Through 17 professional fights, A.J. McKee has amassed a perfect record but that doesn’t mean he’s escaped criticism.
Despite a dominant run through Bellator MMA — the only organization he’s ever called home — the top ranked featherweight contender has still dealt with accusations that he hasn’t faced the best competition in his career, especially while claiming he’s already the top 145-pound fighter in the sport.
At Bellator 263 on Saturday, McKee will certainly take on his toughest test to date in a showdown with two-division champion Patricio Pitbull in the finals of the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix. McKee will enter the bout as a slight underdog, which is the first time in the history of his career that he hasn’t been favored to win before even setting foot in the cage.
In a strange way, McKee welcomes the opportunity to prove people wrong who don’t believe he’s nearly as good as the hype surrounding him. Of course, the 26-year-old featherweight has higher expectations for himself when it comes to his long term goals but he also isn’t spending much time paying attention to what other people say about him.
“A lot of people say I haven’t been tested and I’ve been protected and so forth but at the end of the day, I’ve had 17 fights in the cage,” McKee said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Any one of those people could have caught me or something bad could have happened. People don’t know the back story to a lot of fighters’ lives. They don’t know the things people go through and so forth.
“For me, I give a sh*t less. I’m not satisfied with my career yet. I feel I’m in the beginning stages of my career. For me, I give two sh*ts less what people think. ‘Oh you’ve been protected.’ Cool, well there’s no more protecting at this moment. It’s like either you show up or you blow up. I’m looking to show up and blow up.”
In anticipation of his fight with Pitbull this weekend, McKee has shown nothing but confidence when addressing arguably the greatest Bellator champion of all time.
While there’s been some bad blood between them during press conferences and other media obligations, McKee actually has a lot of respect for Pitbull and all that he’s accomplished over the years.
That’s part of the reason why he’s been chasing this fight since the day he arrived in Bellator.
“He’s got some of the accolades and some of the achievements that he’s put in his career, being a champ-champ, I think he’s held the belt for a good five, six years,” McKee said. “When you look at the stats — my stats versus his stats — our stats are a lot similar. I have a couple more finishes over him, knockouts, but the stats are a lot similar. The only difference is he doesn’t have one world title but he has two world titles. He conquered both world titles.
“Before Conor [McGregor] did it, I was saying these are things that I’m going to do and these are things that I’m going to do. Nothing but respect to him but at this moment he’s a pawn in this game of chess and he’s standing in my way. That’s where he needs to be removed from the board.”
Despite his praise for Pitbull’s accomplishments, McKee’s father and head coach Antonio, who is an accomplished fighter in his own right, has called this the “easiest fight” of his son’s career.
While that might seem like disrespect for a champion of Pitbull’s caliber, McKee explains that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Stylistically, this is the fight we’ve prepared for since I first stepped foot in my professional career,” McKee explained. “He’s been the man of the organization so this is what we’ve prepared for and that’s the scary part because my dad calls it the easiest fight. It’s not as though Pitbull is a roll over and it’s an easy fight. This is what we’ve prepared for. That’s what he means by oh this is the easiest fight. This is what we’ve prepared for since day one.
“All our techniques, all our combos, everything has been set up and prepared for Patricio. So I think he takes it personal when we say it’s the easiest fight but styles make fights and my style does not match up well with his style.”
McKee needs to look no further than some of Pitbull’s past fights to understand where he’s struggled at times and ultimately he expects to deliver more of the same while finally claiming a Bellator championship in his 18th professional fight.
“You can go back and watch when he fought [Daniel] Strauss,” McKee detailed. “Strauss was a southpaw and he sat him on his ass with a straight left. He doesn’t do well with that straight left.
“The reach, the range, the speed, the power, it’s going to be a fun fight for me and I think that’s what’s going to be key is going in there, having fun and doing what I do best.”