Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Former champion A.J. McKee discusses ‘full mental breakdown’ after loss to Patricio Pitbull at Bellator 277

A.J. McKee’s perfect record was not the only thing that crumbled at Bellator 277. McKee’s loss to Patricio Pitbull in their rematch was immediately followed by a hard-fought bout with his mental health.

Many in the industry had begun to posit that Bellator MMA may wield the best active featherweight fighter on the planet amid its Featherweight World Grand Prix from 2019 to 2021. A homegrown talent who made his professional debut with the promotion in 2015, McKee had amassed a perfect 18-0 career run. The hype was validated with a first-round finish of Pitbull, a simultaneous two-division champion that was four fights removed from stopping Michael Chandler at lightweight. 

But McKee had even bigger dreams and desires following the Grand Prix win. He wanted to match Pitbull’s run by also earning a title in a second division. But those ambitions were derailed when he dropped a unanimous decision to Pitbull in their April rematch, which the 27-year-old into a downward spiral.

“It was a lot to take a loss,” McKee told “Morning Kombat” hosts Brian Campbell and Luke Thomas. “To bounce back was my key. It’s just really fueling the fire now. I’m hungrier than ever. I’m focused on getting my first title again. I’ve got some statements to make… It was a full mental meltdown, a mental breakdown. One thing I’ve always done regardless of where I’m at in life is getting to that gym. That is my safe space in the gym.

“I started losing it. Literally, I mentally went through a lot. I didn’t really have anybody to talk to. I wasn’t going to tell anybody that I was hurting or struggling… My father is Antonio McKee. He’s the type of dude to say, ‘Hey, get up p—-. Why are you crying?'”

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Heading into the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix, McKee had predicted four consecutive finishes. He achieved that by stopping Georgi Karakhanyan, Derek Campos, Darrion Caldwell and Pitbull. As a consequence, McKee — who had wanted to rematch Pitbull at lightweight and was unmotivated by the featherweight re-run — felt it was Pitbull’s obligation to make a statement in their rematch.

“I felt he had to come to me. He had to beat me in that fight,” McKee said. “I wanted to see what he had to offer. I should have quickly realized he had nothing to offer. Instead of playing it close, I was out there relaxed. The thing about me is if I sign the contract, I’m showing up to fight regardless of what mental state I’m in, regardless of if I’m hurt, I’m going to go in there and do my best. I knew going into that fight that even on my worst day he couldn’t beat me. I felt that was honestly one of my worst days.”

McKee insists that he will be a career lightweight moving forward. Having walked around as heavy as 185 pounds, the former featherweight champion is conscious of the long-term consequences of cutting to 145 pounds. McKee will make an exception only to bring closure to his featherweight saga with Pitbull.

“I’ve been at 145 my entire career. I know I am big enough to hang and go in there and put my skillset forward and come out on top with the 155 pounders as well. With that being said, I just want to be faster, bigger and stronger. I’ve been wrestling my whole life, cutting weight my whole life.

“There is no need to put my body and family through it. It’s a lot to get me to 145 pounds. Obviously, it’s doable, it’s great. But why put that stress on yourself if there is no need? You have the skillset, you have the talent to do it at many weights. But to make a statement and to finish off that trilogy, yes, I’d do it one last time.”

McKee will make his lightweight debut at Bellator 286 against UFC alum Spike Carlyle. Their fight takes place at the Long Beach Arena in California on Oct. 1 on a card headlined by Pitbull vs. Adam Borics.

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