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A.J. McKee and the Difficulty of Public Perception

Surging featherweight prospect A.J. McKee
finds himself in a difficult position, at least in terms of public
perception. He has mowed down every opponent placed in front of him
and appears to possess all the necessary skills to become a
champion, yet the 22-year-old has been groomed slowly by Bellator
. Fans and media have begun to gripe, eager to see him
perform against top-flight opposition.

McKee — the son of former
Maximum Fighting Championship
titleholder Antonio
— has his detractors. Some see him as nothing more than
hype, an unproven prospect riding on his father’s coattails; others
send verbal barbs his way because of his being young and brash.
McKee has not been universally embraced, and it seems as though no
matter how many fights he wins, it will not be enough until he
reaches the top.

“The Mercenary” will take on journeyman Blair
in a featherweight showcase at
Bellator 182
on Friday at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino
in Verona, New York. McKee could not care less about the criticism
he receives.

“They hate me; they love me,” he told Sherdog.com. “As long as
they’re talking about me, that’s all that matters.”

Most expect McKee to trounce Tugman, a former NCAA wrestler on a
three-fight winning streak. Aside from an eight-second knockout
loss as an amateur four years ago, McKee has been all but flawless
inside the cage. He kicked off his professional career with five
straight stoppages and then went the distance in back-to-back
unanimous decisions. McKee returned to his vicious ways in April,
when he torched Dominic
in 75 seconds at Bellator 178. A head kick did the

The bout with Tugman seems like a risky endeavor for McKee, who
enters the cage as a massive favorite with little to gain and much
to lose. “The Bull Shark” has proven himself a crafty grappler and
holds the edge in experience. However, Tugman has no knockouts to
his credit and does not have a signature victory at which to point.
Nevertheless, McKee sees him as a threat.

“Well, it’s a fight, so anybody poses a threat to anybody, whether
it’s some random guy walking down the street or a high-level pro
fighter,” he said. “Everything is a threat. He’s tough, he’s a hard
worker, he’s always in shape and he’s coming to fight. This is a
fight, so, hey, I’m going to give him a fight.”

Tugman wrestled collegiately at Lock Haven University in
Pennsylvania, and most expect him to put those skills to use in an
attempt to grind out an upset against the Team Bodyshop rep.

“I don’t really focus on what the guy is going to do,” McKee said.
“I focus on what I’m going to do and how I’m going to implement it
into the fight. I think if you’re worried about what they’re going
to do, you’re already losing mentally. I’m just focused on what I’m
going to do and the new things I’ve added to my arsenal.”

McKee has experienced no difficulty getting motivated for

“I have the same mentality going into every fight,” he said. “It’s
a fight and you can’t look past anyone. You can’t count anybody out
because all it takes is one punch. We’ve seen that happen many
times and with various people. For me, I need to stay humble and
make sure that I’m prepared.”

While he has yet to face any of Bellator’s premier featherweights,
McKee’s career has proceeded as planned. For the most part,
everything has fallen into place as he envisioned when he turned
professional a little over two years ago.

“I’m perfectly fine with where I am,” McKee said. “I’m climbing the
ranks slowly but surely. Time is an essence, but the timing for the
goals I have to achieve is perfect. Everything is lining up right.
My goals are right there to grab, and I just need to stay focused
and I’ll get them. That belt should be around my waist by April.
was the youngest [UFC] champ ever at 23. I’m 22 until
April, so that’s my goal — to beat out Jon Jones’ record in

That means current Bellator featherweight champion Patricio
could soon find himself in McKee’s crosshairs.

“I will knock him out, for sure,” he said. “It’s the only way for
it to happen, man. Pitbull’s gotta go night-night.”

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