A.J. McKee brings his undefeated record, boasting an eleven fight win streak, to the main event at Bellator 205 this Friday. And rarely will you ever find a fighter this young so laser-focused.
If there’s a way to describe Bellator’s youth movement, perhaps it’s to compare it to an NHL franchise building through the draft. Picking up the right pieces, one by one, and allowing them to mature at a steady pace. Bellator has certainly raised eyebrows with its bumper crop of rookies, from Aaron Pico to Logan Storley, the Fortune Brothers to Joey Davis. A.J. McKee is at the forefront of that movement, as is his gym, Team Bodyshop, led by McKee’s father Antonio.
Admitting that he does feel that draft analogy a little bit, A.J. McKee explained to Cageside Press ahead of Bellator 205 that Team Bodyshop “is just one of the most unique gyms and unique vibes.” It’s a camp where you’ll find out if you can cut it rather quickly. “If you come into our gym, either you’re going to fit in, or you’re going to know you’re out of place immediately,” said McKee. “Usually it takes about a week for that happen. We’re going to dig up in your ass, and either you’re going to like it, because you like getting your ass whupped, and you feel like ‘okay, I have no choice but to get better here,’ or you can let that get the best of you, and run off. And usually, it takes literally a week before someone realizes ‘okay, I don’t need to be here anymore.'”
Father Antonio is the captain of the ship, of course. “It sucks,” McKee said of working with his dad, half jokingly. “He knows me best. He knows when I’m tired, and when I’m faking like I’m tired. Why? Because he’s my dad. But he’s also my coach, so he’s going to push me to new possibilities and new peaks that I didn’t think I could get to myself.”
“He knows when I’m spiritually going through something, when I’m physically going through something, or mentally, and that’s the difference,” McKee continued. “He’s not just a coach, he’s literally a mentor to guys, he’s a father figure to guys that don’t have fathers. Everything you can possibly be. That’s the difference in our gym, it’s not just a gym, it’s like a brotherhood.” McKee would later add that “Most gyms you go to, there’s a contract on fighters, ‘oh you can’t leave’ and this and that. My dad doesn’t have a contract with a single one of his fighters. Not a single one. That’s because it’s not just a gym. Those are all my brothers.”
And while some families might need time apart from time to time, for the most part, father and son get along well. Unless, of course, if the younger McKee is “not doing what I’m supposed to, that’s the only time we butt heads.” Which means it’s time to either “sit down and talk about it,” or else McKee realizes that “okay, you’re being an idiot A.J., get your sh*t together.”
It’s a frank and rather level-headed admission from a fighter still just 23 years old. But McKee knows that his dad has his best interest in mind. After all, “he’s my father. He’s never going to steer you in the wrong direction.” Father Antonio’s veteran status also helps, as McKee added that “he’s been through it all, he’s seen it all already. He’s not going to tell me to do something that he hasn’t done himself already, or that he doesn’t wish he could have done in his career.”
“A lot of these fighters, they’re too serious. They’re in there like ‘I gotta get it!’ Okay well yeah, you gotta get it, but you’ve got to be calm and composed at the same time.”
Heading into Bellator 205, McKee brings with him a promotional-best eleven fight winning streak. Yet any worry about protecting the streak ends when the cage door closes. “Once I step in that cage, I don’t think about anything,” McKee said. “When I’m in the gym, that’s when I’m thinking ‘alright, this win streak is on the line.’ Why? Because I trust in my teammates, in my coach, in my father. In my camp, everything we do, that they have prepared me for — I’m ready when I set foot in that cage.”
“That’s why I call the cage my playpen,” McKee continued. “I’m going in there to play. I’m having fun with what I’m doing. I’m in there smiling, joking around. A lot of these fighters, they’re too serious. They’re in there like ‘I gotta get it!’ Okay well yeah, you gotta get it, but you’ve got to be calm and composed at the same time.” Not to mention, have faith in yourself and your camp, he added.
That laid back attitude is a bit of a contrast from his coach and father. “My dad said he gets nervous as hell when he fights,’ McKee noted. “Versus me, I’m in the back doing cartwheels, jumping around, listening to music, getting haircuts. I’m just a different breed.” As to why that is, McKee came back to faith. “One of my favorite things, I actually got a tattoo that says ‘your faith must be greater than your fear.'”
