Best fight in Bellator history? A.J. McKee embraces spotlight vs. Patricio Freire

·Combat columnist
·6 min read

The one thing you can’t say about A.J. McKee, Bellator’s unbeaten homegrown featherweight, is that he doesn’t dream big.

McKee has fought his entire career in Bellator since turning pro in 2015, following in the footsteps of his father, Antonio McKee. He is now 17-0 and on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, Showtime) in the main event of Bellator 263 at The Forum in Inglewood, California, he’ll meet champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire in the finals of the promotion’s featherweight grand prix tournament.

The winner of the event will receive a $1 million bonus. McKee’s father fought in Bellator, the UFC, the IFL, Dream and the World Series of Fighting, as well as a slew of regional promotions beginning in 1999.

Antonio McKee has grown with the sport and he, for one, isn’t thrilled with his son’s check. Race, he believes, is at the heart of it.

“I’ve been in the game a long time, as you know, and I’ve had my own set of issues with this sport,” said Antonio McKee, who trains his son. “I’m not happy with what Black fighters are being paid. I’ve been very fortunate and I’m very direct. I always tell the truth and a lot of people can’t handle it.

“But as a Black athlete, I don’t feel [A.J.] is paid enough. If it were Randy Couture’s son, he’d have made more money. If it was Chuck Liddell’s. Royce Gracie’s son made more money than my son. … This kid is 17-0, he’s fighting on his home turf, and he has as many if not more accolades as Pitbull. But why are we talking about money?”

Bellator president Scott Coker angrily denied that Bellator is paying Black fighters less.

A.J. McKee is a bright and colorful athlete who isn’t complaining about his pay, but dreaming of the day when MMA fighters make the same kind of money as other athletes.

In 2015 after he fought Manny Pacquiao in what remains the top-selling pay-per-view of all-time, boxer Floyd Mayweather approached Yahoo Sports and showed an envelope. Inside was a check made out to him for $100 million.

The $1 million prize for winning Saturday’s event is nice, but A.J. believes he’ll be the guy who can propel the sport to the next level with his athleticism, personality and charisma.

It’s why he is interested in eventually boxing Mayweather and why he feels it’d be a no-lose situation.

“This sport being what it is and boxing being an established sport, for me, I gain a lot [fighting Mayweather],” A.J. said. “I don’t just gain the views. Being undefeated and obviously fighting the money man, it would push me to a different pay echelon. That’s something I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to making a $100 million check in my sport. I feel doing well against him or just showing my skillset against him would bring me to a different pay scale.”

The sad truth is, Mayweather probably has never heard of McKee and a fight between them is highly unlikely. But A.J. has the charisma, the personality and the fighting ability to build himself into a major attraction.

Inglewood, CA - July 22: AJ McKee during the Bellator 263 open workout at The Forum in Inglewood, Thursday, July 22, 2021. The card features the $1 million featherweight title fight between McKee and champion Patricio
A.J. McKee during the Bellator 263 open workout at The Forum in Inglewood, California, July 22, 2021. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

He made $1,500 to show and an additional $1,500 to win in his first pro bout. He’s hoping to change the game for fighters who come after him, including his 3-year-old brother who he says is already doing arm bars and will be a world champion before he’s 18.

The goals are admirable, but A.J. has to produce. He has to start on Saturday by defeating Freire, who is arguably the greatest fighter in Bellator history. Antonio scoffs at the notion that the fight is a challenge for his son, though, who is the +105 underdog at BetMGM.

He said there will be plenty of room on the bandwagon for the latecomers after Saturday’s fight.

When he brought his son to Bellator in 2015, he had big plans. Bigger, he said, than Freire, who in addition to holding the featherweight belt that is at stake on Saturday is also the Bellator lightweight champion.

“I expected something harder,” Antonio said. “Not being arrogant or cocky, but stylistically, this is one of the easiest fights for A.J., which is what makes me nervous.”

Freire scoffed at the confidence oozing from Team McKee, though he wasn’t prepared to unload any attacks on them. He just is happy with his spot right now.

“When your enemy is making mistakes, don’t impede them,” Freire said. “Let them do it.”

A.J., though, has been pointing toward this night for as long as he can remember. His father brought him to the gym with him during his fighting days, and A.J. saw so many of the game’s greats up close.

When he decided to fight, he wanted to fight those kinds of people his father trained with and later trained.

A bout with Freire was on his mind as he made $3,000 for winning his pro debut at Bellator 136 on April 10, 2015, against Marcos Bonilla.

“This is a fight I’ve prepared for since I first stepped into the cage at Bellator,” A.J. said. “He’s been the champ since I first stepped into this cage, including being champ-champ. That’s something I said I wanted to do before Conor [McGregor] did it [in the UFC]. Conor did it, then Patricio did it and I’m looking forward to doing it.

“Stylistically, I’m well-rounded: Great at stand-up, great at jiu-jitsu, great at wrestling. I feel that’s a complete fighter in mixed martial arts. That’s the mix of all the arts. My style against his style is not really a good matchup for him.”

It’s a great matchup for Bellator, which is putting on perhaps the best fight it could make today.

Coker said this fight was his dream kind of bout when he took over as Bellator president in 2014.

“When I came to Bellator six years ago, we went out looking for young fighters to build this company from the ground up,” Coker said. “A.J. is one of those kids we signed right out of the blocks. Aaron Pico and a couple of others. Ed Ruth. Now, this is what I wanted to see.

“You have a great young fighter against an incredible, established, dominant champion. You never know how it will work with young guys when you sign them, but we believed in A.J. when we signed him and he’s rewarded us for our belief in him by becoming the type of fighter he has become.”

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