After each of his 17 early career wins, AJ McKee has made sure that he has his sights set on Patricio "Pitbull" Freire, the current featherweight and lightweight Bellator champion and a man who many consider to be the greatest MMA fighter in their history Promotion.
After challenging him publicly countless times, “the mercenary” (17-0-0) will have the opportunity to claim what he thinks is his on July 31st at Bellator 263 on Showtime in the Featherweight World Grand Prix Finals to win the world championship a million dollar prize. Another element from the picture book is that the fight will take place in the forum in Los Angeles. A native of Compton, McKee will have his hometown support to dethrone Pitbull (32-4-0) and make the next career leap.
We spoke to McKee about how he's preparing for the fight he's had since the beginning of his Bellator career and about his plans to use the prize money.
You have been calling for this fight since your first victory. How long have you been pushing for this opportunity, how do you curb your emotions now that the battle is near?
The big key is to focus on staying the course. My dad is really good at keeping me cool. He knows that I'm someone who just gets it, and he always tells me to fight smart, not be eager to get it. That will play a big part in this battle with Pitbull. When everyone fights against him, they take the fight to him. To be able to notice this when I consider that I'm the longer, younger, stronger, and faster man, I don't necessarily have to be out to get it. Once that door closes, I'll have 25 minutes to do what I'm best at and get him to bring the fight to me. At the end of the day he's the champion, but he fights me in my hometown, my backyard. I'll have all the fans in there cheering me on, which is going to be great.
Did you give yourself a chance to distract yourself a little from the fight or did you stay locked in?
I'm kind of busy and I get that from my dad. Staying busy keeps our minds where we can focus on the task at hand. I'm not a person who can focus on one thing. The main goal, of course, is to beat Patricio Pitbull. Having shouted his name in 17 fights, we've trained for it since the beginning of time because he was the man. I feel like he takes it a little personal at times, but it's nothing personal. He was a great champion and has held that belt since I first joined the organization. It's going to be fun and I'm looking forward to it.
Considering the odds you passed growing up in Compton, CA, how much nicer does it make this fight for you to have this game in your hometown?
I think this only increases the motivation for me ten fold to make sure I get out there and fight smart. The fact that I know the entire arena will be behind me is amazing. It's not like we're fighting in front of his hometown in Brazil. Yes, he's the champion, but he has to bring the fight to me. At the end of the day, when people are booing, they are him because I know they are not booing me. It will be fun. If I keep that, it's more of an incentive for me to do things right.
I've watched him throughout the tournament and everyone seemed to have a great schedule, but everyone is falling back on what they know and that is chasing him. Staying composed and calm will be an important key in this fight once we are in it. I can say what I'll do until we get in there and the door closes. As soon as we touch gloves, a completely different animal comes out. As soon as he realizes what he's up to when that door closes, the fun begins.
The tournament style has advantages and disadvantages. What do you think about this?
I would say I don't like that somehow. If that was the case back then and it was the old PRIDE rules and we could do the whole tournament in a night or two, I would do anything. I think those were the best tournaments MMA put on. Of course, since COVID occurs during the tournament it has lengthened a bit and it's not ideal to have two fights in the last two years. At the end of the day, after knee surgery, it gave me time to recover and count my blessings where I can. I'm still in the tournament and I'll take that as a blessing. Finishing everyone in the tournament is a big stamp on my career. I go through the entire tournament with finishes. At the end of the day, it's a fat payday and I'm looking forward to it.
How long would you say after the operation it took you to stop thinking about your knee?
(Darrion) Caldwell and I were supposed to fight in June. I signed the contract and was ready to fight and about 80 percent. It would have been the perfect timing, but this fight has been postponed. When June came I was done and after that it was good. It took about six months after the surgery before I felt fine.
What does a typical day of camp look like for you?
From a nutritional point of view, it depends on my weight. One night I had asparagus, a wagyu ribeye on the bone, and spinach. I woke up this morning and had a egg white omelette with a bit of the rest of the steak. In terms of exercise, the key to losing weight is running. My dad does those crazy ass workouts that I hate with a passion but love at the same time. We call him the wizard because he comes up with crazy things. Most of the time it's two days with three workouts, including the day and night run. That's all. A good run, then a tough training session with the team in the morning. The nighttime workout is more glove work, strength, and conditioning, and we move on from there.
Have you allowed yourself to wonder what you would do with this million dollar prize?
Real estate and some investments are a great way to go. I live in Los Angeles, and a million is a nice down payment on a nice house in the neighborhood I'm trying to live, albeit a down payment. It's a great start and I can pay off my father's house and make a nice down payment on something for myself and see what is to come in the future. Since I'm unbeaten and seeing a million dollars, I think I shouldn't see anything underneath. I always want to reach new plateaus and completely change the sport of mixed martial arts. There's nothing left for me in the £ 145 division. I'll have had 18 fights in that division by this point, so I'll go up to 155 pounds and dethrone Patricio there too and see how things go from there.