Beyond the deep, seemingly uninterested and angry gaze of AJ McKee is something more than a single base emotion. Beneath his cold expression is a thinking man. One pondering the preponderance of his current situation. Or maybe he is analyzing the long and memorable journey that brought the 23-year-old to a 12-0 start to his MMA career. Thinking of the many important figures hovering around him throughout childhood. The many hours spent inside a musky and dim light space as opposed to Cub scout gatherings or school play rehearsals.
A Unique Childhood
In many ways, the life that AJ McKee leads is unique. Yet, relative to the many talented combat sports athletes who grew around him, it is all par for the course. Tough wrestlers such as Aaron Pico, Zahid & Anthony Valencia, Cade Olivas, and Joey Davis all sharpened each other in the younger stages of their lives. They all trained together and some still do to this day.
“[I grew up knowing Aaron Pico] just California wrestling, being top level wrestlers as kids. Joey Davis is a 4-time national champion, 133-0, he started wrestling in my garage with me. I was three, Joey was 4 and he used to come train with us. Then, my dad, he was training at SoCal… my dad started the Warriors, he started his own wrestling tournaments and what not but everyone used to bring their kids to my dad. Zihad & Anthony the Valencia brothers, Cade Olivas. Your talking about kids that have won every national tournament you can think of right now. Trinity awards, JUCO, State, Freestyle, everything and they used to come and train with us in the gym.”
The Body Shop
The gym was and still is a busy place. With people like Aaron Pico and Joey Davis in the gym, the energy, more times than not, is interesting. McKee remembered noticing a man in the gym holding mitts for Pico. He later learned that man holding mitts was indeed Freddie Roach. His father, an MMA veteran of 37 professional fights, trained with Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Rampage Jackson, and more.
“I didn’t even know that (it) was Freddie Roach in the gym when I was a kid. He came to hold mitts with Pico. In our gym as a kid and these are things that I just don’t remember as a kid being around. It’s just normal things being a kid, growing up. But that wrestling world is such a small, tight world and we’ve all kind of just stuck together and kind of wigged it out.”
As for now, McKee and his coup of young, fighters are the leaders. Having grown up the environment of the gym, McKee knows how sessions should be run. On top of navigating training, as a dominant undefeated fighter headling events for a major organization such as Bellator, more responsibility is put on his shoulders. Fighters just beginning their journeys now look up to the undefeated 23-year-old. His childish antics are not forced out of prevalence due to this but there is a degree of checking himself when walking inside the gym doors.
“I’m advanced in maturity but young minded too at the same time. I am very knowledgeable and credible to the things that are around me. Business and how things go but when it comes to dealing with situations I can be childish still. I am still like a child even in our gym, I walk around and I have to remember sometimes like ‘hey you’re the leader’.
I come in trying to pump myself up sometimes. You know how it is when you are pumping yourself up, ‘who getting that work today? who getting they ass whooped?’ that’s not really who I am but I am trying to pump myself up. Some of my teammates know it, some of them don’t depending on how their mindset is. That’s what I mean by just learning. You have to learn what you say, you have to be careful with the things you say because not everyone knows you and not everyone knows how to approach you.”
A New Role
While he is careful to withhold any confident murmurings within himself inside the gym, that is a different story when it comes to a fight and its build up. He is confident but with that confidence comes a strong sense of mental growth far beyond his years.
“For me, I belong at the top… Since my fight in Ireland with Brian Moore I’ve kind of woken up and had this mindset of, ‘Hey it’s time to get your shit together.’ I can’t be a normal 21-22-year-old out here playing because at the end of the day this is how I take care of my family. They depend on me. I can’t be in there messing around… With title shots, I am fine where I am at. I’m 23, I can take another year until I get a title shot and I’ll still be a young champion. That’s the thing so for me it doesn’t really matter. I am ready now, I am ready wherever the organization says they feel I am ready when the fans feel I am ready but if it was up to me Pitbull would be fighting December 14th.”
Salute to the Troops
For now, the steady climb to the top placed Daniel Crawford in the sights of McKee. His opponent for Bellator’s Salute to the Troops card is a touted prospect himself. At a record of 10-2, the English featherweight fighter is a legitimate test for the undefeated McKee. Crawford is 0-1 with Bellator as he lost his most recent cage appearance at Bellator 200.
The game plan is simple, there is no game plan. There essentially never was or never will. McKee describes himself as a cerebral fighter. One that instead of focusing on his opposition, focuses on combining his offensive arsenal. When inside the cage, he makes reads. Quickly determining how his opponent moves and where to place his shots.
“I can figure someone out within the lock of the eyes. So the staredown tells me what kind of fight I’m going to have and then once we get in there and I feel out the first five seconds, I know exactly what I have to do. So I can’t really say what I’m going to do or how it’s going to go. I kind of have to feel my opponent, I don’t go in there with a gameplan. That’s what’s so different and unique about me. I’m going to go in there and focus on okay where is he moving what I do need to do, where can I cut him off. Im focusing on what I need to do… I want to focus on offense because if I’m focusing on my defense then I feel you are leaving openings.”