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Bellator: A.J. McKee — “I’m going to go in there and show that I am the wrong man at the wrong time for him”

In a 16-man tournament format, such as the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix, it feels like any man can win one fight on any given night. Luck certainly plays a part en route to the coveted championship gold and the $1 million prize purse. But with that said — confidence, consistency, and momentum are also key factors to ending the competition atop as the last man standing, and A.J. McKee (15-0) lacks in neither of those departments.

The Long Beach, Calif. native has enjoyed a breakout year in 2019 as he continued his rise to stardom while protecting his undefeated record. Though it did feel as though many people were still not aware of his undeniable talent just a few months ago — the mainstream world definitely knows exactly who McKee is now after his thunderous eight second knockout of Georgi Karakhanyan back in September in the opening round of the Grand Prix. McKee’s electric finish in his home town went viral, and the recognition of his talent and potential continued as he placed at No. 1 in Ariel Helwani’s top 25 MMA fighters under 25 ranking.

But being underrated and slept on in a way totally suits McKee. The chip on his shoulder gets even bigger and the desire to prove that he is the very best that the world has to offer at 145-pounds strengthens. In his mind, he knows how good he is and what he is capable of accomplishing in this tournament and beyond.

“I’ve always felt like I was probably one of the most underrated fighters there is,” McKee said in a phone interview with MMA Latest ahead of his second round bout against Derek Campos. “But I try not to focus on that and this just goes to show how powerful our mind is when we put a thought into action and we believe in it and have faith in it.”

It is no secret that McKee has a ton of confidence in himself, and he largely credits that to being mentally strong. You have to have a mind of steel in the fight game. You have to endure the trash talk, the pressure, while also adopting your own style of promoting yourself. McKee is naturally cool and composed beyond his years, but at the same time confident and arrogant. But not in a bad way. It’s a way of showing that he is aware of his value and skillset. And this allowed him to almost speak getting Bellator’s fastest knockout into existence last time out.

“I told everyone before the fight that I was going to do it (get Bellator’s fastest knockout),” McKee said. “Your mind is very powerful. You have to believe in yourself, the training, and know that anything is possible. I know I fell a few seconds short, but with faith behind it, everything is possible.”

When you look at McKee’s progress and rise, his self-confidence quickly becomes justified. He had to believe in himself. The 24-year-old has never seen a professional fight outside of the Bellator cage. He was trusted with a pro contract in one of the premier promotions back in 2015, and the pressure to produce was on from the get go. There was no small stage to pad his record on before getting noticed, this was it. But McKee’s talent was obvious and he proved to be a prospect worth gambling on.

McKee’s development was handled expertly. He was allowed to grow into his frame and natural power without being pushed in too deep too quickly. The level of opposition was increasing gradually and his championship pedigree was becoming more apparent with each fight. Four years later, McKee is already the third winningest fighter in Bellator history with the longest active win streak in the promotion having never lost in his career, and it feels like this tournament has come at the perfect time. McKee believes so, too. But for him, there is also a bigger picture to life outside of fighting.

“I wanted it (title shot) after the Pat Curran fight, but this isn’t my life. I’m just a vessel in this world,” McKee said. “I’m here to do work. To help others. It’s all about helping others, helping people evolve inside the gym, outside the gym, and just to be better. We all have to figure out what we’re capable of and not have a self-doubt. That’s where a lot of people fuck up, they start doubting themselves, and we are our biggest enemies.”

The way McKee carries himself in and out of the cage, you’d swear he was a 10-year veteran of the sport. Nothing seems to phase him. He is precise and calculated with the gloves on as he tries to dispatch his opponents, but he is also mature and well-spoken in front of the microphone. It feels like McKee has a thought out answer for everything, and he makes it difficult not to believe him when he claims that he is the next in line to reign over the Featherweight division. Having assessed his next opponent as well as the rest of the Grand Prix bracket, McKee sees only one hurdle standing between him and the title — his mind.

“I am my biggest opponent, it’s my mind man,” McKee said. “These guys are nowhere near my level or the caliber of a fighter that I am. I’m comfortable wherever I go, whereas most of those guys are one dimensional fighters. They’re either brawlers, Jiu Jitsu guys, or wrestlers. I’m literally a mixed martial artist. So, I’m just trying to focus on myself. If I’m focusing on what they’re going to do then I feel like I’m already losing. I want to go out there and focus on what I’m going to do and execute my plan.”

McKee’s versatility is certainly one of his biggest assets. He has already recorded wins in almost every way possible in his relatively short career. Submissions, knockouts, they are all in his locker. McKee has also shown composure while being on his back against Pat Curran, where he did most of the damage to his opponent after being taken down for the first time in his pro career. This aspect of his game makes pretty much every potential matchup in the Grand Prix interesting, and it is also why he is now considered as one of the strongest favorites to dethrone Patricio “Pitbull,” who he actually believes will not make it to the tournament deciding bout.

“He’s got great striking, but I don’t think he’s going to make it,” McKee said. “I’ve dreamed about fighting people. I saw the Karakhanyan fight. I wasn’t quite sure how it will go. I also saw myself finishing Emmanuel Sanchez (other side of the bracket) with a choke.”

It’s hard to doubt a guy who has never lost while always walking the walk after talking the talk. But Saturday’s fight against Derek Campos (20-9) will be a massive test for McKee. To be the best you have to beat the best, and Campos certainly poses some interesting challenges for McKee to overcome. He is a true brawler. As tough as they come. Experienced and also capable of mixing it up. And in spite of having only won once in his last four fights, he is determined to make a title run in this tournament, giving McKee the perfect opportunity to make yet another strong statement to the rest of the contenders.

“I’m taking this fight as seriously as if it was for the world title, because it’s all on the line,” McKee said. “I’m not looking past him at all. He’s a brawler. Possibly one of the toughest opponents I’ll have faced. He’s definitely not someone you want to get caught slipping against. But I’m looking forward to going in there and fighting my best fight. I know I’m going to have to hurt him and make him realize that I’m not here to play. But he’s respectable. He said he wanted to fight, so this is his wish.”

There has been nothing but mutual respect between the two fighters heading into Bellator 236. Both McKee and Campos are well aware of each others strengths and they haven’t shied away from wanting to fight each other for quite some time. This makes this fight a potential late entry into the Fight of the Year conversation should it live up to the billing. McKee’s exciting and dynamic style matched up against a durable brawler has fireworks written all over it. And despite wanting to put on another clinic, McKee admits that he has a lot of “crazy shit” in his arsenal that he is thinking of pulling out for this bout.

“I was thinking about Masvidal’ing him, who knows?” McKee laughed. “But that is a lot of faith to put into one move, I’d rather put all that into my left hand. A fighter like that, you have to make him feel it. You have to slowly make him start to self-doubt himself. So, I’ll probably just tear his body up and look to finish him with a body kick, if I don’t come out running and finish him early. Or, I might just go out there and pull an old McKee trick and take him down and smash his face open with elbows like my dad (Antonio McKee) used to do. I’m just going to go in there and show him that I am the wrong man at the wrong time for him.”

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Sports journalist based in CA, USA. Twitter: @ArionArmeniakos

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