It may seem odd given his 18-1 record and young age of 27, but Saturday’s Bellator 286 card marks the start of a recovery process for former featherweight champion AJ McKee after his only professional loss.
McKee will do hisagainst heavy underdog Spike Carlisle (14-3) in what at first glance seems like a homecoming for the Long Beach, California native who will be fighting professionally in his hometown for the first time. But the circumstances for The Mercenary, who has only fought in Bellator since his pro debut in 2015, couldn’t be more different than they were a year ago.
At the Bellator World Featherweight Grand Prix Final in July 2021, McKee recorded a dominant first-round loss to the most decorated fighter the promotion has ever known, using Patricio Pitbull’s patented guillotine to choke him unconscious. The win not only gave McKee the 145-pound title and a $1 million prize pool, but it also declared him a global threat that effectively topped the years of hype he had initially raised.
But McKee was never able to capitalize on his newfound fame and sat out for nine months trying unsuccessfully to secure a new contract. Then, in his April rematch with Pitbull, he lost a close decision in a much more technical fight over five rounds and recently revealed:.
The fighter who previously called himself the “Floyd Mayweather of MMA” was suddenly forced to face the harsh reality of losing his invincibility.
“Well now I lost so I don’t care who [I fight]McKee told Morning Kombat shortly after the announcement of the fight with Carlisle. “Put someone in front of me and we can go up to 170 pounds. Now my record is fucked up and that has played a big part in who I am and who I want to be and that is being an undefeated fighter and being like Floyd and Khabib [Nurmagomedov]to finish his career as one of the best and be flawless as one of the best. And now let’s go. Who’s there? At 145 and 155 I don’t care who I fight. Are we getting to 170? Now we’re talking about big money fights.”
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While McKee still has the necessary swagger to want to compete against the best in the sport, the promotion had other plans, which was to pit him against Carlisle, the 29-year-old “Alpha Ginger”, a sports risk taker who won five once. right after he was cut by the UFC in 2020. Not only is McKee in a new weight class and fighting in his hometown, but his archrival Pitbull will be defending McKee’s old title in the main event against Adam Borix.
“There were several names on the table [for opponents]. As for me, I asked for Benson Henderson,” McKee said. – This is one of my favorite fighters and I feel that stylistically this is an amazing fight. Imagine me and Benson there, that would be cool.”
McKee, who said fights were added to his current contract under the Bellator “championship clause” after he won the title, now admits it was hard for him to mentally get up before a rematch with Pitbull, and because of that his training suffered. This was partly due to growing dissatisfaction between him and the promotion amid a failed attempt to renegotiate negotiations that resulted in a lengthy dismissal.
“I just couldn’t wait to fight. If I finished [Pitbull] so fast, and then we go on an 8-month break, it’s like “f**k,” McKee said. “And then they call me in the middle of the snowboarding season. This is my motivation, I’m trying to make these somersaults clean. All sorts of things happen on the backend and it’s part of the fighting game that people don’t see or understand. But in the end, this is how we set the table for our family. For me, it’s about being active and staying there as long as possible.”
But did McKee, as the reports indicated, really ask for a $1 million per fight promotion in the future?
“Yeah why not?” McKee said. “I just won $1 million in stylistic style and literally quoted what I was going to do. Four out of four, all finishes. I finished 3 out of 4 in the first round. This is a hungry, motivated AJ. I show you what I can do. The proof is in the pudding.”
If McKee makes short work of Carlisle, as expected, the obvious question is: what does the move to lightweight mean for his future? The question becomes even more interesting after Bellator CEO Scott Cocker told The MMA Hour on Wednesday that the promotion will host a 155-pound Grand Prix tournament in 2023.
“I have been struggling and losing weight all my life,” McKee said. “I feel like I want to hit and learn jiu-jitsu, I don’t have to put my body and my family through [a cut back down to featherweight]. That’s a lot to get me to 145 pounds. Obviously it’s doable and it’s great, but why put yourself under that kind of stress if you don’t need it? You have the skill set and talent to do it in many weights.
“But to make a statement and end this trilogy, I would do it one last time.”
But McKee, who said he weighs around 170 pounds and has moved up to 185 pounds between fights, isn’t entirely sure the 35-year-old Pitbull will continue to fight if he beats Borix. He lost respect for the Brazilian legend for not giving him an immediate rematch like McKee did for him.
“I dont know [whose decision it was] but he is a champion. He wanted to fight me [after their first fight] and I could say no, McKee said. “And I showed him. It was a close fight, but not that close. I wasn’t happy with it. We have unfinished business and now you’re going to fight someone else? It doesn’t make sense.
“I will go back there and beat him another time. This should happen as soon as possible if that’s the case. I think he’s about to retire, to be honest. he’s going to retire.”
If McKee decides to stay at 155 pounds, the possibility of becoming a two-division champion – something McKee publicly prophesied about in his second pro fight – is still in play.
Patricio Pitbull vacated the Bellator Lightweight Championship in 2021, paving the way for Patrick’s older brother to claim the vacant belt. Patricky Pitbull will make his first title defense on November 18 against the undefeated Usman Nurmagomedov, though McKee added: “I don’t think his brother can get past Usman.”
A rare homegrown talent who went from prospect to champion in six short years under the Bellator banner, McKee must now navigate the start of a second chapter filled with many unknowns. Many of these questions have answers that McKee can only provide in a cage if he has the motivation to do so.
“I just want to be faster, stronger, bigger,” McKee said. “[It’s time to] give them what they want. I know I have a skill set, so just go out there and do what you can. I trained non-stop, 2-3 times a day, I spent hours, day after day. It’s just a show. It’s time to get back out there and get back to being yourself – being hungry and being on top.”