A.J. McKee has big plans for the New Year.
The former Bellator featherweight champion, who faces RIZIN lightweight king Roberto Satoshi in the main event of the Bellator-RIZIN card on Dec. 31, isn’t looking past his next opponent but he has a lot of ambition when it comes to his future in 2023.
With Bellator preparing to launch a lightweight grand prix with a $1 million prize on the line, McKee hopes that he’ll not only be part of the tournament but that he’ll draw reigning champion Usman Nurmagomedov in the opening round.
“Cashing that million. That’s what I’m all about,” McKee told MMA Fighting. “We’ve seen what a young, hungry motivated A.J. McKee is and a million dollars is more than enough motivation for me. I’m looking forward to it.
“I think that’s the fight to make is Usman and I. We both have the wrestling, we both have the jiu-jitsu. I feel I have the advantage striking-wise. I’d like to see where our wrestling and jiu-jitsu lie together. That’s going to be the fun factor of that fight that everyone’s looking forward to.”
McKee already claimed a $1 million prize when he won the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix in 2021 and nothing would make him happier than adding another seven figures to his bank account.
As far as Nurmagomedov goes, McKee has nothing against the undefeated Russian but he believes the new Bellator champion still has something to prove after taking the title from Patricky Pitbull in November.
“He’s the man with the belt. He’s the target,” McKee said about Nurmagomedov. “I’ve always felt to be a champion, you have to beat a champion and Patricky was gifted that belt from his brother [Patricio Pitbull].
“For me, everybody’s just fighting for an interim belt. Until somebody fights a real champion in the division, then it’s all interim to me.”
Speaking of the Pitbull brothers, McKee has made it clear that the lightweight division is his new home but he absolutely wants to drop down to 145 pounds at least one more time.
McKee already holds a blistering first-round finish over Patricio Pitbull in their first encounter but it doesn’t sit well with him that he lost a unanimous decision in a rematch that took place back in April.
Ideally, McKee would like to settle that bit of unfinished business before leaving featherweight for good but he’s not so sure Pitbull wants anything to do with a trilogy against him.
“For my legacy’s sake, it’s something that has to be done,” McKee said. “When I put it in along those lines, it’s something that has to be done. The ball is in his court. He’s talking about going down to 135-pound division. He’s trying to do anything and everything besides fight me. For me, I’m just going to continue to focus on what lies ahead and take it one day at a time, one fight at a time.
“If we don’t get that trilogy, I lose a lot of respect for him and his career. I don’t give a s*** who he’s fought from [Michael] Chandler, all the great fights he’s had, all that s*** is irrelevant. You’re not a true warrior. You’re a coward at that point for me.”
First things first, McKee has to get through Satoshi this weekend as he looks to add a marquee win on his record against an established champion from RIZIN.
With another chance to shine in a main event, McKee is excited to check off a bucket list item by competing in Japan just like his father Antonio McKee did over 15 years ago.
One more thing that McKee loves about this particular opportunity is the chance to compete under the RIZIN rule set, which includes additional weapons like knees and kicks to the head of a grounded opponent — a strike he’s used in real life but never during his mixed martial arts career.
“For me every street fight ends in soccer kicks,” McKee said. “So this is an opportunity to legally soccer kick someone in their face and get paid for it.
“It’s just a different barbaric style. It’s a different fight, a different pace. Different things to be cautious about. For me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m looking forward to it.”