Bellator MMA is on a Saturday this week, so you know the card is first class. On Bellator 263, we finally get the culmination of the Bellator MMA Featherweight World Grand Prix. The two finalists are, of course, Bellator MMA Featherweight Champion Patricio Pitbull and the undefeated Bellator-grown AJ McKee Jr. As someone who’s been following Bellator for a while, I can confirm that this is as good as it gets under the Scott Coker banner.
In addition to a fantastic main event, Bellator’s top lightweights and featherweight dominate the main card. In the co-main event, former title challenger Emmanuel Sanchez takes on the streaking Mads Burnell.
Also on the main card, there are two pivotal lightweight bouts on the card. Former champion Brent Primus takes on the 19-1 Islam Mamedov. In addition, Usman Nurmagomedov returns to (probably) make short work of Manny Muro.
Let’s take a look at the Bellator 263 main card in a bit more detail.
Catchweight (160LBS): Chris Gonzalez vs. Goiti Yamauchi
Chris Gonzalez (6-0, 5-0 Bellator) is an athlete out of Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. He is undefeated and he has fought under the Bellator banner since he was 1-0. Gonzalez is a fantastic wrestler who was once a part of the US Greco-Roman Wrestling Olympic team and it shows in grappling exchanges against the fence. Gonzalez fought most recently at Bellator 255 against former MMA superstar Roger Huerta. He dominated the former Sports Illustrated cover-athlete from bell to bell, eventually capturing a third-round submission via strikes. I’m interested to see how Gonzalez’ spectacular wrestling and positional control interact with Yamauchi’s world-class submission skills. Gonzalez’ striking is getting better each fight and he hits hard, but he often uses his strikes to clinch.
Goiti Yamauchi (25-5,11-4 Bellator) is a fighter out of Yamauchi Team in Curitiba, Brazil. While he fought as recently as Bellator 255 in April, he has been known to take rather long hiatuses from the sport. Yamauchi is a truly well-rounded athlete, but his specialty lies on the mat. From guard or top position, Yamauchi is a submission threat. Nine of his eleven Bellator wins are submission finishes. In terms of striking, Yamauchi is no beginner, but that’s not what he’s here to do. On the feet, Yamauchi has solid distance management and likes to use long weapons like kicks to keep his opponents at distance. When the fight gets closer in, Yamauchi is looking to crush through the boxing range and clinch. Once clinched, Yamauchi is willing to pull guard just to get the fight to the floor.
What to Expect: Yamuchi is coming off a split-decision loss to Dan Moret that saw Yamauchi unable to get the fight to where he wanted it. He shouldn’t have that problem in this one because of Gonzalez’ willingness to engage on the floor. Not only should we expect Gonzalez to accept some ground fighting, he will most likely seek put Yamauchi to the mat. Yamauchi should have an advantage in the striking department, but he will likely look for submissions from his back.
Lightweight: Islam Mamedov vs. Brent Primus
Islam Mamedov (19-1, 0-0 Bellator) is an athlete out of New Jersey. He is on an 18-fight win streak that dates back to 2010. Over the last six years, Mamedov fought mostly in World Series of Fighting, and then the PFL. He has wins over the likes of Natan Schulte and Thiago Tavares, but this Bellator main card spot is the biggest fight of his career. Mamedov is limited on the feet, but deadly in top position on the mat. The ground and pound he can generate is stunning to his opponents and onlookers. Mamedov relies on heavy pressure against the fence, either in a standing clinch or in “Khabib positions”, and in top position on the floor. He wears opponents down through ground strikes, but he can also tap people out.
Brent Primus (10-1, 8-1 Bellator) is a fighter out of American Top Team Portland and he is the former Bellator MMA Lightweight Champion. Best known for his two-fight series with Michael Chandler, Primus is a talented mainstay in the Bellator lightweight division. Inactivity has been the ghoul of Primus’ career, only competing about once a year since 2014. Primus is a fantastic grappler, and he most recently competed for Submission Underground where he is 1-1 with a win over Jake Shields. While no one would mistake Primus for a pro kickboxer, he is agressive on the feet and fights with straight punches. He often looks for clinch positions, but he’s willing to go to his back to threaten submissions.
What to Expect: I expect a ground battle that ends in a decision. I think that Primus will accept bottom position to attempt submission, but Mamedov is likely a little too slick to get caught. On the feet, Primus is willing, and he’s down to throw down. That said, I think Mamedov should be able to handle that pressure and possibly time takedowns. Mamedov has been clipped in the past with strikes , and I think Primus has the ability to hurt and submit Mamedov. Should be interesting to watch.
Lightweight: Usman Nurmagomedov vs. Manny Muro
Usman Nurmagomedov (12-0, 1-0 Bellator) is the cousin of the former UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, and he is as hot a prospect as in any MMA organization. That said, he is a more refined striker than his cousin. Nurmagomedov switches stances and stays unpredictable by mixing in crisp boxing with solid Muay Thai. The question mark kick is one that he throws quite a bit. When it comes to wrestling, Nurmagomedov honors his family name with fantastic chain-wrestling and some great jiu-jitsu as well.
