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AJ McKee: The MMA Mercenary Moves on Up

The former Bellator featherweight champion speaks with Boardroom about prize fights, weight cuts, cars, and snowboarding ahead of his 155-pound debut on Oct. 1 against Spike Carlyle.

Is AJ McKee the most interesting man in mixed martial arts? Sure, UFC women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko speaks several languages, shoots all manner of guns, and sails around the world on a boat, but the Bellator pound-for-pound phenom and son of 20-year MMA veteran Antonio McKee has done more than most professional cage fighters in his 27 years on planet earth.

Win an MMA world championship tournament and the $1 million bonus that goes with it? Check. Scream down California highways in limited-edition supercars? Check. Hit backflips on a snowboard? Mostly check (and still far, far more than we could say for ourselves).

He may be coming off a decision defeat against Patricio “Pitbull” Freire in March that caused him to lose his 145-pound title, but McKee is already back on the hunt for Bellator gold — and notably, it’s one step up in the 155-pound lightweight division. Circle Saturday, Oct. 1 on your calendars, because McKee’s getting back into the fray to take on the wily Spike Carlyle — and the former champ is currently better than a 4-to-1 betting favorite to win and shake up a whole new weight class in the process.

With that in mind, Boardroom caught up with McKee at a Manhattan steakhouse in August to hear about his move up to lightweight, his thoughts on running it back with Patricio Pitbull one more time, his high-speed hobbies away from the fight game, and his big prediction for what goes down against Carlyle at Bellator 286.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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SAM DUNN: With your last bout with Patricio Pitbull not going the way you wanted it to go, are you going to be a different guy the next time you walk into that cage?

AJ McKEE: For me, that last fight, I wasn’t really myself. It’s always [about] being able to adapt and evolve; being able to be faster and stronger and bigger is a big key — and being able to assess what went wrong. Why was I feeling the way that I felt? Just being able to self-adapt, look myself in the mirror, and make the correct adjustments that I need.

I was motivated through the entire tournament. I set my eyes on the prize of winning a million dollars and winning a world title, so [in] the rematch, there just honestly wasn’t as much motivation for myself, but this fight, obviously I’m stepping into a whole new division, new competition. The motivation is a little different.

Faster, stronger, bigger, man. I’m excited.

SD: Was it always the plan to make this move to 155 pounds, or was it something that dawned on you more gradually?

AM: Initially, I wanted to be champ-champ. After I beat Patricio the first time, I was expecting to get the 155-pound title, but he gifted his brother [Patricky Pitbull] the opportunity to fight for that title — I still don’t think his brother’s a champ, because in order to be a champion, you have to beat a champion; that’s like Body Shop 101. What champion has Patricky ever beat?

SD: After your first bout with Patricio, I thought about how cool it would be if the rematch was up at 155. I don’t think that’s ever happened before in the sport. Maybe for a trilogy fight?

AM: Yeah, no, he’s not gonna fight me at ’55. That’s guaranteed. That’s guaranteed. He’ll retire before he does. That’s quoted. He will retire.

That’s what I was motivated [for] and kind of anticipated. I kind of spoke that into fruition, but it just never happened. So [after] that, it was once again the lack of motivation. It’s like, ‘Ah, I gotta go cut this weight again.’ So, getting acclimated to 155 pounds, this is like a new welcome-home party for me.

SD: Stylistically, do you feel inclined to approach things a little differently since your body is going to feel different compared to 145?

AM: Cutting to 145 pounds, I’ve always kind of felt I cut into a bit of muscle giving off those last few pounds. I mean, I’m a knockout artist, so to be stronger at 155 pounds, I think when I hit [Spike Carlyle], he’s gonna realize he’s in for it and I’m gonna be able to realize the true power that’s in my hands. That’s what I’m intrigued to see.

SD: What are the chances that your long-term future is at 155 pounds?

AM: Very, very high chances. My father was a 155-pounder, so I’ve always kind of envisioned myself being a lightweight as well. Yeah, just continue that lightweight legacy.

SD: The 145-pound division is really, really deep, but 155 is a den of absolute beasts, whether it’s Bellator or the UFC or anywhere else. What it would take to secure your own legacy at that level knowing how many sharks are swimming around?

AM: A bit. You know, it’s like a new chapter in a new book; you don’t really know what to expect. But I do know what to expect of myself, and that’s becoming world champion again.

I’ve kinda walked through the 145-pound division, so now, stepping into the 155-pound division, they’re a bit more stacked. They’re bigger. But I don’t think I’m gonna have a problem, it’s just really allowing my body to take the proper time to get adjusted to 155. I’m walking around 170 during training camp, so I would like to walk around 175 [now]. That’s not bad, but still, I can do it in a healthy way; Cutting 30 pounds to 145 is not healthy.

Continuing that legacy of 155, there’s so many names and notable people that I can test my skills against. Young up-and-comers and old vets, from Benson Henderson to Usman [Nurmagomedov], to — who else is out there? You know, I kinda wanna focus on the top.

