In a perfect world, A.J. McKee would be fighting for a title this week rather than participating in the semifinals of the ongoing Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix.
After knocking out Georgi Karakhanyan and submitting Derek Campos in the first two rounds of the tournament, the 25-year-old contender was on hold for most of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday he’ll face Darrion Caldwell in the semifinals of the grand prix but even with a win he’ll likely be sidelined longer than he would prefer.
Thanks to delays in Bellator’s scheduling, the other semifinal matchup was just determined this past weekend with featherweight champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire defeating Pedro Carvalho while Emmanuel Sanchez earned a victory against Daniel Weichel. “Pitbull” will now meet Sanchez to see who goes onto the finals but there’s no timeline when that fight could happen.
“For me, it’s kind of a tight position,” McKee explained to MMA Fighting ahead of his return at Bellator 253. “Because once I fight, they have to fight and that means I’m going to be sitting on the sidelines for however long again. For me, this whole thing has been prolonged. I kind of felt like this belt is long overdue. ‘Pitbull’s got the 145 and 155-pound titles and these are prime years for me.
“I’m 25. I’m looking forward to being a ‘champ-champ.’ I said that what like four or five years ago, I said I was going to be a ‘champ-champ’ and then him accomplishing something that’s been in my dreams, it has been on hold. It’s long overdue. I’m anxious to get it. I’m tired of him holding what’s property of me.”
As McKee pointed out, Freire is a two-division Bellator champion with his featherweight title going up for grabs in the grand prix while he’s still holding onto the lightweight belt as well after knocking out recent UFC signee Michael Chandler.
Right now, McKee is focused solely on the featherweight title due to the ongoing tournament but he believes long term that he’ll need to face Freire twice in back-to-back fights in order to accomplish his ultimate goal.
“That’s always been my plan,” McKee said. “I’m going to give him a nice little taste of what he’s in for and then that 155-pound title is coming home.
“L.A. is doing a lot of big things this year. From LeBron [James] and the Lakers to the Dodgers. I think we need a world champion. So that belt needs to come home.”
First things first, McKee has to get through a former Bellator champion in Caldwell, who has been a surprising force in the grand prix tournament.
After moving up from 135 pounds, Caldwell beat Henry Corrales in the opening round before submitting highly touted prospect Adam Borics in the quarterfinals. Caldwell has plenty of big fight experience and despite his confidence, McKee isn’t looking past this matchup even if he feels like a featherweight title shot is inevitable.
“Anyone’s a threat in a fight. Anyone’s got a puncher’s chance,” McKee said. “In the last fight with Adam Borics, it was a good fight. Not to discredit anything from Borics but he doesn’t have wrestling. He didn’t grow up wrestling. Being an American wrestler, that’s what we were bred with. My dad being an elite wrestler in the fight game. That’s what we do. We wrestle. The only difference is I don’t want to wrestle. I’m trying to knock your head off your shoulders and give the fans what they want.
“I’ve just got to go out there and do what I do best and put on a show. I know what he’s going to do. He’s going to wrestle. That’s his thing. If he’s not going to wrestle, I’m going to knock him out. That’s just how it’s going to go. If he wrestles, he might be able to survive for an extra round. I don’t see that fight going past the second round.”
With an undefeated record and a staggering finishing rate during his career, McKee expects to add Caldwell to his growing resume of highlights on Thursday night.
Then he’s setting his sights on the Bellator featherweight title sooner rather than later.
“Every opportunity Caldwell has had to escape from a fight or get out of the ring, he takes that opportunity,” McKee said. “I’m looking forward to going in there and giving him a way out.”