A.J. McKee suffered his first loss this past April. Months later, he is still processing the decision.
"Having something literally ripped out of my hands and taken from me, that hit a little different," says McKee (18-1 MMA, 18-1 BMMA), who lost the featherweight title by unanimous decision to Patrício "Pitbull" Freire (33-5 MMA, 21-5 UFC) at Bellator 277. "It hit a couple nerves."
It wasn't solely that Pitbull reclaimed the featherweight title and his place atop the division. That could not compare to the blow of McKee losing a goal he spent years dreaming and sweating for, one which vanished instantly upon hearing the announcement of the controversial decision.
The ultracompetitive, supremely talented McKee experienced a range of emotions in the ensuing months since his title loss. A quarter of a year has passed, and the loss has served as a reminder – albeit a painful one – that it will take exponentially more than a flawed scorecard to break McKee's spirit.
"I'm still undefeated in life," McKee says. "I know some people saw it differently, like the judges. But I definitely won that fight.
"I wanted to be the best, undefeated like Khabib [Nurmagomedov], but be even more entertaining. Khabib's style is a lot like my father's. He didn't get the glory, recognition or respect I feel he deserved, so that was a lot of fuel for me to make the name McKee the best ever in this sport. And I will. For me, it's just staying on my path. I'm using this as a kick to motivate me."
The inevitable inevitably occurs, which aptly describes the future for McKee and Pitbull. Both are on the upcoming Bellator 286 card on Oct. 1, with Pitbull defending the featherweight title against Adam Borics, while McKee moves to lightweight for a bout against Spike Carlyle.
Even as their paths progress in different directions, the two proud fighters remain tightly intertwined. The 286 card takes place in McKee's hometown of Long Beach, Calif., and there will be no shortage of cheers welcoming him back – as well as plenty of questions about a third fight against "Pitbull."
Given ample time to reflect and reassess, McKee's soul-searching has led him to plot his next move. There is unfinished business with "Pitbull," and after splitting their first two bouts, there will not be closure until they fight for a third time.
"You all want the trilogy?" says McKee, who is just now entering his prime at 27. "Cool, let's get it. I had to sit back and evaluate and assess. In the very moment after the fight, I wasn't fighting him. Why would I? I won that fight. But I want to fight now. I have another statement to make.
"If it was up to me, he'd be fighting me in Long Beach. He thought the energy at the Forum was electrifying? Wait until he's in Long Beach. He's not even going to fight me and he's still going to get booed."
Before that tantalizing proposition of a trilogy can materialize, McKee has a new opponent to focus on in Carlyle. This should be a banger of a fight, with both bringing captivating approaches inside the cage. But it is certainly peculiar that McKee – the greatest homegrown fighter in Bellator, coming off 18 straight wins and a title run – isn't getting a higher-profile opponent.
"If it was up to me, I wanted to fight Benson (Henderson])," McKee says. "Stylistically, that would be a great fight. Overall, I wanted 'Pitbull' – not Patrício, because I already whooped him – I wanted Patricky. I wanted to keep it in the family. But I'm not picking fights.
"Usman (Nurmagomedov) just beat somebody that wasn't ranked, and he's an established 55-pounder. But I'm magically picking people? I think, because of my skill set and how good I am, people try to diminish anything I do. It doesn't really matter to me. I'm going to go in there and do what I do best, and that's put on a show and entertain fans."
McKee also explained his decision to take a lightweight fight.
"When the rematch wasn't offered and it was said there was no opportunity for the rematch, I felt there was no reason to stay in the division," McKee says. "If I'm not fighting for the title, there's no point in putting my body through the weight cut to get to '45. I've always wanted to be a '55-pound lightweight division champion like my father. Becoming a champ-champ was my original goal. That didn't happen, but I'm looking forward to getting in there. We're about to blast through some sh-t. I'm going into this fight with malicious intent.
"You're about to see there is no limit to what I can do. Jake Paul's looking for a fight. I don't like his demeanor, his attitude. He's too full of himself for me. He's disrespectful. I'll fight him, too. I'm a nice guy with a big heart, but it's going to be different now."
Regardless of the outcome at Bellator 286 or, potentially, in a boxing ring, it doesn't take a soothsayer to predict the fortunes of McKee and Pitbull. There is destined to be a deciding and decisive winner-take-all third bout.
"I'm going to retire him," McKee says. "If he beats Borics and doesn't retire, I want a fight. I want that on the record – and I'll come back to 145 pounds, because I know he doesn't want me to whoop his ass at 155."
McKee is angry, yet isn't overwhelmed by emotion or vitriol. Acutely aware that these next few fights could elevate his status toward becoming a global figure in fighting, he continues that journey with an odd next step against Carlyle. Yet, displaying the same patience that makes him so dangerous in the cage, McKee will be ready to pounce when the time is right.
"I have a lot in front of me to accomplish," McKee says. "Obviously, my last fight wasn't my best performance. Even on my worst day, I knew Patrício couldn't beat me. And that was my worst day – and he didn't beat me."
It is easy to temporarily lose sight of the fact that McKee's next fight is not against Pitbull. Clearly, that collision is coming.
"I'm going to win my next fight," McKee says. "And remember, when you're the champion, you call the shots. He wanted a rematch when I was the champ, and I honored him with that. I signed [on] the dotted line, I showed up to fight. Whether he wins or loses this Borics fight, let's see if he signs [on] the dotted line."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.