Getty Images

It may seem like an odd narrative given his 18-1 record and youthful age of 27, but Saturday's Bellator 286 card marks the beginning of a rebuilding process for former featherweight champion AJ McKee following his lone pro defeat. 

McKee will make his lightweight debut in the co-main event against heavy underdog Spike Carlyle (14-3) in what, on the surface, appears to be a get-well homecoming for native of Long Beach, California, who will fight professionally in his home city for the first time. But the circumstances for "The Mercenary," who has only ever fought in Bellator since making his pro debut in 2015, couldn't be more different than they were just one year ago. 

In the finals of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix in July 2021, McKee recorded a dominant first-round submission of the most decorated fighter the promotion has ever known, using Patricio Pitbull's patented guillotine submission to choke him unconscious. The victory not only netted McKee the 145-pound title and the $1 million prize money, it announced him as a global pound-for-pound threat who actually exceeded the long-term hype he originally stirred up. 

But McKee never quite capitalized upon his newfound fame and sat out nine months while unsuccessfully attempting to negotiate a new contract. Then, in his April rematch with Pitbull, he dropped a close decision in a much more technical affair over five rounds and recently revealed he suffered a full emotional breakdown in the aftermath

The fighter who previously referred to himself as "the Floyd Mayweather of MMA" was suddenly forced to deal with the harsh reality of losing his invincibility. 

"Well, I've lost now so I don't give a shit who [I fight]," McKee told "Morning Kombat" shortly after the Carlyle fight was announced. "Put someone in front of me and we can go to 170. My record has been flawed now and that was something that played a big part in who I am and who I want to be and that's being an undefeated fighter and being like Floyd and Khabib [Nurmagomedov], to finish my career as one of the best and be unflawed as one of the finest. But now, let's go. Who is there? At 145 and 155, I don't care who I fight. We get up to 170? Now we are talking about big money fights."

Can't get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including an exclusive sitdown with AJ McKee ahead of Bellator 286 below.

Although McKee still carries the necessary swagger to want to match himself against the very best in the sport, the promotion had other plans in booking him against Carlyle, the 29-year-old "Alpha Ginger," an athletic risk taker who has won five straight since being cut by the UFC in 2020. Not only is McKee in a new weight class and fighting in his hometown, his chief rival Pitbull will be defending McKee's old title in the headlining bout against Adam Borics.  

"There were a few names on the table [for opponents]. For me, I asked for Benson Henderson," McKee said. "That's one of my favorite fighters and I feel like, stylistically, that's an awesome fight. Imagine Benson and I in there, it would be a banger."

McKee, who said his current contract had fights added to it by Bellator's "champion clause" after he won the title, now admits he had trouble getting up mentally for the Pitbull rematch and his training suffered because of it. Part of that was due to the growing discontent between him and the promotion amid a failed renegotiation attempt, which led to the lengthy layoff. 

"I was just itching to fight. If I finished [Pitbull] that quick and then we go on an 8-month layaway, it's like, 'f---,'" McKee said. "And then they call me in the middle of snowboarding season. That's my motivation, I'm trying to hit these backflips clean. There is all sorts of things on the backend that take place and that's part of the fight game that people don't see and don't understand. But at the end of the day, that's how we put food on the table for our family. For me, it's being active and being in there as much as possible."

But did McKee, as the reports indicated, really ask the promotion for $1 million per fight moving forward?

"Yeah, why not?" McKee said. "I just won $1 million in a stylistic fashion and I literally quoted what I am going to do. Four for four, all finishes. I finished three out of four in the first round. That's a hungry, motivated AJ. That's me determined and showing you what I'm capable of doing. The proof is in the pudding."

Should McKee make quick work of Carlyle, as expected, the obvious question is what the move to lightweight means for his future. It's a question that only gets more interesting now that Bellator CEO Scott Coker revealed to "The MMA Hour" on Wednesday that the promotion will hold a 155-pound Grand Prix tournament in 2023. 

"I've been wrestling and cutting weight my whole life," McKee said. "I feel like striking and jiu-jitsu wise, there's no need for me to put my body and my family through [a cut back down to featherweight]. It's a lot to get me to 145 pounds. Obviously, it's doable and it's great, but why put that stress on yourself if you don't need? You have the skill set and you have the talent to do it at many weights. 

"But to make a statement and finish off that trilogy, I would do it that one last time."

But McKee, who said he walks around at 170 pounds and has been as high as 185 in between fights, isn't quite sure the 35-year-old Pitbull will continue fighting should he defeat Borics. He has lost respect for the Brazilian legend for not giving him an immediate rematch like McKee did for him. 

"I don't know [whose decision it was] but he's the champ. He wanted to fight me [after their first fight] and I could've said no," McKee said. "And I showed him. It was a close fight but it wasn't that close. I wasn't happy with it. We have unfinished business and now you are going to fight someone else? It doesn't make sense.

"I'll go back down there and beat him up another time. It needs to be soon, if that's going to be the case. I think he's going to retire, honestly. That is what I said, that if he beats Borics, he's going to retire."

Should McKee decide to stay at 155, the possibility of becoming a two-division champion -- something McKee prophesied about publicly as far back as his second pro fight -- remains in play. 

Patricio Pitbull vacated the Bellator lightweight title in 2021, opening up a shot for older brother Patricky to capture the vacant belt. Patricky Pitbulll make his first title defense on Nov. 18 against unbeaten Usman Nurmagomedov, although McKee added, "I don't think his brother is going to make it past Usman." 

A rare homegrown talent who went all the way from prospect to champion in the span of six short years under the Bellator banner, McKee must now navigate the start of a second chapter filled with many unknowns. Much of these questions have answers that can only be provided by McKee inside the cage as long as he's motivated to do so. 

"I just want to be faster, stronger, bigger," McKee said. "[It's time to] give them what they want. I know I have the skill set so just go in there and do what you are capable of doing. I have been training nonstop, 2-3 times a day, I've been putting in the hours, day in and day out.  It's just showtime. It's time to go back there and go back to being myself – being hungry and being at my best."