A.J. McKee explains re-signing with Bellator over testing open market: ‘Fame don’t pay bills’

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Why did A.J. McKee ultimately agree to stay with Bellator?

For the former featherweight champion, that answer is simple.

“There’s another million dollars at stake,” McKee said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “There’s another million dollars [in] the 155-pound division and I’ve been kind of getting my feet wet in it a little bit. So they came with an offer that I just couldn’t refuse.”

McKee, 27, re-signed with Bellator on a new multi-fight deal Wednesday that will keep the former champ under the only MMA banner he’s ever known for the foreseeable future.

A Bellator original who’s won 20 of his 21 professional fights, McKee had one fight remaining on his old contract. He revealed on The MMA Hour that he believes his new deal covers six fights and begins with the promotion’s upcoming lightweight grand prix.

He said Bellator officials allowed him to put out some feelers to gauge interest in his services on the open market following his latest win over RIZIN champion Roberto Satoshi at the Bellator MMA vs. RIZIN event on New Year’s Eve, and that once he did, it wasn’t long before his team and Bellator’s got a deal done.

“I kind of was given the opportunity to go and talk a little bit and see,” McKee said. “So, I don’t know, once I did that and then I came back, I was like, ‘Look, there’s some people that are interested,’ and they were like, ‘You know what? We’re going to make this work.’ And we sat down — we sat down, the team and I — and figured it out.

“I think just strategically it makes sense if I say. I’m homegrown with Bellator, I’ve been raised there, my entire career has been there. So I’m not going to go anywhere unless I have to, you know what I mean? It’s no secret that [other promotions are] writing bigger checks than the UFC, so it’s like, what’s the point? For the fame? Fame don’t pay bills.”

It’s in some ways a surprising announcement.

Not long ago, McKee was openly flirting with how “inevitable” it was for him to become UFC champion and publicly demanding that Bellator offer him $1 million per fight to stay. Much of that talk was prior to McKee’s April 2022 rematch with current Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Pitbull, which became the first loss of his professional career. But even still, McKee admitted to feeling some surprise about how things ultimately played out.

“I’m kind of a mix of both, you know what I mean? Especially when I began to fight out [my contract] and I was on my way out,” McKee said, “and then coming full circle to where now it’s like, alright, we got that close. So it’s like any game, you’ve got to have some moves up your sleeve. But yeah, for me, I’m happy where I’m at. I’ve been intrigued with this ‘55-pound tournament, especially being [new] in the division. So new weight class, new kingdom, new territory, and that’s what I’m looking forward to is taking over that division.”

That fresh start begins with Bellator’s newly-announced 155-pound grand prix, which features an eight-man field including McKee, Bellator lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov, Benson Henderson, Tofiq Musayev, Alexander Shabliy, Mansour Barnaoui, Sidney Outlaw, and elder Pitbull brother Patricky Pitbull, as well as a $1 million grand prize.

Two of the opening round matchups have already been announced for Bellator 292 on March 10 — Nurmagomedov vs. Henderson and Musayev vs. Shabliy at the SAP Center in San Jose. A date and opponent for McKee’s opening round bout have yet to be finalized, but after tangling twice with Patricio Pitbull in the past, McKee thinks it makes all the sense in the world to match him up against Patricky Pitbull to kick off his own run in the bracket.

“Smart, man. I don’t see why not [that fight],” McKee said. “I don’t see why not. I’ve already fought the little brother, so let’s go see what the big brother has — and him being a former champion as well, I think, is a good introduction to the tournament. It’s something Brazil can get behind and it’s something America can get behind, it’s something everybody can get behind. Not just A.J. McKee fans but fight fans in general. It’s a feud between families at this point, and like I said, I’m always with a family affair.”

As for Bellator’s reigning lightweight champion, McKee said he is eager to test himself against Nurmagomedov, although he also warned the Dagestani fighter not to take his opening round matchup against the former UFC champ Henderson too lightly.

“[I want to fight him] if he gets past Benson. You can’t overlook Benson, bro. Benson is a dog,” McKee said. “He’s very well-rounded, very well-rounded. And I think if anybody is well-rounded, there’s a problem. That’s honestly one of my dream fights, Benson and I.

“So it might be him and I in the finals. But if not, I don’t care who it is. I’m coming for $1 million and eight names and another title, period.”

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