off his tournament with an eight-second knockout of Georgi Karakhanyan at Bellator 228 in September 2019 to deliver the biggest statement of the tournament’s first round.
He followed up that victory with a third-round triangle armbar submission of Derek Campos at Bellator 236 in December 2019, then stunned former bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell via modified neck crank after just 71 seconds of their semi-final bout at Bellator 253 last November to punch his ticket to the $1 million Grand Prix final.
Freire, meanwhile, had the additional burden of carrying his title through the tournament, with every bout sanctioned as a title defence as he improved his career record to 32-4 en route to the Grand Prix final.
His first assignment was a tough one, as he was pushed all the way to the scorecards by Juan Archuleta at Bellator 228. After his hard-earned unanimous decision victory, “Pitbull” then used his “Champ’s Choice” to choose his quarter-final opponent and, despite being called out by both McKee and Caldwell at the selection show, the Brazilian champion opted instead to face Dublin-based Portuguese contender Pedro Carvalho.
“Pitbull” went on to knock out “The Game” in just 130 seconds at Bellator 252 to deliver a statement victory and book a semi-final rematch with Emmanuel Sanchez at Bellator 255.
Sanchez had previously pushed Freire all the way to the scorecards in a featherweight title tilt at Bellator 209 in November 2018, but “Pitbull” was in no mood to leave it in the hands of the judges for a second time as he pushed the pace on the American before finishing him via first-round guillotine choke to surge into the final unscathed.
It means McKee and Freire will now go head to head at Bellator 263 in a huge title fight on Saturday night.
Their bout tops an entertaining lineup for The Forum. Two-time title challenger Sanchez returns to action in the night’s co-main event against Denmark’s former Cage Warriors champion Mads Burnell, while undefeated Usman Nurmagomedov gets a main card showcase against Manny Muro.
Former Bellator lightweight champion Brent Primus returns to action against the dangerous Islam Mamedov at 155 pounds while unbeaten lightweight Chris Gonzalez faces a big test of his credentials against longtime contender Goiti Yamauchi.
Elsewhere, Irish fans will be tuning in to watch compatriots Kiefer Crosbie and Brian Moore in action on the preliminary card.
Crosbie takes on Bellator veteran Georgi Karakhanyan in a lightweight bout, while “The Pikeman” Moore takes on American Jordan Winski in a bantamweight matchup.
BELLATOR 263: FIGHT CARD
- Patricio Freire vs. A.J. McKee – featherweight title/featherweight Grand Prix final
- Mads Burnell vs. Emmanuel Sanchez
- Manny Muro vs. Usman Nurmagomedov
- Islam Mamedov vs. Brent Primus
- Chris Gonzalez vs. Goiti Yamauchi
- Ilara Joanne vs. Vanessa Porto
- Daniel Carey vs. Gadzhi Rabadanov
- Kiefer Crosbie vs. Georgi Karakhanyan
- Brian Moore vs. Jordan Winski
- Johnny Cisneros vs. Joshua Jones
Bellator 263 will air on Showtime in the U.S. and BBC iPlayer in the U.K.
Photo credit: Bellator MMA