LOS ANGELES—Five years from now, how much better can A.J. McKee be than he is today?
“That’s a good question,” the new Bellator MMA featherweight champion said after he finished Patricio Freire in the Bellator 263 headliner on Saturday in Inglewood, California. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Keep reaching new plateaus. Stay in the gym. I’ll be in the gym Monday. No days off.”
At 26, the next-generation Bellator champion has just begun to show the full scope of his talent. Entering the physical prime of his career, McKee is already well ahead of the curve in every phase; and as his father and trainer Antonio always says, we haven’t even seen the kid wrestle, but if he wanted to, he’d wrestle your ass off.
McKee’s obvious gift for MMA, which he showcased once again by striking and strangling the formidable “Pitbull,” has been groomed over the last two decades by his dad’s wisdom and the kid’s firsthand experience watching many of the sport’s biggest stars and best competitors operate.
Countless moments spanning literally the entirety of McKee’s life have shaped his run to 18-0. He is what it looks like when an athlete is born and bred for something that comes naturally to him, which is why the people who regard “The Mercenary” as a special talent are too numerous to name.
“When I think of A.J. and his game, he’s going to be a tough kid to beat in the future,” said Bellator President Scott Coker, who first saw McKee at an amateur event in Southern California six years ago. “This is the future of MMA, a kid that can do it all like this. He’s been doing this since he was 3 years old. He grew up in the gym. This is nothing new for him. He’s special. His dad told me when he came into my office six years ago, ‘This is the kid. He’s special. I’m telling you right now.’ And he’s right. The dad knew. It was just part of his destiny.”
This prompted a variety of comparisons to changing-of-the-guard fights ahead of the Bellator 263 main event. The one that rang true was Jon Jones’s finish of Mauricio Rua, and McKee’s performance under the most intense spotlight of his career confirmed that. Like Jones, McKee combines power, speed and length with an inspired ability to inflict violence under a calm, assured and focused demeanor.
Though he says things like, “I’ve been the man since I stepped in this cage,” McKee’s swagger is not soaked in arrogance.
“Since my very first fight, I’ve always had something to prove,” he said. “I wanted to come in and make a statement. I feel like that’s where I came into just showing up and showing out.”
Like Jones, the obvious questions now revolve around McKee handling the spotlight without sabotaging himself.
“Getting here was easy—real easy—because he was willing to dedicate himself, but now is the real challenge,” Antonio said. “He’s a millionaire. He was somewhat successful before. Now is the real challenge. What do you do from here on out?”
“I’m taking on roles where you don’t have time to be a kid and mess around and play,” A.J. said. “You just have to focus, buckle down and adapt. That’s the key to life, the key to fighting. When things get rough, when things go hard, what are you doing to do? You either fold, give in or bite down and buckle up.”
Leading up to his milestone victory, McKee operated as if the result had been preordained and the bout itself was a mere formality so long as he performed to his ability. That’s how it felt when McKee the challenger entered The Forum in front of a hometown crowd that pulled hard for him to win, and that’s how it felt when McKee the champion departed the cage holding a pair of Bellator belts.
What might have felt like the weight of the world on a different fighter’s shoulders turned out to be McKee’s sweet spot. Like his father, A.J. said that he finds comfort in chaos, which he called “kind of weird,” even though it is a hallmark of the world’s best professional fighters.
A small bobble at the weigh-in did not matter, and throughout the considerable buildup to Bellator 263, he handled media obligations very well.
“A lot of fighters aren’t able to embrace it,” McKee said. “That’s a big key. Embrace it. Embrace it. Embrace it. I love the cameras now.”
Ready to win two belts and a $1 million prize on the strength of four straight finishes in the Bellator featherweight grand prix, when the caged doors closed, McKee patiently walked down the champion.
A few days later, veteran fight analyst Teddy Atlas aptly described A.J. as the “salesman of the year” and a “brilliant genius” for the way he completed a plan that was two decades in the making.
“It’s just adapting while you’re in there and being able to dissect things,” McKee said. “I’m still kind of realizing how good I am.”
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