AJ McKee, Darrion Caldwell square off with a title and $1 million in sight – Press Enterprise

A.J. McKee and Darrion Caldwell are on the same page.

They each have a wealth of respect for each other, two of the top 145-pound mixed martial artists in the world.

And they understand the weight of the ramifications of their fight Thursday night.

Whoever wins the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix semifinal bout at Bellator 253 in Uncasville, Connecticut, will then be one victory away from winning the tournament, the featherweight title and $1 million.

Which fruit of victory is sweeter is where they differ.

“The most important thing is obviously the title,” said Caldwell (15-3), who fights out of Redlands. “Get the title and whatever comes with it is extra. I’m excited to go out there, showcase my skills and prove that I am the best 45er in the world.”

Long Beach’s undefeated McKee has other ideas.

“Million dollars, for sure. I mean, (screw) the belt!” the Long Beach Poly grad said. “It’s a childhood dream to have that belt, but (screw) that belt. That belt ain’t gonna pay mortgage.”

The final four is set after Thursday’s quarterfinal bouts, in which two-division champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire crushed Pedro Carvalho via a first-round knockout after Emmanuel Sanchez advanced with a unanimous-decision victory over Daniel Weichel.

Bellator’s featherweight and lightweight king, Pitbull is on the other side of the bracket, Caldwell notes, by choice. In the grand prix selection show Sept. 28, 2019, at The Forum to establish the quarterfinal bouts, the fighters drew numbers and could choose dates or fighters to face. With the final “Champ’s choice” to take any fight he wanted, Pitbull opted for the latest fight possible, which bumped Caldwell from his fight with Carvalho and sent him over to the other side to fight undefeated Adam Borics.

“I’ll take all the fights Patricio is afraid of,” said Caldwell, who dispatched of Borics quickly with a first-round submission in January at Bellator 238 at The Forum. “That spot was open against Adam Borics and he chose to fight Carvalho on the day I was supposed fight Carvalho, which is why I’m over here.

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“He didn’t want to fight Borics, he didn’t want to fight me and obviously he didn’t want to fight A.J. So yeah, I don’t mind doing the dirty work.”

Darrion Caldwell, left, defeated Adam Borics right, by first-round submission during their Featherweight World Grand Prix quarterfinal bout at Bellator 238 at The Forum in Inglewood on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The coronavirus pandemic derailed Bellator and its tournament for much of 2020, which was fortuitous for McKee. Eleven months ago, he advanced to the semifinals with a third-round armbar submission victory over Derek Campos, but suffered a torn LCL in his knee in the first 30 seconds when he attempted a spinning heel kick and fell.

“My whole leg went numb. I had a burning sensation shoot all the way through, from my mid-calf all the way about to my butt cheek,” said McKee, who underwent surgery in January. “It popped, it felt tweaked a little bit. I immediately knew, ‘OK, you’ve got adrenaline running. That hurt. You felt it, it burned. Something’s messed up. You’ve gotta get Campos outta there.’”

Antonio McKee, A.J.’s father and lifelong coach, was impressed with how his son overcame the injury to take out one of the division’s strongest and toughest fighters.

“He adjusted from his adversity and made the best out of what he had,” said the Team Body Shop coach, who will also be in the corners of Joey Davis and Baby Slice on Thursday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

“He was smart enough to settle in and figure out what he needs to do to get the fight to the ground and finish him.”

McKee vs. Caldwell was originally scheduled for June. McKee, 25, estimates his knee was probably at 70% to 85% recovered, but he would have fought anyway.

Caldwell, who will turn 33 next month, saw the postponement as an opportunity to reset and focus on the task at hand.

“Obviously in our sport, you take the most damage in training,” Caldwelll said. “So it was important to be able to rest when I needed to, train when I needed to, rest when I needed to … it was a good balance the last nine months.”

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Caldwell is settling in at 145 pounds after once reigning over Bellator’s 135-pound division. Don’t be fooled by Caldwell having just two knockout victories among his 15 wins. Caldwell’s bread and butter is his wrestling. The 2009 NCAA wrestling champion out of North Carolina State looks to take opponents down and smother them, implementing his grappling to work for a guillotine or rear-naked choke or simply winning rounds by keeping them down.

One Bellator featherweight believes Caldwell’s game plan might be difficult to impose on McKee. Aaron Pico, coming off a second-round TKO of John de Jesus last week, is a longtime friend of the McKee family. Even though Pico left Team Body Shop less than two years ago to train at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, few know A.J. and his fighting style better.

“I think it’s very hard to hold A.J. down just because he has so many weapons off his back. I don’t think Caldwell’s striking is as good as A.J.’s,” Pico said. “I feel like either A.J.’s gonna catch him in a submission or win a unanimous decision and on to the finals. I think Caldwell just relies a lot on wrestling. With A.J., you’ve gotta be able to wrestle and hold guys down. I don’t think Caldwell has the grapping ability or ground-and-pound to do that to A.J.”

Caldwell likes what he sees in McKee – with a caveat.

“I see a tough and hungry kid. A kid that’s never faced defeat,” said the New Jersey native, who trains under Jake Behney at Pinnacle MMA in Redlands. “It can be dangerous both ways and I really feel like he’s super confident and looking past me, but come Thursday night, he’s gonna realize why he shouldn’t look past me.”

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McKee does exude confidence and always has. He points to his excellence in mixed martial arts – not just wrestling – and his 11 finishes, with six knockouts and five submissions, among his 16 wins.

But he’s not foolish enough to overlook Caldwell.