A.J. McKee Chokes Patricio Freire Unconscious, Claims Featherweight Crown at Bellator 263

By: Tristen Critchfield
Jul 31, 2021

On perhaps the biggest stage in Bellator MMA history, A.J. McKee dispatched the man who is arguably the promotion’s greatest fighter in shockingly quick fashion.

McKee claimed the featherweight crown — and the $1 million check that accompanies winning the organization’s 145-pound grand prix — with a first-round submission of Patricio Freire in the Bellator 263 headliner at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Saturday night. The 26-year-old Team Bodyshop standout rendered Freire unconscious with a standing guillotine choke at the 1:57 mark of Round 1. The Brazilian sees a seven-bout winning streak come to an end but remains the reigning Bellator lightweight champion. McKee, meanwhile (18-0, 18-0 Bellator) vanquished Georgi Karakhanyan, Derek Campos, Darrion Caldwell and finally, Freire, to make his way through the featherweight bracket.

“Man, all my dreams coming true. It’s amazing,” McKee said. “We’re not done. This is just the beginning. I’m looking forward to holding this baby for the rest of my life. It ain’t going nowhere.”

It was an electric atmosphere before the bout even started, as a raucous crowd put their vocal might behind McKee, a California native. After a brief feeling-out period, McKee closed the distance and stunned Freire (32-5, 20-5 Bellator) with a head kick to the jaw. From there, McKee swarmed with punches and dropped “Pitbull” near the fence, which prompted a premature celebration from the man known as “Mercenary.” It didn’t take long for McKee to go back on the attack, as he locked in the fight-ending maneuver and squeezed until Freire’s arm went limp.

“I thought he was done and I looked at him and I was like, ‘Man, well let’s get on him again,’” McKee said. “I felt him go limp a little bit. I knew he was already rocked a little bit. I felt him buckle a little bit and I was like, ‘All right, that’s it.’”

In the co-main event, Mads Burnell relied on takedowns and top control to hold off two-time title challenger Emmanuel Sanchez in a fast-paced featherweight affar. All three judges submitted scorecards in favor of the former Cage Warriors title holder: 29-28, 30-27 and 30-27. Burnell (16-3, 3-0 Bellator) has won seven bouts in a row, while Sanchez (20-6, 13-5) has lost consecutive fights for the first time in his professional tenure.

“That dude is the toughest son of a gun I’ve ever shared the cage with,” Burnell said.

Sanchez set a blistering pace on the feet, landing multi-punch combinations to the head while mixing in slashing elbows and shots to the body. While Burnell connected with solid offense of his own in exchanges, he couldn’t match his opponent’s volume in that regard.

However, Sanchez gradually had more and more difficulty remaining upright as the bout progressed, and Burnell was able to sway the scorecards in his favor by grounding his adversary in each round. The final frame was the Dane’s most emphatic, as he spent the majority of the period in top position. All told, Burnell was credited with seven takedowns and more than five minutes of control time in the bout.

Elsewhere, American Kickboxing Academy product Usman Nurmagomedov made short work of Luis Muro in a lightweight scrap to keep his undefeated record intact. A knee to the body from Nurmagomedov sent Muro crumbling to the canvas, and the 23-year-old prospect finished from there with a flurry of punches and hammerfists to the head at the 3:30 mark of Round 1.

The cousin of former UFC champ Khabib Nurmagomedov was in control throughout, as he landed takedowns, transitioned to dominant positions and threatened with submissions. When Muro was able to spin out of a rear-naked choke attempt and move into top position, Nurmagomedov (13-0, 2-0 Bellator) quickly rose to his feet, turned his foe into the fence in the clinch and began landing periodic knees before the decisive blow connected. Muro (12-7, 3-1 Bellator) sees a three-bout Bellator winning streak snapped in defeat.

Earlier, cageside judges favored Islam Mamedov’s top position over Brent Primus’ active guard work, as the former Professional Fighters League talent captured a contentious split decision in a featured lightweight clash. Bryan Miner and Marcel Varela submitted 29-28 scorecards for Mamedov (20-1-1, 1-0 Bellator), while Sal D’Amato saw it 29-28 for the former Bellator 155-pound king.

Mamedov was able to secure takedowns or top position in each frame, but the 31-year-old Dagestani offered little in the way of meaningful offense once he got the action to the canvas. Instead, it was Primus who attempted myriad submissions from his back — including omoplatas, kimuras and armbars — while limiting his opponent’s ability to create space. To his credit, Mamedov displayed solid submission defense throughout the fight, repeatedly extracting himself from precarious positions.

Mamedov did his best work in Round 3, when he tripped Primus (10-2, 8-2 Bellator) to the canvas with a low kick early and spent more than four minutes working from top position. While Mamedov again landed minimal ground-and-pound, Primus’ submission attacks slowed considerably in the final five minutes, likely sealing his fate.

In the evening’s opening main card bout, Bellator’s all-time submission leader Goiti Yamauchi showcased a different aspect to his game, as he scored a technical knockout over previously unbeaten Team Alpha Male representative Christopher Gonzalez at lightweight. Yamauchi (26-5, 12-4 Bellator) brought the contest to a close 3:53 into Round 1, earning his first KO/TKO triumph since he stopped Saul Almeida with punches in his second Bellator appearance in November 2013.

Gonzalez (6-1, 6-1 Bellator), a former National Junior College Athletic Assocation All-American in wrestling, elected to stand and trade with Yamauchi for the duration of the bout and paid dearly for that decision. The 28-year-old Japanese standout gradually increased the intensity of his strikes as the fight progressed, landing kicks to the body, lead uppercuts and crisp straight right hands. It was a right hand from Yamauchi that floored Gonzalez near the fence, and he sealed his victory with approximately nine standing-to-ground punches on his defenseless foe before referee Mike Beltran intervened.

In preliminary action: Former Invicta FC flyweight queen Vanessa Porto (23-9, 1-1 Bellator) edged Ilara Joanne (9-6, 1-2 Bellator) via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) at 125 pounds; ex-Eagle Fighting Championship title holder Gadzhi Rabadanov (16-4-1, 1-0 Bellator) dropped Daniel Carey (7-5, 3-4 Bellator) with a left hook, then finished off his victory with follow-up ground strikes 3:57 into Round 1 of a 150-pound catchweight encounter; 20-year-old Khasan Magomedsharipov (6-0, 1-0 Bellator), the younger brother of UFC contender Zabit Magomedsharipov, battered Jonathan Quiroz (3-5, 0-2 Bellator) with punches from back mount for a TKO win at the 4:21 mark of Round 2 in a featherweight clash; Joshua Jones (11-5, 4-2) put Johnny Cisneros (13-8, 3-6 Bellator) away wth a barrage of punches and hammerfists from top position 4:15 into the second round of a 180-pound catchweight affair; former World Series of Fighting champ Georgi Karakhanan (31-11-1, 1 NC, 9-9 Bellator) used an arm-triangle choke to submit Dublin native Kiefer Crosbie (8-3, 4-3 Bellator) 4:25 into Round 1 at lightweight and SBG Ireland export Brian Moore (14-7, 6-3 Bellator) earned a unanimous decision (30-27, 30-26, 30-26) over Team Quest member Jordan Winski (11-3, 0-1 Bellator) at bantamweight.

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