Two-division Bellator champion Patricio 'Pitbull' Freire produced a clinical performance to retain his 145-pound title and move into the final of the $1m featherweight grand prix.
Freire, 33, who holds Bellator's titles at both featherweight and lightweight, showcased his punch power, then his grappling skills, to defeat American contender Emmanuel Sanchez via first-round technical submission in the main event of Bellator 255 - claiming a record 20th win under the Bellator banner.
The bout also formed the second semi-final of the promotion's featherweight world grand prix, with the Brazilian moving on to the finale where he will take on undefeated American contender AJ McKee for the undisputed title and prize of $1m (£723,000).
Freire had already defeated Sanchez via unanimous decision in an earlier title clash at Bellator 209 in Tel Aviv, Israel, back in November 2018. But, in the rematch at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, the Brazilian made his punch power pay as he connected with a big left hand that dropped his man to the canvas midway through the opening round.
With Sanchez stunned, the champion followed his man to the mat and locked up a guillotine choke that rendered the challenger unconscious at the 3:35 mark. It gave Pitbull a record 20th victory inside the Bellator cage, and his 32nd career win overall. It was also the first time that Sanchez had been finished in his 25-fight career.
Reflecting on the guillotine choke that earned him his seventh consecutive victory, Freire said: "It's like a normal movement for me, it's [in] my veins. It's Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That's a position I love very much. So he was there, I saw his neck, and that's that."
After the fight, Freire and McKee exchanged heated words as they faced off ahead of the grand prix final later this year. McKee, 25, has a perfect 17-0 record, and has made no secret of his desire to defeat Pitbull twice to claim both the featherweight and lightweight titles.
"I told him, I'm bringing that leash and a kennel, and I'm ready to take him to the pound!" he declared.
Jackson closes in on title shot
In the night's co-main event, Jamaican welterweight contender Jason Jackson overcame a freak mid-fight eye injury to defeat former title challenger Neiman Gracie and move one step closer to a shot at the Bellator 170-pound title.
Jackson, 30, coped well against Gracie's much-vaunted grappling as he reversed positions on the Brazilian and landed the more impactful strikes through their gruelling three-round battle.
However, things almost came to a premature end midway through the opening round when Jackson raked his own eye against the cage fence. After a brief pause for the doctor to inspect his injury, Jackson was allowed to continue.
With his left eye visibly closing, Jackson emerged from his corner for round two sporting a broad grin, then connected with some solid strikes as he stung the Brazilian with a leg kick, then a big right hand as he showed he was very much a factor in the fight.
While Gracie continued to threaten with his takedowns and grappling, the Brazilian was unable to put Jackson in any serious danger on the mat, while Jackson continued to land the cleaner work in the stand-up exchanges.
That striking superiority proved crucial in the final reckoning, as the three cageside judges all scored the fight in the Florida-based fighter's favour, with scores of 29-28 on all three scorecards to improve Jackson's record to 14-4 and extend his Bellator winning streak to four.
Nerveless Nurmagomedov claims debut win
Just two weeks after his cousin Khabib Nurmagomedov's retirement from MMA was confirmed, 22-year-old Usman Nurmagomedov made his Bellator debut, and the Russian lightweight extended his perfect professional record with victory over American Mike Hamel.
With his superstar cousin in his corner, Nurmagomedov looked calm and relaxed throughout his three-round 155-pound matchup with Hamel, who looked to push the pace but was unable to make a real impression.
Hamel's willingness to plough forward and throw shots played into the hands, and feet, of Nurmagomedov, who picked off the American almost at will through the matchup as he left Hamel's face bloodied and bruised.
Hamel, who had moved up a weight class to compete at lightweight, looked full of fight and energy, but despite his efforts, he was unable to knock the Makhachkala native out of his stride as Nurmagomedov used his slick striking skills to earn a unanimous decision victory with scores of 29-28, 30-27, 30-27 to take his career record to 12-0.
Cyborg's next assignment confirmed
In addition to the action in the cage in Uncasville, it was also confirmed that Bellator women's featherweight champion Cris Cyborg will put her 145-pound championship on the line against American Leslie Smith at Bellator 259 on 21 May.
The pair met in the UFC back in May 2016, when Cyborg claimed a first-round TKO victory in a fight Smith felt was stopped prematurely. Now, with both women competing under the Bellator banner, the pair will face off again with the title on the line.
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