SD: You’ve got Patricky and Tofiq Musayev, you’ve got killers like Justin Gaethje, Charles Oliveira. Michael Chandler’s still doing his thing — he told me that he walks around between camps at 195 and then cuts 40 pounds. How is that even possible?

AM: If you gauge the weight from me being 170, 175 and then cutting [to] 145, that’s pretty equivalent to the same thing, you know? That’s why I would like to put on about five more pounds, because I know I can keep my speed and then still be able to utilize the power. These guys at ’55, they’re a lot bigger, so their power is there.

SD: I have to ask about winning $1 million in Bellator’s Featherweight Grand Prix last summer. That’s a life-changing amount of money. Was there a big purchase that you had your eye on for if and when you got that big check? Like, is AJ McKee a car guy? Or is it more about taking care of the family?

AM: I’m a very big car guy, so I wanted to buy a Porsche [911] GT2 RS, but I’m not trying to spend my whole check, so I went with the 2018 Championship Edition Cadillac CTS-V.

SD: Oh, yeah! That’s the one with the Corvette ZR1 engine?

AM: Supercharged 6.2-liter.

SD: That thing must be mean, dude.

AM: Oh, it’s just — it’s insane. I love that car to death, dude. That’s my baby.

I try to stay out of it now. I’m looking forward to getting on a track and actually doing things the right way, because, I mean, it’s cars, snowboarding, and fighting for me.

SD: Are you into the whole Formula 1 craze, too?

AM: I’ve been in it for a bit. [In the] last year, honestly, all I really watch on Instagram is F1 videos. It’s fun, dude. It’s a different aspect of driving, being able to manage that dopamine, the hits. It’s just fun, man. I love the driving, so I took my Cadillac as soon as I got it to what they call Angeles Crest — big, big, canyon through the hills.

My uncle lives on the other side of the mountains, so I took the mountain canyon way to get to his house and that car just handled perfect, dude. I was amazed with it. So, going from doing straightaways in my Honda CRX to being able to drive that around canyons, it’s a bit different.

SD: Who are your favorite drivers or teams in F1?

AM: I mean, I gotta go to my skin. [Lewis] Hamilton all the way.

SD: He’s had to fight for so much. Mercedes can’t get the car figured out, but the way he’s been able to perform despite all that.

AM: Watching him race and do stuff — bro, I’ve previously fought with a broken hand, and for him to go into a race with a broken hand, it just shows the true passion in your art and your sport that you have. The love for it.

SD: Who are the other members of the fighter community that you feel like are also big car guys or car gals that you could see strapping in on a racetrack?

AM: It would be a woman, Joanna [Jędrzejczyk]. She’s really big into cars.

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SD: You just mentioned snowboarding, too. Tell me about that.

AM: Snowboarding, yeah. I wanna do X Games one day.

SD: Oh, shit.

AM: My first season I was throwing backflips, backflip 180s — [or] I was attempting backflips and ended up doing 180s, so something in the technique was off.

My first time ever snowboarding, [people were] pretty rude on the mountain back then. It was a different time, but now, you got Zeb Powell out here shredding, you know what I mean? People are just becoming more comfortable with other people in a predominantly white sport, you know? You have other athletes that are just of color doing all kinds of crazy stuff and they’re getting notable credit [for] what they’re doing, so it’s just big inspiration, man.

It took me about two or three runs to get back into being able to ride. And then, by the end of my first season, I was throwing backflips, [laughs]. So, I mean, non-intentional, but still intentional, you know?

SD: Picking up an injury heading into fight camp is a risk, though, right?

AM: I pancaked one time and they were like, ‘All right, dude, no more.’ And I was like, oh, right, yeah. No more.

It’s very brutal. I haven’t suffered any knee problems, thank god. It’s quite crazy. But yeah, I’ve tweaked a couple ribs for sure already.

SD: Do you have any endorsements or partnerships with companies that are in the snowboarding or extreme sports world?

AM: No, not at all.

SD: Who would be your No. 1 pick?

AM: Santa Cruz, 686, Burton.

SD: Okay, I’m on it. The portfolio is gonna expand. And let me pitch you on a Paramount+ original docuseries, too: AJ McKee goes on the craziest dream snowboarding runs around the world and shows people that insider, aspirational view. Folks watch and say, ‘I have to fucking go there.’

AM: That would be so crazy.

SD: Last one for you — the next time you step into the Bellator cage on Oct. 1 against Spike Carlyle, what’s the final result?

AM: I think I’m gonna submit him. Run it back.

SD: Like you ended the first Patricio Pitbull fight to win the Grand Prix.

AM: Yeah. You’re the first person I’ve told that, but I kind of dreamt it already. I saw it, and I think it’s gonna be a sub. Definitely not going to the judges. It’s only three five-minute rounds, so he’s gonna have to deal with [having] his hands full for quite a bit of time. He’s gonna come out strong in the first, but he usually withers away in the second. So we’ll see how the first round plays out, and hopefully I get him outta there done in one. You know, I love finishing people in the first.

SD: Like you had to go catch an early dinner reservation.

AM: Definitely, might hit Mastro’s or something. Go get some butter cake.

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