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'One of my first tattoos says, ‘Your faith must be greater than your fear.’ My fear is to lose my 0'

Bellator’s AJ McKee on his rivalry with James Gallagher, a return to Ireland, and the promotion’s European recruitment drive.

Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

THEY WERE ON a collision course.

Everyone expected them to face off in the cage. The bravado, the posturing. The trash-talking Irishman and an equally loud-mouthed American set to go head-to-head.

While it wasn’t quite Conor McGregor versus any of the host of US opponents he’s shared the Octagon with, James Gallagher’s rivalry with Bellator featherweight AJ McKee was intriguing. Intriguing insofar as when the pair talked smack, they went and backed it up.

Both boasted undefeated records with the promotion and had been slowly making their way through the 145lbs ranks. No doubt Bellator president Scott Coker had licked his lips at a potential headline fight between two of the brightest prospects in the company.

The best laid plans. The ‘Strabanimal’ picked up back-to-back injuries which forced him out of a fight at Bellator 187 in October of 2017 and then his main event slot against Adam Borics at Bellator 196 earlier this year.

And when it was time to return to the cage, Gallagher was silenced.

The Tyrone native, on his 135lbs debut with the promotion, was silenced inside one round by Ricky Bandejas at Bellator 204 in Sioux Falls. A vicious head-kick followed by a flurry of punches handed the 21-year-old his first taste of defeat in the professional ranks.

“It was something I wish I could have gotten to do,” McKee tells The42. ”It is what it is. It was inevitable.

“That was the whole thing, we were supposed to be these up-and-coming prospects. You just can’t look past anyone and you can’t put a fight past anyone.”

Source: MMANationDotCom/YouTube

Ahead of his own headline bout with John Teixeira at Bellator 205 on 21 September, McKee admits some of the gloss has been taken off the pair’s rivalry.

“If it’s a fight people want to see, we can put it on. As for him, he’s irrelevant to me. He has no value to me. There’s nothing I gain from beating him except for winning some new Irish fans.

“But if he wants an ass-whopping, I’ll give him his second loss. For me, I’m onto bigger and better things.”

McKee may be rid of one Irish competitor, but he knows he will undoubtedly encounter more – with a target placed firmly on the undefeated American’s back.

Under the guidance of Coker, Bellator have began to move further into the European market when searching out new talent to add to their rosters. Only in the past week has Gallagher’s SBG team-mate Peter Queally been signed to the promotion.

Queally immediately took his chance to take aim at 145lbs champion Patrício ‘Pitbull’ Freire.

McKee, meanwhile, continues to wait for his shot at Bellator gold.

“Everyone’s talked about who I’ve fought, no one really pays much notice with who I’ve been lined up to fight. Guys pulling out and guys getting hurt. Pat [Curran] being a champ, when he says he’s hurt, he’s hurt, whereas other guys in the division pull out a week before the fight and sign a contract for their next fight the week after.

“I don’t pick and choose my fights, Bellator picks and chooses who I fight. I show up to fight. If someone pulls out, that’s on them. That just shows me weakness in others.

“Thank you to John [Teixeira] for stepping up and taking the fight, but it’s not the fight I want. I want Pitbull. I want my belt. That’s the fight I want. Anyone else is just a stepping stone until I get there. I continue to do what I need to do before I get there.”

McKee had been penciled in to fight Curran, a former champion with the promotion and the calibre of opponent he has been calling out for to prove his worth – something, McKee says, will only come with a championship bout.

“I thought my last win put me in a title shot position. This shot has to put me in a title shot position. I think every fight puts me in that position.

“Why? Because of my record. I am unblemished. I have not been touched.”

The California native can take his unbeaten record to 12-0 with victory over his Brazilian counterpart. With a variety of finishes in his 11 previous fights as a professional — including three submissions and KO finishes executed with punch, head kick and knee — McKee is looking forward to showing what he can do in his current condition.

“Where I’m at mentally, physically and spiritually right now, there’s not anything anyone can do to stop me.

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“You have to grow. If you don’t grow from your mistakes and you end up making the same stupid mistakes, that’s your own fault. You deserve to lose at that point. I’m always growing as a fighter.”

Among those finishes is another Irishman, Wexford’s Brian Moore, who succumbed to a rear naked choke during his headline bout in Dublin’s 3Arena last October. The preparation for that fight is something that cemented McKee’s belief that he was one of the best fighters in the division.

“I trained two weeks for that fight. A lot of people don’t know that. That second round I was broke, I didn’t have anything left.

“When I sat on that stool at the end of the second round I said to myself, ‘I won the first and he won the second. I’m on his home turf. They’re not gonna give me this fight, so I gotta go out there and give it all I got.’

“I ended up finishing him. That all came from a mental aspect of my game. No fear. Not giving up.

Some fighters when they get knocked down contemplate whether they want to get back up or not. I’m going to get right back up and I’ll be right back in your face.”

AJ McKee Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Despite setbacks along the way to that headline fight, McKee has fond memories of the showpiece.

“One of the Irish fans told me after my fight, ‘You know McKee, we like you more than Moore but you’re fighting an Irishman so fuck you!’

“They’re down to earth people and they’re respectful of their culture. They stick to their soil. They’re very prideful.”

With the support base and star power McKee says he has in Ireland, would another headline bout in Dublin be out of the question?

“I’ve done it once so why not do it twice?” he quips. “I’m looking forward to making it back to Ireland one day.”

The scenario isn’t that far outside the realm of possibility with Bellator’s continued move into the European market, something which McKee relishes.

“I think it’s positive. You’ve got so many great mixed martial artists all around the world and [Bellator] are travelling the world looking for the best fighters.

“It’s good for us fighters too. I can tell my kids one day that I’ve been to Ireland, I’ve been to London and to Budapest. I’ve been all around the world.”

And while he insists he isn’t looking past his next fight, the 23-year-old says his focus over the coming years will be on his legacy as a fighter and retaining an unblemished record.

“I want to keep breaking those records. I’m looking to do things no one has done. Floyd was undefeated, I want to be undefeated.

I’m looking to be the Floyd of MMA. I want to demolish every record and set standards so high that people won’t think it’s possible.

“One of my first tattoos I got says, ‘Your faith must be greater than your fear.’ My fear is to lose my 0. Everything I put myself through between, not training, not being prepared, fighting with a broken hand. In those moments my faith superseded my fear.

“My job is to stay focused and stay humble. Stay on the right path with the man upstairs.”

Brian Moore dejected after the fight Ireland's Brian Moore sits dejected after his defeat to McKee at Bellator 187. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

But with a company that plays second fiddle to the world’s most high profile MMA promotion, the UFC, can McKee carve out a such a legacy without taking on the best that the UFC has to offer?

“Most definitely. At the end of the day it’s a fight and no one can take that 11-0 record away from me.

“If the UFC feel like they have someone who can challenge me, they can come get it. I’m there to fight. It doesn’t matter who it is, where it is.

“If Bellator and the UFC did a mixed combination of who’s the best fighter and who wants to be the best, I can show them. I want to be the best fighter in the world.”

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