The scary part for A.J. McKee is that he keeps doing the things he said he would. It makes him wonder. Am I really this good? Is my success the result of a faith I can’t quite pinpoint? Is it God-given or natural talent? A learned skill? Is this a byproduct of a belief in myself?
“Every time I get goosebumps when I say I’m going to do something. I know it’s going to happen,” McKee told Sherdog.com. “Or if I have a dream. I know it’s going to happen.”
Undefeated after 17 fights, McKee’s next chance to test the Goosebump Principle comes Saturday at The Forum in Inglewood, California, where the Los Angeles-born-and-bred mixed martial artist challenges the most dominant fighter to ever lace up a pair of Bellator MMA-branded gloves.
Since jumping into Bellator as a must-watch 0-0 prospect, McKee has targeted two-division champion Patricio Freire. When and where was always the question for people who watched or listened to McKee and his take-no-prisoners father, Antonio, because the clash always felt inevitable. The answer took shape in 2019, when Bellator booked its featherweight grand prix featuring Freire, McKee and 14 other competitors who felt like longshots from the start.
“This is a fight when I was sitting there watching the pairings and ‘Pitbull’ had the final say what side the brackets are on, I was sitting there hoping A.J. and ‘Pitbull’ was the final fight,” Bellator President Scott Coker said.
Goosebumps convinced McKee that he would finally meet “Pitbull” in the cage, and holding the first selection when the tournament bracket was officially determined was simply another sign of what was in store.
“God just kind of showed me, ‘You are number one,’” McKee recalled last week following an open workout to promote the $1 million fight for the Bellator belt. “‘Let them pick. Let’s see who wants to fight you. Who is willing to put everything on the line to fight you?’ When I picked first, I embraced it. There’s something about that number one and being number one.”
To confirm his spot in the final in November, McKee submitted Darrion Caldwell at 1:11 of Round 1. On paper, Caldwell looked like a real test, McKee’s father and trainer said. However, even a 71-second win using a neck crank that is rarely deployed in MMA was not enough to impress the man who prepared his eldest child to do everything he has done so far.
“This is expected,” Antonio said. “Come on. You want to play with me? This kid is groomed for this s---. What impresses me is the adjustments he has made in maturing as a man, taking responsibility and accountability for the thing he does and wants to do, 100%. Financing and managing his money. Understanding the corporations and taxes. I am impressed by that. That’s the growth. The fight game is temporary.”
For a family that sees symbols in all sorts of places, the Bellator 263 main event with Pitbull sets up as validation that the path A.J. has walked will truly take him where he said he wanted to go.
“There’s a reason you’re undefeated,” A.J. said about himself. “Something’s working. When you weren’t supposed to win, you still won. When you didn’t train for a fight and you fought that fight on a week’s notice, you fought with a broke hand, there’s a reason I won. I just feel like I’m destined for greatness, man. Being an April 7 baby, diamonds are my birthstone. I’m a diamond, and we handle pressure. That’s pressure I’m now embracing, not unlike the GOATs. Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Kobe Bryant—they do great under pressure.”
Like diamonds, the McKees perceive themselves to be hardened objects. Hardened by experiences that few could comprehend. Hardened by the cauldron of the fight game. Hardened by the things others possessed that they did not. The McKees are similarly ruthless with the language they use—amongst themselves and with people they encounter. Ruthless like shrapnel. Ruthless like a glacier.
“We say what we believe and we try to back it up, and so far, we’ve been successful,” Antonio said. “No hard feelings. It is what it is.”
Unfiltered would be too euphemistic a description for how they speak to one another.
“It’s a father-son relationship,” A.J. said. “I don’t agree with some of the things he says sometimes, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to remove my emotions and look at it for what it is, especially early on in my career.”
Whether it reflects well on them or not, Antonio does not give a second thought to sharing the most intimate details of what’s on his mind regarding his challenging past or his ambitious son. Despite the din of destiny ringing in their ears, Antonio revealed that at one point during his son’s ascension, A.J. risked everything by the choices he made, and for that, he considered doing the worst thing he could.
“My dad killed his dad,” Antonio said. “Me and A.J. had a situation and I had to be the bigger person. I was about to go into the bedroom and blow his f------ head off, but then I realized, ‘What are you doing? This is your son.’ He was ready to go, but that’s the drugs. He was playing with that cocaine. He was around a lot of people doing coke. That’s a celebrity thing in Hollywood, and he was hanging with people who were probably bringing most of that s--- over here. They love him. I can’t be mad. Who are my friends? I just didn’t do any of it. But he matured and said, ‘You know what, dad? You’re right.’”
For as much as A.J. will always be tied to his father, in many ways, he is his own man now. Living on his own dime and having matured into his physical prime, A.J. claimed he is clean and doing what is needed to avoid squandering everything that appears set out before him.
“All the guys in the gym are getting younger,” A.J. said. “I’m the older one now. Seeing that, I’m realizing, man, the window of opportunity is very short so it’s time to capitalize off those moments. Obviously, me being in my prime years, this tournament being stretched the way it is, is a blessing, and at the same time, it’s given me a lot of time to self-reflect.”
Carrying the longest winning streak in Bellator history into his fight with Freire, McKee is well aware that a victory could propel him to a place few fighters outside the Ultimate Fighting Championship ever reach.
“I’m excited to see what not only this fight has in store, but once I finish ‘Pitbull’ in a fashionable fashion, what’s next?” McKee said. “He’s got the 155-pound title. I don’t think there’s anything left at the 145-pound division. I’ve got 17 fights in this division, and I’ve walked through everyone. He’s champ-champ. Let me come on and be champ-champ now. These are accolades that I want to put under my belt and look forward to conquering those, but obviously, not looking too far ahead to be able to get through this fight, that’s my main focus.”
Throughout A.J.’s career, his father has dissected opponents and instilled the strategy during training camp. Their plan for “Pitbull”—no secrets from the McKees, remember—is built on patience and the sense that the heavy-hitting Brazilian will elicit a heightened sense of discipline from the challenger.
“A.J. can go in there and be entertaining and impress the fans and all that stuff he does and get cracked on the chin and the fight is over,” Antonio said. “Or A.J. can go out and show that he’s patient. He’s accurate. He’ll beat him at every aspect of the game. ‘Pitbull’ has to get to him. How do you get there? You have to step and move forward. A.J. can play off angles really well, and I think everybody’s seen that; and he can wrestle. But he hasn’t had to wrestle. He wants to stand up and bang.
“His Fight IQ is like a guy that’s had 30 fights,” he added. “He’s been fighting since he was 12 years old. He’s been fighting his whole life. For him, his vision, his focus, is way different than anyone else’s. He’s so calm, so relaxed. He’s not worried about anything. He knows where he’s at. He knows where there’s opportunities. He sets them up two or three steps ahead.”
Meanwhile, “Pitbull” sees a nervous kid, another victim in a long line of vanquished suitors to the Bellator MMA featherweight throne.
“It’s 22 years of preparation,” A.J. said in response. “All my training my entire life has been built up for this moment. Nerves? Nah.”
Throughout his professional run, A.J. has been an incredibly intuitive performer with the improvisational wherewithal of a jazz great whose efforts manifest as much from an abundance of skill as they do the spiritual connection to unexplainable wonders floating in the ether.
“To be able to do these things and say you’re going to do them?” he pondered. “It’s something about goosebumps with me. Like my dad says, ‘When the cage door closes, A.J. is going to do what A.J. does.”
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