A.J. McKee’s next fight might seem like a departure from his championship chase, but his eye is still firmly on the prize.
The 23-year-old featherweight meets Daniel Crawford at Bellator 212 this Friday at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center in Honolulu and though the unheralded Crawford is a risky opponent to take on, McKee is treating this as seriously as his first 12 pro bouts.
He recently told MMA Fighting that he likes the sound of 13-0 and that as important as it is for him to get a shot at current champion Patricio Freire, a target McKee called out after scoring a first-round knockout of John Macapa in September, he isn’t waiting for “Pitbull” to pick up the phone. His plan is to stay busy until there is no other option but for Bellator to grant him a title shot and only after claiming one will he consider leaving the division to pursue another championship.
“I want my 145-pound belt,” McKee said. “That is an accolade. That is a credential. That is like a troop getting a badge when he comes back. That’s something I want. I want my first title. I want to be undefeated and I want my first title. Before I go off playing at 155 and doing all this other stuff I want my belt. I don’t care who’s in front of me, who you want to put in front of me. I want my belt. I’m breaking records. No one’s doing what I’m doing. No one’s holding records and breaking records and continuing records like I am. So I feel let’s put all my records on the line at one time. Let’s do it.
“Undefeated, champion, for my first belt. I would say ‘most finishes’ because I know I’m approaching on that soon. I’ll put everything on the line at once. Let’s see what some pressure’s like. I’ve been comfortable in my career and I wanted to feel pressure.”
McKee knows a thing or two about dealing with pressure. He’s even manufactured some for himself just to see what it was like. In November of last year, McKee put on the grittiest performance of his career, surviving late-notice replacement Brian Moore’s second-round surge at Bellator 187 before dipping into his own reserves to come back and defeat Moore with a rear-naked choke in round three. McKee traveled to Moore’s home country of Ireland for the bout with just two weeks of training, a move that his father and coach Antonio warned him against.
One place McKee is drawing the line at is participating in a featherweight grand prix in the vein of the heavyweight and welterweight tournaments that Bellator has recently put together. As open as he is to taking on all challengers, McKee isn’t interested in a format that could force him to wait even longer for his crack at a belt. The sooner he gets that opportunity, the sooner he can clear the path for his close friend and teammate Aaron Pico to continue the reign of Team Bodyshop.
“I don’t feel I should have to go through a tournament,” McKee said. “I want that 145-pound belt real quick and off to 155 pounds I go. I’m 23, I’m getting bigger, I’m getting stronger. My weight cuts aren’t getting easier, they’re getting harder. Being 23, I want to go play around with ‘55s you know. See what it’s like up there, feel stronger and faster. Test out some longer guys, bigger guys.
“And then at the end of the day, Pico’s at 145 too. I’m going to go knock ‘Pitbull’ out or beat up whoever and do what I do. And Pico, he’s 4-1, he’s young in his career. I was just right there and it’s right there, those two years, it went by tremendously fast. He’s within a year of getting that belt. Within a year, I plan on being the 155-pound champ. So as I’m on my way out, he’s on his way in. We’re like yin and yang in the gym, we’re like two squirrels, pees in a pod. We’re everywhere.”
McKee can’t help but be passionate about what he does. It’s a trait he picked up from Antonio, who fought 37 times over the course of a 15-year career, and one that he realized he shares with MMA legend Chuck Liddell. “The Iceman” worked closely with the McKees in preparation for his comeback bout against Tito Ortiz and they were in Liddell’s corner when he fell to his longtime rival this past November.
The outcome wasn’t what McKee or Liddell wanted and he understands the criticism surrounding the 48-year-old former UFC champion’s decision to return to fighting; however, he also spoke highly of the experience as a whole.
“It was amazing. It was probably the greatest thing I’ve done in my career so far, just to be able to work with him,” McKee said. “He’s such a genuine, amazing person. I understand both sides of the story, for his fans, his friends, and his family, everyone. Friends, coaches, and fans. Why? Me being a fan of Chuck since I was a kid was just so extraordinary, it was amazing. So I wanted to work with him and he wanted to fight so I understood where he was coming from.
“Then his friends and family, they don’t want to see him get hurt like that. That’s someone you love, you don’t want to see anyone get knocked out or get hurt. I was damn near in tears when he got knocked out. It hurt me. Why? Because I know what type of man that is. That’s probably the most genuine man I know. He’s just so genuine as a person. I appreciate that about him, I appreciate the opportunity, I appreciate his family, his friends, and his fans. I’ve never seen anyone lose a fight and still have the entire stadium cheer for him. That’s kind of something I’ve put into my career now and I’ve learned and I’ve took from him. Be who you are.”
That level of regard is what McKee is striving for as he approaches year four of his fighting career. He looked poised to make a leap in recognition when he was matched up with former Bellator featherweight king Pat Curran in September, only to see Curran bow out with an injury and be replaced by Macapa.
That’s one of several Bellator vets who McKee has been trying to get his hands on and until he can start adding those kinds of scalps to his collection, he’s content to keep making an example of whoever the matchmakers line up for him.
“I’m grinding right now,” McKee said. “I’ve had a lot of people pull out. I was supposed to fight Emmanuel Sanchez. I was supposed to fight Henry Corrales.
“But at the end of the day it’s not affecting me and what I gotta do. It’s kind of fueling me because I feel you guys don’t want to fight. Clearly, that’s telling me something. You guys are ducking me or you guys don’t want to fight or you know that belt once it hits my waist it’s not going anywhere, so they don’t want any smoke until then.”