A.J. McKee believes he is the best in the world. And he wants a chance to prove it.
"If anyone is willing to step up, from any promotion, then step up," McKee says. "Let's run it."
McKee (18-1 MMA, 18-1 BMMA) is the former Bellator featherweight champion. He is eager for a trilogy bout against Patrício "Pitbull" Freire, as the two split their first two encounters. Before that can occur, next up for McKee is his lightweight debut, which takes place in October at Bellator 286. While lesser-known Spike Carlyle (14-3 MMA, 1-0 BMMA) seems like a peculiar choice for an opponent, it is intended to be a tune-up in preparation for a whole new array of challengers.
Carrying a burning desire to show off his skill against the best in the world, McKee also wants bouts against opponents outside of Bellator, beginning with PFL's Anthony Pettis.
"I'd love to fight Anthony Pettis," McKee says. "That would be kind of lit, low-key."
Pettis is a former UFC lightweight champion. If Bellator and PFL could come to terms, a fight pitting McKee against Pettis would be appointment viewing.
"Sh-t, that would be a great crossover," McKee says. "Pettis is a pioneer and OG in the game. I've been watching him for a long time, and he has a special spot in my heart. I would love to test myself against him. I know I'm the best fighter in the world, and that's what I want to prove."
Only 27, McKee still has a lot left to accomplish. He plans to continue honoring his father's legacy. Antonio McKee built a successful career, yet his son believes those accomplishments were largely overlooked.
"Rampage Jackson calls me my father's revenge," McKee says. "Getting my father the recognition and respect he deserves in this sport is extremely important to me. Every time we see Khabib (Nurmagomedov), he shows my father true respect. I cherish that. I respect the way Khabib stepped away, and I respect the relationship he had with his father. For me, my entire career is making sure my father and my last name get the respect it deserves."
A bout next month against Carlyle should be exciting, but it is odd that there is not a ranked opponent waiting for him. McKee disagrees with that notion, believing Carlyle is the right fight for him – for all the right reasons.
"Usman (Nurmagomedov) just fought someone who wasn't ranked, and that didn't hurt him," McKee says. "Styles make fights, and this will be a great fight.
"I need to get acclimated in 155. I have to get used to the power and keep my speed, and make sure that I'm dialing in properly at 155 pounds. After this, I'll need to know pretty quickly if Patrício is willing to step up to the plate."
Freire, the reigning featherweight champion, defends the title on the same Bellator 286 card against Adam Borics. Considering the event takes place in McKee's hometown of Long Beach, California, it will be fascinating to hear the crowd's reaction to Freire, who defeated McKee last April to regain the belt.
Plenty of options exist for McKee at lightweight, but first, he seeks closure against Freire at featherweight.
"I want that trilogy bout against Patrício," says McKee, who defeated Freire last year for his first reign with the belt. "I have a mental edge that no one else possesses. I've been hounding and chasing Patrício since I first started with Bellator. He knows exactly who I am. He tried to avoid acknowledging me for the longest time, but he can no longer do that. I'm in his face regardless of whether he wants to step up or not.
"For him to come to my backyard, my hometown in Long Beach, it shows me his fear. Being the champ, you make the call. If you don't want to fight somebody, or you want to fight somebody, you make it happen. When I was champ, I ran it back with him with no hesitation. But he's coming into my hometown and fighting somebody else? I smell fear all over him."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.