AJ McKee vs. Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire 2: Bellator Champion on Legacy and Free Agency

Place: SAP Center, California Date: friday april 15
Cover: Watch live coverage on BBC iPlayer from 11.55pm BST; reaction on the BBC Sport website and app.

“When I’m done with the sport, people will realize the McKees are all about mixed martial arts.”

AJ McKee has just taken off his purple sunglasses and is ready to make his point. The 27-year-old, who just turned 27, has every inch of his young age. He’s talkative and likes to spend money on expensive cars, but he’s serious about one thing: fighting.

McKee is Bellator’s biggest star, their most marketable asset and their youngest champion.

He submitted the longtime belt holder Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire in just under two minutes last July. Simply put, McKee crushed the featherweight division and its longtime champion and made $1 million in the process.

Now McKee is defending that title for the first time against the man he stripped it of at Bellator 277, but the American believes his career won’t be defined by the accolades he wins.

“It’s a question of lineage for me, a legacy of a lifestyle,” McKee told BBC Sport. “First, second, third generation McKees.”

“I compare myself to Floyd Mayweather, 50-0. If the checks are right, I’ll go 50-0 in martial arts. If not, I’ll break free and be done with the sport.

“We have generations of that in our gym to come and play in the playpen, the cage. It’s not just me. If it’s not me, it’s going to be my brother Mason.”

McKee is trained by his father Antonio, who was also a fighter. He has lived his entire life in Long Beach, California. His four-year-old brother Mason is already trying his hand at “bracers and heel hooks”.

Winning the featherweight title was the culmination of seven years of hard work for McKee and his father. He has spent his entire professional career with Bellator.

Becoming a champion, however, came with its challenges.

“I get older, I get wiser, and I expect more of myself,” says McKee. “They say it’s lonely at the top and I lost a lot of friends last year once I won that world title.

“It’s crazy how money changes people and it doesn’t even have to be their money. Your money can change someone else.”

“It’s Kobe Bryant stuff”

McKee made his professional debut in 2015 at Bellator 136 after amassing an amateur record of seven wins and one loss. That one loss to Christian Espinosa in 2013 was a knockout loss and changed the way McKee approached the fight.

“I remember it and I never will,” said McKee, who is very proud of his unbeaten record as a professional.

Welterweight champion Yaroslav Amosov (26-0) and flyweight champion Juliana Velasquez (12-0) are also undefeated in Bellator. There are no undefeated champions in the UFC.

Khabib Nurmagomedov retired undefeated with a 29-0 record as the UFC lightweight champion. Usually, staying undefeated is nearly impossible in MMA.

“That’s what sets me apart from being like any other fighter. Khabib was the only other one to do that,” McKee said.

“In mixed martial arts, you don’t see undefeated fighters built in one organization. If you look at the actual stats from my run, 18 fights, 13 finishes, 10 in the first round – who shows stats like that?

“It’s Kobe Bryant stuff. Michael Jordan stuff. Nobody does stuff like me.”

“I’m not a fluke”

McKee’s rising profile has fans wondering how he would fare against his direct rivals in other promotions and the questions will soon mount as McKee tries to renegotiate a new deal with Bellator.

McKee would love the opportunity to face UFC champion Alexander Volkanovski and dreams of a crossover promotional superfight, but he admits he may have to leave Bellator to prove he’s the best.

He is in the last three fights of his current contract and wants to keep earning £1million per fight, which was his prize for winning Bellator’s featherweight tournament.

Although he built his reputation in Bellator and spent his entire career with the promotion, McKee says he’s ready to become a free agent and fight in “any” organization.

“At 145 pounds, I’m the baddest man walking on this planet. When I became world champion, it wasn’t just Bellator’s champion – I’m the whole world’s champion,” he says. .

“I won $1 million and I never want to see my checks under that again. Why?

“It’s like a boxer who fights for millions of dollars and then wins and takes a pay cut? It doesn’t make sense. I know what I owe, but we’re doing business, so let’s keep it all cordial .

“I feel after this next fight, the money will be there.

“I just have to go out, smack Patricio on the ass one more time and show everyone that this isn’t a fluke.”

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