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James Gallagher saved his best career performance to date for the biggest stage of them all. 

On Saturday night in the co-main event of Bellator 180 and on the promotion’s biggest ever card, James Gallagher served warning to the rest of the 145-pound roster with a flawless first round victory over Chinzo Machida inside Madison Square Garden.

The karate expert, who was undefeated in the Bellator cage, was expected to be the the young Irishman’s biggest test to date in his unbeaten mixed martial arts ledger but if that was the perceived narrative, someone forgot to tell Gallagher. ‘The Strabanimal’ took his opponent down with a reactive takedown early in the first round before transitioning to the back and sinking in the choke he had been predicting all week long.

“It’s unbelievable to get the win. [I’m] 20 years old fighting in one of the most historic venues in the world,” Gallagher said at the post-fight press conference. “Just to think of Muhammad Ali being up here and Mike Tyson and all these guys. I just feel I’m following in the footsteps of the greats. It just felt right,  I’ve been working towards this since was 13 years old and I had my first fight in Strabane.

“I’m getting the wins but not only am I getting the wins, I’m making statements putting these guys away. I feel motivated, I feel hungry to go and get more wins and more success and become one of the greatest. When I won and I ran and jumped on top of the cage, I wasn’t celebrating — I just took a look around and I heard all the people from my home town that flew all the way over and all the rest of the Irish-American people that came out to support me.

As was noted in the build-up, Machida has been practicing martial arts since before Gallagher was born so some (Gallagher included) expected a few more problems to be posted in the stand-up element of the fight.

“I thought he would be more elusive on the feet, to be honest. I feel that I put a lot of pressure on him from the start. I don’t think he was expecting me to be as confident on the feet as I was. I went in and cracked him with a shot; I split him with the first shot I hit him with and it wobbled him.

“You have to take your hat off to the man. He’s been doing martial arts longer than I’ve been born and that’s why I got up at the end and I bowed to him and his brother, showed him the respect he deserved and thanked him for getting in there with me and giving me the opportunity to show everyone what I’m capable of.”

This win makes it four successive Bellator wins for Gallagher in the space of just 12 months, bringing him to the attention of Bellator featherweight champion Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire who tweeted a challenge to Gallagher in the wake of his fight.

The response was a simple one: “Tell him to come one and try it. Bring his belt with him because I’m going to take it.”