It’s no surprise that Bellator MMA featherweight A.J. McKee appears to be on the fast track to stardom in his mixed martial arts career.
Growing up as the son of 37-fight veteran Antonio McKee tends to have that effect. Over the course of his evolution, the 20-year-old McKee recalls being choked unconscious at a local Denny’s by Emanuel Newton -- at his own request because he wanted to see what it felt like. He watched incredulously as a prime Quinton Jackson power bombed Newton, separating “The Hardcore Kid” from one of his teeth during a training dispute. He sparred against his dad, whom he claims is still the strongest person he’s ever felt.
Now, the younger McKee is one of the California-based promotion’s brightest prospects, with an unblemished professional record and a shiny new contract extension to go with it. First round stoppages of J.T. Donaldson, James Barnes and Marcos Bonilla inside the Bellator cage comprise the entirety of McKee’s professional tenure to date.
Up next, McKee will face unbeaten Italian fighter Danilo Belluardo at Bellator 152 in Torino Italy on April 16. The main card, which includes McKee’s bout, will air on Spike TV via tape delay at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Even as a legacy fighter with a developing penchant for first-round finishes, McKee recognizes the need to take his career slowly. And when he doesn’t, those who have been there before are there to point him in the right direction.
“I strive for more every day. My dad, he tries to slow me down. You can’t move too fast,” McKee told Sherdog.com. “I’m still young, but at the same time so I’ve just got to take it at its own pace and don’t rush into it fast because I do have nothing but time.”
Antonio McKee was a well-traveled veteran of the sport who competed for numerous organizations during a professional career that began in 1999. It was only after a 15-bout unbeaten streak from 2003 to 2010 that “Mandingo” received his shot in the UFC, but he was promptly released following a split-decision loss to Jacob Volkman at UFC 125. While father and son might clash at times, A.J. ultimately puts his trust in experience over his own youthful exuberance.
“My dad at the end of the day, he’s been there and has seen it all and has done it all. Whatever he says, even if I have a bad feeling about it, I’m still gonna go with his choice,” McKee said. “I have to just go along with what he’s saying. He’s my father, my coach and my mentor all in one. He wouldn’t want to lead me down the wrong path.”
Still, McKee doesn’t lack for confidence as his Bellator tenure progresses. While featherweight is home to some of the promotion’s best talent, McKee believes that, if necessary, he could compete with anyone in the weight class right now. For now, it’s simply a matter of accumulating the necessary experience.
“I feel honestly I can go in there right now and hang with any of the top five contenders,” he said. “I don’t want to go in there and have a dog fight and be coming out of that fight beat up or hurt. When the time does come around for me to take on that belt, I want to go in there with so much confidence at the end of the day I know everything I’m going to do is going to just wreck anything they try to throw at me and nothing they can do can faze me.”
While McKee isn’t calling out reigning 145-pound champion Daniel Straus just yet, if all goes as planned the prospect called “Mercenary” hopes to be talking title shot by the end of 2016. The opportunity to compete on the Spike TV-televised portion of a card -- even on tape delay -- gives McKee a chance to introduce himself to a larger audience.
That can only further his cause.
“Wrestling is my first nature, but I don’t like to wrestle. I like to go out there and put on a show and entertain the people because that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “This is my first fight on Spike and I feel like it’s my first fight all over just because this time around... I feel like it’s me showcasing my skills not only to Bellator once again, but to the world since it’s on Spike. “I get to go out there and kind of make a name for myself and let everyone see who I am and what I’m really about.”