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    Bellator’s A.J. McKee willing to bang with PFL’s Clay Collard
    • February 23, 2024

    A.J. McKee loves a good challenge.

    Facing an opponent with 35 professional MMA bouts and 18 pro boxing matches, the Bellator lightweight is willing to go toe to toe.

    “I want to beat him at his game,” McKee said.

    Antonio McKee understands why his son is looking forward to duking it out with former title challenger Clay Collard at Professional Fighters League’s superfight event, pitting the best from PFL and Bellator against each other Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

    “I think that comes down to ego,” the father and lifelong coach said.

    And while he’s leery of the idea, Antonio McKee is confident in his son’s skills – as long as A.J. can accept the consequences of trading and banging with a heavy hitter.

    “I think we need to do it smart. We’re in a sport to hurt people,” Antonio McKee said. “So, you know, we’ll see where he’s at when he’s on his feet. I think I think no matter where he’s at, this is a great fight for him. I think he finishes him.”

    Of course, it would be foolish for A.J. McKee to discard all the weaponry in his ever-growing toolbox against the 30-year-old Collard (24-11). In his nearly nine-year career, all with Bellator, McKee (21-1) has six victories by knockout and six via submission.

    But since moving up to lightweight in October 2022, the former featherweight champion has won all three of his fights via unanimous decision.

    Antonio McKee says it’s because his 5-foot-10 son is not a true 155-pounder.

    “I think he just likes to eat whatever he wants. So he lacks a little discipline, he likes to eat whatever he wants,” he said. “But his skills, he can fight all the way up to 170 because he has the skill sets.”

    A.J. McKee, 28, says the challenge is eating well and maintaining his weight. Other lightweights will routinely walk around north of 180 pounds while he is struggling to get past 170.

    Once they’re in the cage, the Lakewood resident says he notices the added weight – versus fighting 145-pounders – if they wind up on top of him. That was illustrated in his last fight on Nov. 17 against Sidney Outlaw, who was able to take McKee down in each of the three rounds but did little to advance his position or attack.

    “I was (ticked) off. I got laid on for 12 out of 15 minutes,” the former Long Beach Poly High wrestling star said.

    Assessing his options from the bottom, McKee decided instead of “trying to get up for four of the five minutes,” he’d go on offense. Using his elbows and fists, McKee sliced and diced Outlaw to win every round in a gory victory in November in Chicago.

    “That was honestly probably the bloodiest fight I’ve ever been in. I took two showers and blood was still coming out of my hair,” McKee said. “I was like, ‘This is gross.’ I could smell it, I could taste it. I was literally spitting his blood up after the fight.”

    McKee is willing to see red again if it results in more green and gold. He says he can envision two paths to claiming another championship, only the road to ruling at 155 pounds is bumpy, to say the least after an unsteady November.

    On Nov. 11, Bellator lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov was suspended six months after testing positive for a banned substance. Nine days later in an industry-shifting move, PFL acquired Bellator from Paramount Global. And on Nov. 24, PFL lightweight champion Olivier Aubin-Mercier retired after beating Collard via unanimous decision.

    The uncertainty leaves McKee with a possible return back to featherweight, which would be doubly enticing if Patricio Pitbull were still the champion.

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    In April 2022, McKee suffered his first defeat and lost his featherweight title via unanimous decision to Pitbull, nearly nine months after winning $1 million and becoming the 145-pound champion with a first-round finish of Pitbull in the finals of the 16-fighter Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix on July 31, 2021, at The Forum.

    “You know there’s a trilogy that’s … I’ve been feeling for that. I’m not going to go out of my way to push and pursue,” McKee said. “If it’s something to happen, you know, if … he’s reigning as one of the best 145-pounders in the world. So I wouldn’t mind going back down to 45 to prove once again that I am the best 145-pounder in the world.”

    PFL vs. Bellator: Champions

    When: Saturday

    Where: Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    How to watch: prelims (9:30 a.m., ESPN+); main card (noon, PPV via ESPN+)

    ​ Orange County Register