With Bellator MMA posting up in California for the first major card in the state since the coronavirus pandemic began, the spotlight is on the Bellator 263 tentpole event. For the first time in a long while, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will be outgunned by a superior MMA product counterprogramming its show. While UFC on ESPN 28 goes on with 13 fights and a majority of the fighters on the card making their debuts or sporting UFC records below .500, this is a stronger offering on paper. Therefore, the focus should appropriately be split between Bellator’s blowout show and the UFC’s effort in neighboring Nevada, with a few prime picks for each card on tap.
Patricio Freire (-105)
The line on this sensational featherweight battle—arguably the best fight in Bellator history—is about as close as it can possibly be. Commentator Will Vanders would say that one can nary slide a cigarette paper between the two, that is how close it is. Both Freire and A.J. McKee hold claim to a litany of records throughout Bellator history, and the winner may be able to wrest away some from the other. On the one hand, Freire is the current two-division champion at 145 and 155 pounds and the far more known quantity. On the other, McKee—at eight years younger, with his spotless record and some of the more impressive finishes as of late—resembles the future of not just the organization but possibly the sport as a whole. When in doubt, the smart money may be on the force you know, and in that case, it is Freire, who has proven himself at the top echelon of the company for longer than McKee has been a pro.
It has been said that one really gets to know a fighter after his first loss, not after his first victory. McKee had tasted defeat in the amateur ranks, as Christian Espinosa punched his lights out in eight seconds back in June 2013—the same amount of time it took for McKee to flatline Georgi Karakhanyan in September 2019. That adage extends to a fighter encountering the first obstacle he cannot simply run through. The level of competition McKee faced to build him up was not always up to par of an undefeated uber-prospect rising through the ranks, but his progression was notable, especially in recent fights where some opponents presented solid stylistic problems for the Team Bodyshop fighter. He blew through those challenges, whether it was cold-cocking the aforementioned Karakhanyan, trampling former champ Pat Curran or wrenching Darrion Caldwell’s neck with a choke out of the Bas Rutten instructional magazines. None of these foes offered the resistance that some prognosticated McKee would encounter, but that firmly stops at a man in “Pitbull” who is likely the finest Bellator-crafted talent in the sport today.
The danger in Freire does not lie simply with his striking power or his submission prowess, nor with his frightening top control or sneakily effective takedown game. It is the sum of these skills into one nasty Brazilian who has never suffered a stoppage loss outside of freak injury in his career. The weakness in the past—his last defeat not related to injury—was a clear-cut decision to Daniel Straus that saw him shut down due to the wrestling and get cracked while paying attention to takedowns. Even in danger, like when Straus dropped him in the second round, “Pitbull” was there to threaten off his back with a slick armbar to get his bearings back. The ability to fight back when in trouble—he even came on to win the final round against Straus—is a place that Freire has a leg up on the competition and, in particular, on his latest adversary. When things work well for Freire, they work swimmingly. When he is hurt, he is still exceptionally dangerous.
An intangible that could weigh in on this matchup is the mental warfare that McKee is waging on his older opponent, including a recent brouhaha at the Thursday press conference. Taunting the champ and snatching his belt, a la Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo, is the kind of approach that could give McKee an edge. Should he infuriate “Pitbull” to the point of charging in recklessly in an effort to smash him, a more calculated McKee could prepare himself for this kind of style. Forcing the Brazilian to make mistakes will be paramount to his success, as Freire is inarguably the toughest test McKee has faced and likely will ever face inside the Bellator cage. When it comes to a thrilling clash that could end in the first minute or in the 24th, experience in both the good scenarios and the bad is key, and Freire has that edge. Should you firmly disagree, the obvious line in the other direction of what is currently a pick’em is McKee becoming a millionaire and a champion at the expense of “Pitbull.”
Goiti Yamauchi Wins Inside Distance (+130)
When it comes to Bellator lines, not every prop bet that a UFC card would receive is made available. In this instance, only a few books offer a narrower suggestion of Yamauchi defeating Christopher Gonzalez by submission, and that value is negligible while adding the minor risk of busting the play when Yamauchi turns his grappling into a way to showcase his strikes. Like the headliner of this event, the question hinges on the known quantity against the unknown quantity. While McKee has competed on the Bellator stage for 17 fights, some still wonder about his ceiling. When it comes to Gonzalez, who also maintains a fair amount of Bellator cage time with his last five wins with the promotion, the step up from 2021 Roger Huerta to perennial contender Yamauchi is a massive one that will not likely work in his favor. Coupling the experience gap with the game plan of the wrestler, Yamauchi may be salivating on a matchup that may exclusively take place on the mat.
Yamauchi has been outwrestled before, getting taken out of his game by the likes of Bubba Jenkins and Michael Chandler while unable to successfully implement his grappling. There is a possibility that that the junior college All-American wrestler and current Team Alpha Male standout could pass this hurdle and grind out Yamauchi, not leaving himself exposed to get swept when on top. For three rounds and 15 long minutes, the inexperienced fighter is liable to make some kind of mistake, whether posting on his arm that gets snagged or passing guard at the wrong moment. It is in these exchanges that a savvy submission artist like Yamauchi can strike, and it only takes one misstep to get put away. Before the final bell, Yamauchi can find his way through his unbeaten adversary’s defense. Gonzalez, with far less experience, is two years younger than the 28-year-old Japanese fighter out of Brazil. It would not be at all surprising to see the promotion’s all-time leader in submissions notch one more at the expense of this promising prospect.
As a final note, Bellator main cards overwhelmingly play out for betting favorites, and an all-chalk parlay of the five slight or massive favorites would register at +731 for McKee, Yamauchi, Mads Burnell, Islam Mamedov and Usman Nurmagomedov. The biggest risk to this busting, of course, is “Pitbull” getting his hand raised. Should you tweak that to Freire and the other four names, the five-fight accumulator of +768 is a respectable and very reasonable option. If you would rather leave off the main event and just address the remainder of the main card of Burnell-Mamedov-Nurmagomedov-Yamauchi, take that +344 parlay to the bank.
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