A.J. McKee Hopes Cross-Promotional Efforts Expand Beyond Bellator MMA vs. RIZIN

A.J. McKee Bellator MMA
AJ McKee following Bellator 263. Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

A.J. McKee wants to do some “full blown exploring” of Japan, taking in everything from the snowboarding opportunities, to temples, to the classic car scene — but December 31 is purely a business endeavor as he takes on Roberto de Souza at the Bellator MMA vs. RIZIN crossover event.

A few years back, when Bellator and RIZIN first experimented with a cross-promotional effort, McKee (19-1) was immediately interested. Now, he’s got the call. “Coming full circle to where now the opportunity has arisen and they’ve selected me as the 155lb’er to represent Bellator and the U.S. of A., I’m excited, man,” he told Cageside Press in a recent exclusive interview.

RIZIN Fighting Federation has become known as the heir to PRIDE, once the dominant force in the MMA landscape. That’s a promotion McKee followed growing up.

“When I was a kid, it was PRIDE. I was watching Rampage [Jackson] power bombing people on their head, Shogun [Rua] kneeing people in their face, the soccer kicks from Sakuraba,” McKee recalled. “I’m trying to bring some of that old school razzle-dazzle back.”

Of course, Demetrious Johnson encountered issues with the old PRIDE rule set not too long ago, being put away with knees on the ground in his first fight with Adriano Moraes in ONE Championship. McKee agrees that it could be dangerous, but on the feet is where he believes he has the edge over his opponent, RIZIN’s lightweight champ.

“This fight isn’t a fight where I’m planning to go wrestle. This guy is a master jiu-jitsu artist, he’s had multiple submissions, so I think he’s going to be the one that’s trying to shoot and initiate the wrestling,” said McKee. “I know that’s my strong suit, but I think the advantage for me is going to be on the feet, and wrestling defense all day.”

Of course, with McKee being well-rounded and having done jiu-jitsu since he was a kid, he’ll be comfortable there as well. “I haven’t seen many people on the ground try to really punch him yet. So if we do hit the ground, I’m looking forward to just unloading some bombs on him a little bit.”

There’s no title on the line on New Year’s Eve, but McKee would be game to try for another belt, as Kyoji Horiguchi once did, holding titles in Bellator MMA and RIZIN simultaneously.

“For me it’s all about the belts. Especially being the main event, I actually wanted to fight five fives. Putting the belt on the line, maybe we can do a little side deal. I’ll bring my belt, winner takes all. He takes the belt, or I take the belt. I’m looking forward to taking the belt.”

And while he won’t win a title at the Bellator MMA vs. RIZIN show officially, McKee is absolutely game for expanding cross-promotion between organizations, be it the PFL or ONE Championship.

“Definitely man. I feel like bringing the belts together, unifying the belts, and showing who the best of the best in the world is, no matter the organization— I feel like some of the best fighters come from all over the world,” noted McKee. “Myself, I feel I am the best fighter in the world. For me, this opportunity is a dream come true. It’s an opportunity for me to go out there and show my skills and just show what I’m capable of, especially in a new division.”

“I saw the ONE [Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong] was calling out the UFC’s guys, he’s like ‘I’m only interested in the UFC guys.’ Like man, you’re only interested in the UFC guys, but you know Uncle Dana ain’t doing that.”

Sityodtong has said just that, while ONE lightweight champ Christian Lee has espoused similar sentiments.

“Why don’t you bring that smoke to Bellator, and we’ll put it all on the line?” McKee suggested. “Hopefully we get a response after this fight. Maybe we will, maybe we don’t. Probably we won’t but hey, the offer is on the table.”

Even if no other cross-promotional super-fights present themselves to A.J. McKee, there’s always the trilogy fight with Patricio Pitbull. Despite now being a lightweight, McKee says his dealings with his featherweight rival aren’t done.

“We gotta finish business. That needs to be settled. But the ball’s not in my court. I don’t make the calls, Mr. [Scott] Coker does. I genuinely feel Patricio doesn’t want to fight again. I think he knows it’s 2-0. He doesn’t want that third fight, that’s why he’s talking about going down to the 135 division and so forth,” said McKee. “But I think it’s only right. For his legacy, for my legacy. You can’t leave the game unfinished at 1-1. You gotta finish it. So hopefully we get something figured out where we can get in there and get it on one last time.”

A.J. McKee faces Roberto de Souza as part of the Bellator MMA vs. RIZIN cross-promotion on December 31, 2022 in Saitama, Japan.