AJ McKee was 12 years old at his childhood home in Long Beach, California, when he wrote himself a mock check for $1 million. The check was from McKee to McKee. The verbiage the then-preteen used to indicate the amount was “1 mil.”
“I just always wanted to be a millionaire,” McKee told ESPN. “I’m just fascinated with money. I like to spend it. I like to look at it. It’s what motivates me, in a sense. It doesn’t motivate me to the point where that’s what I have to work for, but it’s motivation, man.”
McKee, one of Bellator’s most prized young stars, is two victories away from making that $1 million as an MMA fighter. On Thursday, the man nicknamed “The Mercenary” will fight Darrion Caldwell in the semifinals of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix, a bout that will serve as the main event of Bellator 253 at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. The winner will go on to compete for the Bellator featherweight title and a $1 million check in the Grand Prix championship round.
Before he can think about any of that, McKee has to deal with Caldwell, the former two-time Bellator bantamweight champion and an NCAA Division I national wrestling champ. The bout was supposed to happen in June, before the coronavirus pandemic dashed Bellator’s plans. Things actually worked out better for McKee timing-wise, as he had surgery to repair a torn left LCL in January. He wouldn’t have been 100 percent in June, but he is now.
“He’s a wrestler,” McKee said of Caldwell. “You know wrestlers are coming for those legs. I’ve fought with a broke hand, and I’ve fought with a messed up knee now. I can see the difference in the two. Fighting with a broke hand was easy. Fighting with one leg, it’s a little different because that’s literally one of your base points.”
If McKee (16-0) beats Caldwell, which will be no easy task, it will be the biggest victory of his career. In 2019, ESPN ranked McKee as its top MMA fighter under 25 years old. Now 25, McKee believes he’s ready to go from prospect to contender. He’s planning on beating Caldwell and then fighting featherweight champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire for the belt in the grand prix final. Then? A rematch with “Pitbull” in the next division up because Freire is also the Bellator lightweight champ.
A million-dollar check and a pair of gold belts would make for a pretty nice 2021 for the kid from humble beginnings.
“I’m gonna go from contender to champion, from champion to double champion,” McKee said. “Then I can say I conquered two childhood dreams.”
Here’s a look at other storylines to watch Thursday at Bellator 253:
Is former Bellator champion Darrion Caldwell still evolving?
Caldwell is one of the best fighters on the Bellator roster. He’s a two-time Bellator bantamweight champion, and he has lost to only two men in his pro career: Kyoji Horiguchi (twice) and Joe Taimanglo (whom he beat in a rematch). Now fighting up at featherweight, Caldwell has won two straight, including a submission win over Adam Borics in the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix quarterfinals in January.
Caldwell is still just 32 years old. He has bounced around different training camps, and now he’s back at Pinnacle MMA in California. His teammate Bobby Green has had something of a career renaissance in the UFC. A win over McKee would cement Caldwell as a tough out for every man in two of Bellator’s divisions.
Can Jason Jackson emerge as a Bellator welterweight contender?
The team at Sanford MMA has been touting Jackson for some time, though he has had some starts and stops. The Jamaica native lost on The Ultimate Fighter in 2015 and fell in another opportunity to get into the UFC on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2017 because of an ankle injury. Since then, Jackson has won the Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) welterweight title and has put together a modest, two-fight winning streak in Bellator.
The biggest test of his career is forthcoming at Bellator 253, in the form of former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. If Jackson can get by Henderson, that’s a big deal for his hopes of being a welterweight contender. Jackson is just 30 years old, and should he beat Henderson, there are some fascinating matchups for him moving forward at 170 pounds.
Which of the prospects on the card will show out?
Without mentioning McKee, Bellator 253 is rich with promising, young fighters. McKee’s teammate Joey Davis, the undefeated four-time NCAA Division II national wrestling champion, meets fellow up-and-comer Bobby Lee on the main card. Lee, 24, is the former CFFC interim welterweight champion. This fight could be a look into Bellator’s future. In addition, UFC veteran Kevin Lee‘s brother Keith Lee, who is also 24, is on the card against highly touted Roufusport product Raufeon Stots.
There’s also Kimbo Slice’s son Kevin Ferguson Jr., Jaleel Willis, Mark Lemminger and Jay Jay Wilson. All are under 30 years old. UFC and PFL veteran Jeremy Kennedy makes his debut at Bellator 253 as well, and he’s only 28. If you’re into up-and-coming MMA talent, this is the card for you.