Surging featherweight prospect A.J. McKee finds himself in a difficult position, at least in terms of public perception. He has mowed down every opponent placed in front of him and appears to possess all the necessary skills to become a champion, yet the 22-year-old has been groomed slowly by Bellator MMA. Fans and media have begun to gripe, eager to see him perform against top-flight opposition.
McKee -- the son of former Maximum Fighting Championship titleholder Antonio McKee -- has his detractors. Some see him as nothing more than hype, an unproven prospect riding on his father’s coattails; others send verbal barbs his way because of his being young and brash. McKee has not been universally embraced, and it seems as though no matter how many fights he wins, it will not be enough until he reaches the top.
“The Mercenary” will take on journeyman Blair Tugman in a featherweight showcase at Bellator 182 on Friday at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York. McKee could not care less about the criticism he receives.
“They hate me; they love me,” he told Sherdog.com. “As long as they’re talking about me, that’s all that matters.”
Most expect McKee to trounce Tugman, a former NCAA wrestler on a three-fight winning streak. Aside from an eight-second knockout loss as an amateur four years ago, McKee has been all but flawless inside the cage. He kicked off his professional career with five straight stoppages and then went the distance in back-to-back unanimous decisions. McKee returned to his vicious ways in April, when he torched Dominic Mazzotta in 75 seconds at Bellator 178. A head kick did the damage.
The bout with Tugman seems like a risky endeavor for McKee, who enters the cage as a massive favorite with little to gain and much to lose. “The Bull Shark” has proven himself a crafty grappler and holds the edge in experience. However, Tugman has no knockouts to his credit and does not have a signature victory at which to point. Nevertheless, McKee sees him as a threat.
“Well, it’s a fight, so anybody poses a threat to anybody, whether it’s some random guy walking down the street or a high-level pro fighter,” he said. “Everything is a threat. He’s tough, he’s a hard worker, he’s always in shape and he’s coming to fight. This is a fight, so, hey, I’m going to give him a fight.”
Tugman wrestled collegiately at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, and most expect him to put those skills to use in an attempt to grind out an upset against the Team Bodyshop rep.
“I don’t really focus on what the guy is going to do,” McKee said. “I focus on what I’m going to do and how I’m going to implement it into the fight. I think if you’re worried about what they’re going to do, you’re already losing mentally. I’m just focused on what I’m going to do and the new things I’ve added to my arsenal.”
McKee has experienced no difficulty getting motivated for Tugman.
“I have the same mentality going into every fight,” he said. “It’s a fight and you can’t look past anyone. You can’t count anybody out because all it takes is one punch. We’ve seen that happen many times and with various people. For me, I need to stay humble and make sure that I’m prepared.”
While he has yet to face any of Bellator’s premier featherweights, McKee’s career has proceeded as planned. For the most part, everything has fallen into place as he envisioned when he turned professional a little over two years ago.
“I’m perfectly fine with where I am,” McKee said. “I’m climbing the ranks slowly but surely. Time is an essence, but the timing for the goals I have to achieve is perfect. Everything is lining up right. My goals are right there to grab, and I just need to stay focused and I’ll get them. That belt should be around my waist by April. Jon Jones was the youngest [UFC] champ ever at 23. I’m 22 until April, so that’s my goal -- to beat out Jon Jones’ record in April.”
That means current Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Freire could soon find himself in McKee’s crosshairs.
“I will knock him out, for sure,” he said. “It’s the only way for it to happen, man. Pitbull’s gotta go night-night.”