No matter how you look at it, A.J. McKee’s Bellator Mixed Martial Arts fight in Long Beach this weekend is the first page of a new chapter in his life.
The Long Beach native is coming off of his first professional loss and is fighting in a new weight class for the first time in his career, but McKee said he knows something special is going to happen in the Long Beach Arena on Saturday night when he fights Spike Carlyle.
“Having everybody there in my hometown is going to be insane,” McKee told the Long Beach Post’s Jackie Rae in an interview for The Word podcast. “The amount of energy that was in (The Forum in Inglewood when I won the featherweight title) was phenomenal so I think it’s going to be ten times more electrifying (in Long Beach).”
McKee, 27, went to Poly High School where he was an All-League and CIF wrestler. Even though he was already training as an MMA fighter while at Poly, McKee embraced the community and used others’ advancement to motivate himself.
“It’s a city of opportunities.” McKee said. “You can come from nothing and make your life the most extraordinary thing. If you’re willing to put in the work it can be done. It’s phenomenal to see people you know who struggled to be able to make it out because they visualized a better lifestyle for themselves.”
The reason McKee was working on his MMA skills at such a young age is because his father, Antonio “Mandingo” McKee, is a former MMA fighter himself. The McKee family worked out of Body Shop Fitness in Lakewood while McKee went 7-1 as an amateur. He also was a member of the CCCAA State Championship wrestling team at Cerritos College.
McKee joined Bellator in 2015 and won his debut fight against Marcos Bonilla via rear-naked choke submission in the first round, which really sent a message to the rest of the MMA world that he was ready to take the main stage.
While setting the Bellator record with 18 consecutive victories to start his professional career, McKee made a name for himself by winning the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix in 2019. The championship fight for the title worth $1 million dollars was a shocker for most fans as McKee landed a high kick early and used a guillotine choke for the first-round win.
The rematch with his finals opponent, Patrício Pitbull, was a unanimous decision for Pitbull after an entertaining bout. It was the first loss of McKee’s career, and he didn’t take it well.
Instead of fighting Pitbull again, like he wants to, McKee is moving up from featherweight to 155-pound lightweight.
“The transition should be easy for me,” McKee said. “Faster, stronger, bigger and better is my motto for this fight. I have the reach. It’s just about making a few minor adjustments. I don’t think strength is going to be an issue in this fight.”
This fight with Carlyle is also a new chapter because it comes after McKee suffered a “full mental breakdown” following the loss to Pitbull.
“I went through a mental depression and I kind of went through it on my own,” McKee said. “I was cooped up in the house, just going to the gym and going home. It was a mental check, and it’s a bounce back to use that as motivation.”
McKee added that talking about the issue has made it easier to deal with, even though it’s not natural for him.
“I’m kind of an introvert, but I’m comfortable with it now,” he said. “Even as vulnerable as I am speaking about it, I’m okay sharing that with other people.”
Bellator 286 is Saturday at the Long Beach Arena and it will be headlined by Pitbull vs. Adam Borics. The prelim fights start at 7 p.m. and the main card featuring the McKee fight is scheduled for 10 p.m. You can watch on Showtime.