Like Tom Petty once sang, the waiting is the hardest part. That’s been the case for a lot of fighters during the coronavirus pandemic, chomping at the bit to get back in the cage. But for A.J. McKee, who returns this Thursday at Bellator 253, the time away may have been a blessing in disguise.
McKee will take part in a five-round semifinal featherweight grand prix fight against Darrion Caldwell in the night’s main event. It was a fight that was supposed to go down in June. But coming off knee surgery back in January, McKee wasn’t quite 100% for that date. Maybe not even 80%.
“I was scheduled June 6, and I would say I was probably about 70, 80% ready,” McKee (16-0) told Cageside Press during the Bellator 253 media day this week. “So that fight got canceled. I wasn’t too worried about it.”
McKee had planned to fight regardless. “Just the fact that I felt I was over 70% you know, 70% is passing.” In the end, it didn’t happen. And by the time McKee did feel 100%, the November 19 date for Bellator 253 had finally been locked in. McKee then packed up his dog, his teammates, and coach/father Antonio, and headed to Big Bear, California to train in the wilderness. “And we just had a great camp, took all the guys up there, took my dog up there. And I got to enjoy the wilderness, go hiking, four or five hour hikes, daily runs, mountain runs and it was good. You know, just to get away. There’s a lot going on in the world right now. Especially L.A., they’re rioting every other week and whatnot. So it was cool just to get away.”
McKee has had a long time to focus on the what if’s and possibilities of the tournament. That’s a lot of time to think about the featherweight championship, and the million dollars in prize money at the end. But he’s remained focused. “It’s one fight at a time. I’ve known Darrion since I was a kid.” McKee watched Caldwell, an NCAA Division I wrestler, compete since his collegiate days. “He’s a great wrestler, you know, but for me, I don’t really focus on what other people are focused on. I’m gonna go in there and I focus on what I’m capable of. And at the end of the day, this isn’t a wrestling match. This is mixed martial arts.”
As such, McKee feels that thanks to what his coach and father Antonio has put into him, he’ll have the edge. “I’ve always been well rounded at everything. So now I’m mastering what I’ve been well rounded at, and that’s being a mixed martial artist.”
As far as the fight going the distance, however, McKee insisted “that’s not happening.” Instead, he stated, Caldwell will have to “pick and choose his poison. I’m going to make him fight. No one’s made him fight. Everyone goes out there, runs after him, and he swoops in for a takedown.”
“If he swoops in for a takedown, I’m fine with that,” McKee continued. “I’m going to slice his face open with some elbows, and I’ll probably catch him with the triangle, arm bar— my jiu-jitsu is superior, and I haven’t really showed it off.”
Bellator 253 takes place Thursday, November 20 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Unvasville, CT. The main card airs live on CBS Sports Network.