Manny Muro (12-6, 3-0 Bellator) is an athlete out of Jackson Wink MMA, but he fights out of Oklahoma. Muro is primarily a kickboxer, but he is pretty well-rounded as a fighter. He’s been a professional since 2015. While he had a tough 2018 where he lost three of three bouts, Muro has won his last three bouts heading into Bellator 263. The main concern for Muro is wrestling and grappling, but he has developed great footwork to keep himself from getting clinched. He hits hard, his strikes are fast, and he’s very comfortable in the cage. Watch for Muro’s great head movement and footwork – he is very fluid.
What to Expect: While I’ve enjoyed the late-career revival of the 34-year-old Muro, I don’t think he’s equipped to counter the grappling of Nurmagomedov. Remember, striking is where Nurmagomedov is at his best, so there won’t be a large (or any type of) skill disparity for Muro to exploit. If Muro offers too much trouble for Nurmagomedov on the feet, I expect the undefeated fighter to dominate things on the floor.
Featherweight: Mads Burnell vs. Emmanuel Sanchez
Mads Burnell (15-3, 2-0 Bellator) is an athlete out of Art Suave in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the former Cage Warriors Featherweight Champion and he’s riding a six-fight win streak heading into Bellator 263. Burnell is a grappler and he’s great at pressuring opponents while hunting for submissions. He is a solid striker and he’s willing to engage, but Burnell would ultimately like top position on the floor. Burnell is very hittable, and he stays a bit flat-footed while advancing on opponents. A win against Sanchez will probably net Burnell a title opportunity or a #1 contender fight.
Emmanuel Sanchez (20-5, 15-4 Bellator) is a fighter out of Roufusport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sanchez has great striking, solid jiu-jitsu, and an always improving wrestling game. That said, his #1 weapon is his pace. He just doesn’t stop coming forward, throwing attacks left and right. Sanchez wears opponents out through forward motion and high attack volume. Sanchez is looking to rebound in this fight. After a supremely disappointing submssion loss to current-champion Pitbull, it will be interesting to see what lessons Sanchez took from that fight. This is a big one for Sanchez remaining in the top-5 of the Bellator featherweight division.
What to Expect: Buckle up for an all-action affair between Sanchez and Burnell. Both guys are tough as nails and do not get put away easily. I think Sanchez has the edge in conditioning, but I’m not sure how big of a factor that will for either man in a three-round bout. In terms of striking, I think Burnell has the advantage with his boxing, but Sanchez has a much better arsenal of kicks. I think Sanchez should win this one, but I won’t be surprised if Burnell pulls it out.
Bellator MMA Featherweight World Grand Prix and Bellator MMA Featherweight Championship: Patricio Pitbull vs. AJ McKee Jr.
Patricio Pitbull (32-4, 20-4 Bellator) is Bellator’s first champ-champ, having captured both the featherweight and lightweight titles. He is now looking for a third, the Grand Prix prize. Bellator hasn’t stripped him at lightweight either, so Pitbull comes into this bout with both belts around his shoulders. In the last four years, Pitbull has looked as elite as any MMA featherweight on the planet. Pitbull trains out of the Pitbull Brothers Gym in Natal, Brazil. I’m impressed most by Pitbull’s constant evolution. Since the start of his Bellator career, Pitbull was already really good, but he kept polishing his game. He used to not set up his big right straight with jabs, but now he does. His kicks used to be an afterthought, but now he throws spinning kicks. The largest evolution of his game is his wrestling, especially from clinch positions. He is able to find his underhooks really well, and he is now able to hit some great greco-roman inside and outside trips. All this evolution is just within the last five years. After his most recent title defense at Bellator 255, throw a still-relevant submission game too.
AJ McKee Jr. (17-0, 17-0 Bellator) is an athlete out of Team Bodyshop MMA in Lakewood, California. Making his debut in 2015, McKee, at 26, is an ideal mix of youth and experience. He fights long, utilizing increasingly powerful punches. He likes to kick from the outside, and he especially likes long side kicks to the face and body of his opponents. While his striking has become world class, it’s McKee’s grappling that is truly elite. McKee is fantastic in scrambles and he uses his long limbs to snatch submissions. The biggest question looming over McKee is his conditioning. Most of his fights are quick, which is good. But, in McKee’s bout against Derek Campos, he was exhausted by the second round. Granted, it’s because McKee was putting it on Campos, but he will need to watch his energy output early in the fight.
What to Expect: I expect drama, action, and a feel-good ending to the Featherweight World Grand Prix. This fight is definitely the best Bellator matchup in quite some time, and when you analyze the two men stepping into the cage on Saturday, it’s clear why. McKee’ s length is likely to prove troublesome at first for Pitbull. That said, barring a KO, I don’t think striking is where this fight will be decided. The newly developed wrestling of Pitbull is going to be tested by McKee, and it’s not out of the question that Pitbull looks for offensive wrestling of his own. On the floor, both men are skilled, but it’s McKee’s long limbs that will be the most pressing danger on the mat. We’ve got a good one here, and I cannot wait to watch it.
Thanks for reading! See you at the fights!