It's nearly time for the biggest matchup in Bellator MMA history. The promotion is set to crown a champion of its Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix on Saturday night in Inglewood, California, when reigning two-division champion Patricio Pitbull meets undefeated contender AJ McKee at Bellator 263. They are the last two standing from the 16-man tournament that began all the way back in 2019.
Pitbull enters the bout as arguably the greatest fighter in promotional history. He's won the featherweight crown twice while making an astonishing seven defenses of the strap. He also earned the lightweight crown in 2019 with a first-round TKO of Michael Chandler. A win over McKee on Saturday would only further cement his legacy within the promotion and his standing as one of the best fighters on the planet.
McKee has performed nearly as admirably as Pitbull in his young career. Beginning in 2015, when he started his professional career with Bellator MMA, McKee has gone 17-0 with 12 stoppage victories. And each performance seems to be slightly better than the last with a pair of submissions and one TKO on his route to reaching the final. McKee already owns wins over a pair of former champions and would love to add Pitbull's name to that growing list.
Can't get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including the top storylines to follow for Bellator 263 this Saturday night below.
The rest of the card fills out nicely with a pair of Russian prospects looking to make a name for themselves. Usman Nurmagomedov, cousin of former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, is back in a featured bout against Manny Muro at 155 pounds. Nurmagomedov made a strong debut in April with a decision over Mike Hamel. Plus, Islam Mamedov gets his chance to shine when he takes on former Bellator lightweight champion Brent Primus. The co-main event features a strong one at featherweight as well when Mads Burnell takes on former title challenger Emmanuel Sanchez.
Here's the fight card for Bellator 263 with the latest odds from William Hill Sportsbook.
Bellator 263 card, odds
AJ McKee -115
Patricio Pitbull (c) -105
Mads Burnell -135
Emmanuel Sanchez +115
Usman Nurmagomedov -1400
Manny Muro +800
|Islam Mamedov -220||Brent Primus +180||Lightweight|
|Goiti Yamauchi -160||Chris Gonzalez +135||160-pound catchweight|
Bellator 263 viewing information
Date: July 31 | Start time: 10 p.m. ET
Location: The Forum -- Inglewood, California
TV Channel: Showtime | Live stream: Showtime.com or the Showtime app (subscription required)
Brian Campbell: Every decade or so, across all sports, a phenom arrives to change the rules. Does 26-year-old AJ McKee fit that description for MMA? It's a question we just might find out at Bellator 263. McKee (17-0) has quite literally been calling for a fight against Pitbull since he turned pro under the Bellator banner in 2015. He has gone on to set promotional records for consecutive wins and featherweight marks for most submissions and finishes. The lengthy and dynamic southpaw has also backed up his big talk with three finishes in the Featherweight World Grand Prix, including an eight-second knockout of Georgi Karakhanyan and a 71-second submission of Darrion Caldwell.
Avoiding Pitbull's dangerous counter punches and tight guillotine will certainly be job one for McKee. But his built-in advantages of four inches in height and eight inches in reach could be a problem for the defending champion. McKee is at his best when he's flowing and responding to what his opponent puts out, which could make for a slow start as Pitbull typically does his best work as a counter striker. But should the fight enter the championship rounds, McKee's little used wrestling game -- which his father/trainer Antonio claims is the most underrated part of his arsenal -- could be the deciding factor. McKee has proven throughout the fight's promotion that he's anything but scared of the big stage or verbally sparring with Pitbull. Look for that same confidence and poise to help him find an answer for everything Pitbull attempts to do in a technical masterpiece that goes the distance. Pick: McKee via decision
Brent Brookhouse: McKee presents some significant problems for Pitbull, not the least of which is his length. McKee is taller and rangier than almost everyone Pitbull has fought in Bellator. While Pitbull is often the smaller man in his fights, McKee is a different animal, with a striking game that has come along nicely to pair with his grappling skills. Pitbull will have to figure out how to get inside on McKee so he can go to work with his looping bombs. Once Pitbull manages to get inside, he has to deal with McKee looking to put the fight on the floor where he McKee has a strong edge as long as he can keep himself out of Pitbull's dangerous guillotine choke.
Despite McKee's advantages on the ground and in the purely physical, Pitbull is a deserved favorite entering the cage. He has faced the higher level of competition while being a dominant force for years. Pitbull could easily win the fight with his striking alone and McKee will need to be cautious at every turn. That said, McKee has been brought along brilliantly and is ready to take the next leap in his development by becoming world champion. Look for some tense rounds before McKee traps Pitbull in a bad spot on the ground and goes to work for a TKO win. Pick: McKee via TKO3
Brandon Wise: It's awfully tempting to take the challenger in this spot as a slight underdog if you can find the value. McKee is incredibly dynamic and has multiple ways to beat any opponent. But Pitbull did not get to this position in his career without having to learn some hard lessons along the way. While McKee surely will be a champion someday, grinding out a tough loss like this is something that pushes you to become even better. McKee will try to push the pace early and often, but the precision counter-striking of Pitbull will prove to be just too much to overcome over the course of a few rounds. Expect Pitbull to continue his reign as a dominant two-division champ. Pick: Pitbull via TKO3