Anyone with their finger on the pulse of MMA can see A.J. McKee has a bright future. The Bellator featherweight contender is poised to be a marquee name, with 2021 set up to be a defining year.

With a perfect record and the guidance of his father – retired MMA veteran Antonio McKee – there’s a chance McKee (17-0 MMA, 17-0 BMMA) ends this year with not one, but two Bellator titles in his possession.

McKee is looking next at the Bellator featherweight grand prix final, where he’ll challenge the winner of Patricio Freire vs. Emmanuel Sanchez for the belt and $1 million in prize money. It’s a prominent position, and one McKee knows he didn’t reach without some good fortune.

Although it seems like McKee has been around for a while because the entirety of his 17-fight career has been with Bellator, he’s still just 25. He said his level of maturity has grown substantially in the past 12-18 months, but it wasn’t always that way. McKee admits he maybe enjoyed his youth a little too much, however, it never caught up with him inside the cage.

Now with a clear mind and clear focus, McKee admits he’s fortunate to be where he is. Undefeated and unscathed, he said there’s no desire to have a backslide.

“I’d honestly have to give all the glory to God on that one,” McKee told MMA Junkie. “There were honestly fights I shouldn’t have won, for sure. There were fights I shouldn’t have fought. I wasn’t ready. Being able to take a lesson from each of those situations and being able to grow from it, I think that has been the key for me. If I would’ve taken on some of the top names – I felt like I could’ve done it regardless – the difference was me being prepared. Every fight I go into now I feel like I’m prepared 100 percent. It should look like it’s easy. I should walk through these guys. That’s my skill set, 10 times more superior than any other athlete, especially in my weight class. I’m thankful I went through what I went through.”

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McKee doesn’t hide from the fact he had his fun in his early 20s. He said it never got to the point where everything around him was at risk of collapsing because of poor decision-making, but he definitely wasn’t doing all the things that would be traditionally viewed as necessary to thrive at the highest level of MMA.

According to McKee, there was no singular incident that altered his approach for the better. He said it was something that slowly built up over time.

“I think it was an accumulation,” McKee said. “It was an accumulation of having my father ride my ass and point me in the right direction to the point he stopped talking. And if my dad stops talking, you’re really messing up. Everyone as humans as they get older they get wiser. Certain habits, certain lifestyles that you’re living – they kind of grow old. I think me seeing the path that I’m on at the moment and what’s laying ahead, I kind of use that as motivation. Partying isn’t going anywhere.

“I can go be a multi-millionaire then partying is right there. I can throw my own parties. I think getting older I got my priorities right and I’ve got a family to feed. Doing it for your family is a big key for me. I’ve got a lot of people that look up at me and depend on me and I think that was a big motivating factor in kind of changing my ways and getting my life together.”

Although the road hasn’t always been smooth outside the cage, McKee has been unbelievable inside of it. His 17-fight winning streak is the longest in Bellator history, and his 12 finishes during that run are good for second-most in company history.

There’s been criticism along the way – both from fans and McKee himself – that the build has been too slow. With McKee’s next fight slated for a title, though, it’s hard to argue the company hasn’t done it the right way.

Bellator president Scott Coker recently told MMA Junkie that McKee is en route to becoming an MMA “a megastar for Bellator and the sport,” and pointed to the matchmaking process as a contributor. McKee couldn’t see the big picture earlier on, he said, but now can’t disagree with the process.

“I have to give all the credit to my father and Scott Coker, who came to my last amateur fight and signed me straight to Bellator,” McKee said. “He’s seen a lot in this company. He’s been waiting for me to come into my stardom. Being an actual star and not just being a supreme athlete and being the best in the world. Actually being a star and being able to deal with the lights, the pressure, the money and just the lifestyle. I have to take my hat off to Scott Coker and my father. They worked diligently day in and day out to build me.”

Part of the challenge in being an MMA promoter, though, and especially one outside the UFC, is that there’s always a risk in building up a fighter, only for them to slip away elsewhere. McKee is potentially entering that danger zone, because he has just two fights remaining on his current Bellator contract.

If McKee ends up winning the featherweight tournament and taking the belt, there’s championship language in Bellator contracts that would prevent him from entering a free agency situation where he had ultimate power. McKee still intends of having a whole lot of control of his future, though, and thinks he’s going to be in a position to have the final say.

“You know how contracts work – they’ve got clauses and whatnot – but we’ll sit down,” McKee said. “We’re going to have to do some sit-down after this tournament for sure. Once I get through this tournament and knock ‘Pitbull’s’ ass out and shock the world again, it’s going to give me a lot of leverage. I’ve always said it. I’m the Floyd Mayweather of MMA, so I’m looking to make that Floyd money and $100 million checks and be undefeated. Khabib (Nurmagomedov is) the only other person to do it, and he’s not doing it like me.”

The more McKee’s star rises, the more discussion will come in regard to how he compares with other top featherweights in the UFC. The idea of mixing it up with the biggest names in the game is hard for McKee to brush off entirely, and he hinted that it’s an argument he’ll eventually want to settle.

“I’m going to make some examples out of people,” McKee said. “I cannot wait. I’m looking across at the UFC like, ‘I would love to have a field day with some of these guys.’ Brian Ortega put me in a triangle when I was 19. If it ever happens I’ve got to get that kid back. Him, (Max) Holloway, (Alexander) Volkanovski – those are the three I really watch. If you’re not top three I don’t really care. That’s my mindset. If you’re not at the top of the food chain, why do I even care about you?”

The pieces of McKee’s puzzle appear to be coming together and fitting nicely. The way forward is going to consist of big fights against notable names, and no matter which promotional banner those fights come under, McKee said it won’t be long until he’s forever the A-side.

“This is the new era, the new wave,” McKee said. “I’m coming full force. I really don’t care who ends up in the finals, and I think that’s kind of scaring people even more. I really just don’t care. At the end of the day I’m not getting in the cage to fight them. They’re getting in the cage to fight me. I’m going to go in there and I’m going to continue to do what I do best.”