Q&A with new Bellator champion AJ McKee: ‘This is the beginning’

The Forum has been good to A.J. McKee. And vice versa.

In September 2019, McKee and his father and coach, Antonio, made history there at Bellator 228. The Long Beach duo became the first father and son to have fought on the same card in the United States for a major MMA promotion. Antonio, then 49 and fighting for the first time in nearly five years, defeated 47-year-old William Sriyapai by TKO in the second round. His son followed that by knocking out Georgi Karakhanyan in 8 seconds in his opening fight of the Bellator World Featherweight Grand Prix.

A.J. McKee said nothing would ever top that night in his career, yet 22 months later, another fortuitous Forum fight might rival it.

The Long Beach Poly grad capped the grand prix by putting 145-pound champion Patricio Pitbull to sleep with a guillotine choke in the first round Saturday in front of a heavy pro-McKee crowd in Inglewood.

In an electrifying, supernova performance, McKee, 26, won the tournament, the featherweight belt and $1 million against the 34-year-old Pitbull (32-5), who had gone 7-0 in title fights over the past five years and never been finished in his illustrious 17-year fighting career.

McKee (18-0) recapped the night and discussed his future late Saturday night in an exclusive interview at The Forum:

I know it’s only been not even an hour. How does this feel?

Just like last time, being here in these red walls. It’s surreal. I can’t wrap my head around it. It’s like a movie . Every time I come here, it’s like a movie. All the energy. Everything together. I can’t put words into how awesome it is.

You had told me you didn’t know if winning this fight and the title and $1 million was gonna stack up to the last time you were here and your and your dad won. How is it?

Feeling-wise? Definitely the last one was better just because of what happened that night. Being able to share that moment was awesome. This one is more of a personal moment. I don’t know. Always seeing somebody shine with you is a lot better than shining alone.

You and your dad have been so intertwined all your life, all your career. What does this mean for his legacy?

It just shows how great of a coach and a fighter he was. Why? Because he’s my head coach. He’s taught me everything I know. For them to say he’s boring, he doesn’t have stand-up and so forth. Well, he’s put my style together. He’s put my stand-up together. And look at where it’s got us.

What does this mean for your legacy?

This is the beginning. And I’m looking forward to the beginning, the middle and the end. And I’m just excited, man. I’m excited. I’m ecstatic. I don’t know what to expect. Something big’s gonna happen. I can feel it. I feel like I’m gonna be the one to change this sport.

Go through that final sequence of the fight for me.

I hit him with a left kick to the head and I rocked him. When I rocked him, I threw a jab, then it was an uppercut. The uppercut landed and he buckled. I tried to throw a hook and a straight on the way down. And he just folded, you know? I looked at him. He was out of it and I was like, ‘This is over, he’s done,’ because I already rocked him. But like the ref said, you’ve gotta fight until he stops the fight. So I celebrated a bit early. … I guess I’m not key on beating somebody up when they’re already out of it, you know? But hey, he wasn’t satisfied with it either. Maybe next time I’ll just put him out of his misery.

Did referee Mike Beltran actually tell you to keep fighting vocally?

Yeah, vocally. He said, ‘Keep fighting.’ I stepped in and I saw him kind of come to and I was like, ‘All right, cool. Get back on him.’ He started to hop up and I just got around his neck. I knew it was over once I got around his neck. He wasn’t getting out of that. He was going to sleep. I knew he was done. He was wrapped up, the hand went under and over the shoulder and I was locked in.

What are you thinking when you’ve got that locked in and you know he’s in trouble?

Back against the cage, nowhere to go, he’s the shorter man and I’ve got all the weight, all the leverage. That fight was over.

Does it get any better than this? The tournament. 4-0. Pitbull. Title. Two belts. $1 million. The Forum.

I think we need to do one more. One more and put that stamp on it. Like I said, he’s not satisfied. I don’t want to be at 145. Let’s go to that 155-pound title and we can do it there.

You think you’re done at 145?

Unless we get some superfights going. I’ve run through everybody in the division. Eighteen fights. What left is there for me to fight in the division? He’s the champ champ. One of the best 145-pounders in the world. One of. But me being the best, I needed a reason to cut weight. I needed a reason to put my health and my life on the line. It’s not getting easier. It’s only gonna get harder.

So at 155, more challenges and another belt and a rematch?

Test it out, see how things go there. We’ll go from there. Maybe take some time off, go do some boxing. That’s what I’m honestly looking forward to.

So now what? You said you’re gonna be in the gym Monday.

I am!

What time?

What time? 10:30, when practice starts. I’ll see you there?