Bellator’s AJ McKee gets his ‘bucket list’ fight in Japan

How can Bellator star A.J. McKee not be happy?

He rebounded from the only loss of his MMA career in April with a resounding victory in his lightweight debut in front of thousands of family and friends at Bellator 286 on Oct. 1 in his backyard of Long Beach.

He continues to set personal bests, recently stepping off the treadmill on a mid-December morning at the new Metroflex facility in Hawaiian Gardens having topped his best mile time by 10 seconds.

And he got to spend Christmas in Japan ahead of being Bellator’s chosen main-event fighter in its cross-promotional event with Rizin, taking on the Japanese promotion’s lightweight champion, Roberto de Souza, on New Year’s Eve at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama.

“Yeah, I’m excited for it. Just being able to come over and represent my country, represent Bellator and having Bellator pick me to be the 155-pounder out of everybody on the roster, right?” McKee said. “You know, especially me being fresh in the 155-pound division. It just shows a lot of the respect that they have for me and the faith that they have in my skill set.”

The main card will start at 3:30 a.m. PT Saturday and be televised delayed at 5 p.m. PT Saturday on Showtime.

McKee says he has never fought on New Year’s Eve professionally – or personally for that matter. “Nah, I don’t think so. I’ve been a good boy,” he said with a wide grin.

But the former Bellator featherweight champion is a little salty. While McKee says he “immediately” accepted the offer to participate in this weekend’s event, he says it should have happened in 2020.

“When they first did the Rizin versus Japan, I believe they had (Kyoji) Horiguchi or someone go,” McKee, 27, said of when the Bellator bantamweight TKO’d Kai Asakura to win the Rizin title. “Yeah, I was a little upset that somebody else got to go over. I was like, ‘Man, it should be me.’ So, two years in the making and now here it is.”

Before overseeing his son’s career, Antonio McKee was a veteran MMA fighter, including bouts in Japan. Not that he was terribly excited about going back and enduring the long plane ride – “I’m gonna be doing taxes and paperwork and just get him ready, man … I don’t like being away from my family” – but he is thrilled to see A.J. continue to thrive.

“It’s cool watching him go in the footsteps of me. But he’s a better version of me. So that’s why it’s even better,” the Team Body Shop coach said. “It’s awesome to be able to be a part of that. And not only that, to be his coach and his friend and his father. Yeah, that’s what puts the icing on the cake.”

A.J. McKee (19-1) recognizes he does have the bigger, flashier profile and has more to lose. Not only is de Souza’s lightweight championship not on the line in this three-round fight, but an upset victory would do wonders for de Souza (14-1) and Rizin while putting another blemish on McKee’s record.

This opportunity, however, is the stuff of childhood dreams. Not only did his father fight there, former UFC light heavyweight champion Rampage Jackson, a longtime family friend and one-time Team Body Shop fighter, made a name for himself there competing with legends in Pride FC.

“For me, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward for myself, you know? Screw everybody else,” A.J. McKee said. “But for me, it’s this bucket list going into Japan, you know, since the Pride days and so forth. Since I was a kid. I’ve always watched them.”

And speaking of pride, A.J. McKee relishes the fact he, without a title, is the main event and Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Pitbull is in the co-main event versus Rizin 145-pound champ Kleber Koike.

Just eight and a half months ago, Pitbull reclaimed the belt McKee won from him in a hotly debated unanimous decision at Bellator 277 in San Jose. McKee says he is cordial toward Pitbull and wants to see him win for Bellator. But with their record at 1-1, the two have unfinished business.

“He’s talking about going down to the 135-pound division and all this other stuff. So for me, I’m losing a lot of respect for him,” A.J. McKee said. “And I feel like his whole legacy is going to trash if we don’t get that trilogy. I feel like that’s something a lot of people want to see and something I want.”

From what A.J. McKee has seen of the 33-year-old de Souza, he respects his “phenomenal jiu-jitsu” and intends to utilize his range and striking and make him pay for any takedown attempts.

“He hasn’t had many fights go too long. I don’t think he likes to get hit,” the Long Beach Poly grad said. “In the one loss I saw, he got hit and he just kind of folded. So for me, it’s keep the fight on the feet and bang him up a little bit and make him take a risky, dumb shot. Capitalize off that opportunity.”

And this opportunity to compete overseas, in a combat sport-crazed market like Japan, affords McKee the potential to expand his brand.

From triumphing in his hometown in October to fighting this weekend in Saitama, it doesn’t get much better.

“This is right up his alley. This kid lives for this stuff. He’s not like everybody else,” Antonio McKee said of his son. “Some people look at it as a job. I look at it as a job for him. But he looks at it as, ‘This is what I like to do. I like to fight.’”

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A.J. McKee has big plans for 2023, including participating in the Bellator Lightweight World Grand Prix. After all, been there, done that at featherweight, finishing all three tournament opponents before choking out Pitbull in the $1 million finale to become the 145-pound champ at Bellator 263 in July 2021 at The Forum.

And another seven-figure check would definitely keep him happy.

“I don’t mind running through everybody again. You know what I mean?,” A.J. McKee said, smiling at the prospect. “That’s what I’m here for. And another million in the account? I’m all about it.”


Main event: A.J. McKee (19-1) vs. Roberto de Souza (14-1)

When: Main card starts at 3:30 a.m. Saturday

Where: Saitama Super Arena, Saitama, Japan

How to watch: Showtime (delayed, 5 p.m. PT Saturday)

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