Regardless of whatever you believe in, McKee explained, “your faith must be greater than your fear.” After all, “faith is all you have. Faith, and your work ethic.” McKee certainly has faith in himself.
Friday’s contest, of course, was supposed to be against former champion Pat Curran. However, that went sideways when Curran pulled out due to injury. Instead, John Teixeira is filling in. McKee never even considered waiting for a shot at a bigger name. “No. There’s no need to wait. That’s another fight, that’s another win, that’s another notch on my belt. I’ve fought once this year. I’m trying to stay as active as possible.”
“Pat Curran would have been a great win to have, and it would have been a great place to see where I was at with him being an ex-champ,” McKee admitted. “But it is what it is. I’ve had multiple people pull out.” Including Emmanuel Sanchez, who McKee pointed out pulled out “a week before the fight,” only to “sign a contract for a new fight two weeks later. That’s unheard of!” It all adds up to motivation for McKee, however.
“He can kiss my ass. Because guess what, I was supposed to fight Emmanuel Sanchez, Henry Corrales, Patt Curran. I don’t turn down fights. I fight.” — A.J. McKee on opponent John Macapa’s claims that McKee has benefited from “easy’ fights.
“I feel I’m ready now for that title. I’m just waiting for the organization to say ‘hey, here’s your opportunity.’ So everything I’m doing is in preparation for that,” he added.
Bellator 205 opponent Teixeira has accused McKee of having some easy fights, as Bellator have built up their young star. To that, McKee said that “he can kiss my ass. Because guess what, I was supposed to fight Emmanuel Sanchez, Henry Corrales, Patt Curran. I don’t turn down fights. I fight.” One example: “I took a fight, most people didn’t know, but when I fought Blair Tugman, I fractured my hand the week of the fight,” McKee told Cageside Press. “And I still went in there and fought. I wasn’t going to tell anyone, because Bellator wouldn’t have allowed me to fight. But that’s the warrior in me.”
The bottom line, for McKee, is that “when I sign that contract, I sign that dotted line, I’m showing up to fight. I don’t care who it is. That’s the mental mindset that I have that breaks people. I don’t care what you’re doing, I’m going to come in there and make sure that win or lose, you’re never going to want to fight me again.”
As for what he’s expecting from Teixeira, otherwise known as John Macapa, McKee sees him as a “pressure fighter. He’s going to keep coming. He’s going to take what you give him.” Which suits McKee just fine. “I’m not that person, that you’re just going to take everything I’m throwing at you. If you take what I’m throwing at you, you’re going to get sat down. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing, is sitting him down. He’s said that he’s my toughest opponent yet, and yes, that is true. Every fight is the toughest opponent yet.”
Ultimately, McKee told us that “I’m looking forward to doing what I need to do. Thanks to John Macapa for stepping up to the plate. That’s more respect to him, all respect to him for taking the fight.”
The Curran fight would have had obvious title implications. With Teixeira filling in, however, featherweight gold is still the only thing on McKee’s mind. “My belt is all that interests me at this point,” McKee insisted. “I want my belt. Anything besides that belt is just another stepping stone. I’m okay with taking as many stepping stones as Bellator feels I need until they feel that I’m ready. But I’m telling them, I’m ready. And I’m going to continue to show them with my actions.”
Eight finishes out of eleven wins goes a long way to proving that. “I don’t really have much to say when people try to say ‘who has he fought, who has he fought?’ Who do you want me to fight? I tell everyone who I want to fight. I want to fight Pitbull. That’s who has my belt.”
“Once that belt touches my waist, it’s not going anywhere,” McKee promised. Though he did concede that, moving forward, lightweight is part of the plan. “Definitely. The second I get that belt, I’ll probably defend my title two, three times, then off to 155lbs I go. Or I’ll retire, go do some movies, who knows. It’s all about the man upstairs, planning and timing. In due time, we’ll see what happens.”
With all that said, McKee feels that “the sky is the limit. I’ve never had a mental state this clear and this focused.”
Watch A.J. McKee take on John Teixeira in the main event of Bellator 205, this Friday, September 21 at the CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho. The main card airs on the Paramount Network starting at 9PM EST.