Call it a renaissance. Call it a new chapter. Call it a fresh start.
Whatever it is, AJ McKee’s lightweight debut after his only professional MMA loss comes Saturday night in his hometown of Long Beach.
For his father and lifelong coach, it’s everything.
“He lives my dreams. He does what I dreamed of. But there’s nothing like watching my son, who was born in Long Beach, when I’m not doing it. Memorial Hospital,” said Antonio McKee. “You know, he used to spend his time on this lawn. And now he’s coming back, and he’s coming back to be supported by his city. Big thanks to Bellator for making this possible.”
AJ McKee, born and raised in the 562, puts on a big smile when he thinks about fighting at Long Beach Arena. “Just so excited. It reminds me of the wrestling days of high school,” he said of his time at Long Beach Poly.
But 2022 wasn’t all smooth sailing for 27-year-old McKee. Nine months after winning the $1 million Bellator World Featherweight Grand Prix title fight final with a first-round submission from champion Patricio Pitbull at The Forum, McKee lost the title in a rematch by unanimous decision in April.
McKee (18-1) believed that night in San Jose and to this day claims he should still be undefeated. Fight stats show he landed a total of 40 more strikes and grabbed four takedowns for Pitbull.
McKee says that within two weeks of the fight he was caught in a spark shrouded in a haze of marijuana smoke.
“Wake up smoking, smoke before bed, before workout, after workout, all day, at night on the way to workout. OK, yeah, you don’t have a fight ahead of you. But it’s like, ‘Bro, why do you smoke so much? You’ve got a vape pen here. I mean, you’ve got your little weed cartridge.’ It’s like, ‘Just leave it alone,'” McKee said. “So I could really just look at myself in the mirror and be like, ‘Yo, are you going to keep letting that affect you? Or are you bringing it back?” You know?
“And that was a big part. It was tough at first because I realized I had a problem. And then it was like, ‘Okay, well, do I really, really have a problem? Or am I just using this problem to deal with what I’m seeing?’”
While McKee wallowed, his father took a surprisingly different approach. In fact, Antonio McKee admits he was pleased with the result.
Not only was his son taught an important life lesson, but the end result could be the greatest payoff.
“Everyone said, ‘Your son just lost.’ No he did `nt. He won the fight. He lost the decision. But what he has won, he has gained in life because he had the chance to see the difference in whether he’s self-promoting and when not,” said Antonio McKee. “Yes, everyone who saw the fight said it won. That’s great. Pitbull’s face showed that he had won.
“But what they didn’t see is that we won in life because he changed his life after that. He has stopped smoking. Now you’ve woken up the monster. I’m super excited.”
Additionally, his 5-foot-10 son has moved up a weight class, putting the grueling weight savings behind him. After hitting 185 pounds and knowing he had to lose 40 pounds, AJ McKee says he hadn’t peaked above 170 pounds before successfully gaining weight Friday morning.
And the extra 10 pounds of muscle will show up in workouts, according to his dad.
“Man, I hired people for this camp. Normally I can run this camp. Me!” said Antonio McKee, 52, a veteran of nearly 40 professional MMA fights, who came out of a five-year retirement in 2019 to win using the same Bellator 228 card as his son. “I had to hire people because he’s so powerful, explosive and his timing, and it’s not a move. It’s the next step and the next. And it sucks!”
The first Test in the 155-pound division is Spike Carlyle, a 29-year-old San Diego native and Orange resident who made his UFC debut in 2020 and won 1-2 in 10 months before being cut.
Carlyle (14-3) has won five straight promotions in four since he was released from the UFC. He first weighed a pound over the 156-pound maximum on Friday morning, which set a 1-pound grace level, then was still 0.6 pounds overweight an hour later before venturing to the California State Athletic Commission, because the scale was off and not given the right time to step on the scale.
A day earlier, Carlyle respected what the McKees are about, but doesn’t agree with being such an unaffordable underdog.
“What I really like about AJ is that he has a strong relationship with his father. I know his dad is a pioneer in the sport, so I really respect that,” Carlyle said on Thursday’s media day. “He’s been a martial artist all his life. I have great respect for that. As for his skills and athletic ability, they are not at my level.
Antonio McKee has always praised his son’s talents, whether it’s his hitting, grappling or the ability to block his back.
Now he sees all of this with a clear mind and a bigger picture. “He’s a different animal,” he said.
Best of all, they can start this new journey in their own backyard.
“It’s phenomenal because Long Beach is such a great city, so many great athletes, artists and celebrities. Long Beach produces some of the best at everything,” said AJ McKee. “For me to know that I’m the best at my sport and at my craft and able to bring everyone in town together, I just wish it was a world title, you know? But to be able to fight and go out and put on a show for everyone in town, that’s going to be awesome.”
Where: Long Beach Arena
How to see: Prelims (4pm, Bellator MMA YouTube, Showtime Sports YouTube, Pluto TV); Main Card (7 p.m., Showtime)
https://www.ocregister.com/2022/09/30/bellator-286-a-j-mckee-rises-from-the-ashes-and-the-smoke/ AJ McKee rises from the ashes and smoke – Orange County Register