Road To Bellator - Open Workouts
Ask any local fan of Bellator when the fight card was announced what fight they're most excited about, the co-main event bout between Justin Lawrence and AJ McKee jumps right to the top.
The 23-year old McKee has been on a roll winning 10 in a roll, all for Bellator. The son of Antonio McKee, a veteran of nearly 40 professional fights in a career that spans back to the late 90's, AJ McKee is starting to get labeled as a "phenom." His opponent on Friday, hometown kid Lawrence, knows a little something about the pressures of dealing with a young, yet promising fight career.
Lawrence rattled off three straight wins to start his career before being chosen for the 15th season of the Ultimate Fighter. Lawrence would go on to win the tournament and made a statement with an impressive head kick KO to win the title of Ultimate Fighter and the UFC contract. In his next fight, he would face future UFC champ Max Holloway on the way to losing two straight inside the Octagon. Lawrence re-invented himself in the RFA promotion, winning three in a row, picking up their featherweight title along the way. From the RFA, Lawrence vaulted into Bellator, where he's been since, posting a 4-2 record for the promotion.
Both fighters answered press questions at the open workouts media scrum. Justin Lawrence up first.
How are you feeling right now?
"I feel great, I can't complain. I'm back in my hometown. It's everything I asked for. I had a quick turn around. I asked for AJ McKee and they finally gave him to me. I've been asking for this kid for a long time."
Talk about this weird stat where you fought three times in a row in St. Louis, then three times in a row in Thackerville, OK, now back in St. Louis.
"Thackerville is a nice place but it's brutal. It's far away, but hey, I'm back in St. Louis. Positive energy, positive vibes, and I can't be more excited for this fight. I've been asking for this kid a long time. I've been working super hard. Been in the gym since November, had a fight in January, was healthy right out of that fight. Three round fight, I felt it, so quick turnaround, and can't be more happy with it."
Everyone has a different take on fighting at home?
"The pressure is the same anywhere you go. It's a fist fight, you know its nervous. I'd rather fight in my backyard than on foreign soil."
Talk about being up and down, but finally back on a roll again.
"I don't pick my fights. They offer me fights, I take fights on short notice. I fought that John Macap on four weeks notice. Sigh me up I'm ready to fight. I'm here, it's all positive. If I take out AJ McKee, I'm right back in title contention."
You said you've been wanting him, he's undefeated, but he's never gone up against someone with your kind of resume.
"He's been groomed well. They've had some good fights for him. When you start asking for big money, you start to get tougher fights and that's what happened. "
Do you think your experience is the difference maker?
"Oh yeah, I've fought at the highest level. I was just in his shoes, I was once called the young phenom. I've been there, done that, felt that. The biggest thing in fighting is that you can't believe the hype. It can get derailed quickly, and that's what your'e about to see on Friday."
What are you expecting from McKee?
"I expect him to come out very confident in the first round. When I'm still standing there eating shots, pushing him forward, pushing him against the cage going into the second and third round, dropping bombs. I don't think he's ever felt that, I don't think he's ever felt someone with my tenacity, with my power, with my speed. I'm in the best shape of my life. I know everyone always says that but I had a fight in January, and I took no time off. I worked on my kicks, worked on my wrestling."
You touched on it earlier, but it seems like the roles are reversed a bit you were always the hot shot kid, and now here he is a 23 years old, leading the charge for these new young Bellator fighters.
"It's good to have some hype guys around you, but there's a point in time when 'yes men' can't do anything for you. You've got to be in there with the gritty guys. Look at my team. My team is stacked I've got Jeremy Stephens, Darren Caldwell, I've got Dominick Cruz, Mules Jury. I've got guys you haven't even know of that are nasty. He's got Aaron Pico and Baby Slice, you do the math. I'm ready."
After a brief workout with his father, A.J answered questions from the media.
You got a nice, full training camp in, how you feeling?
"Oh yeah, first one. I'm ready, prepared. Ready to go out there and see what I'm capable of doing at anything over than 50%. Actually being ready, not being injured, going in there and putting in a full camp, and not having my weight cut an issue. This is the easiest weight cut I've had, best camp. I've got new teammates behind me, Aaron Pico, Joey Davis. We've got a stacked room. Baby Slice is there, our room is stacked. It's fun time now, time to go play. "
Has that been the biggest thing with a full camp, not having to worry about the weight?
"I would say yeah. For me the fight was always cutting weight. Training three or four weeks for a main event fight. You can't go out there and do that and keep getting away with it. I knew at the time I was ahead. Everybody always asks, who have you fought, you haven't fought anybody. It wasn't that I haven't fought anybody, it's just that I hadn't fought anybody on my level. Me knowing that, I knew I could take shortcuts and go mess around. Only train three weeks and go out and get the 'W'. With Justin Lawrence, there's not short cutting. He's made me train, made me put in a full 8-week training camp. No loops, just grind, grind, grind for 8 weeks. I'm excited. I'm excited to go out and see what I can do and make a statement. Everybody talks about who've I've fought, now it's time for me to make an example out of somebody. Justin Lawrence is that person."
When your opponent was announced, and after what you just said, how excited are you to have a chance at a win over someone people can look at and be like ok, that's a guy that's been around and fought a lot of big fights?
"Looking at Justin Lawrence, I knew he's coming to fight, will be in shape and ready to go. He's not the type to pull out of fights. I knew I was going to have a fight, we were going to get to fight, whereas other guys I've signed contracts to fight puled out, those are big names. He doesn't have anything to gain, but has a statement to make as well. I thank Justin Lawrence, but at the end of the day I'm making a statement out of his ass. "
What do you mean by 'he has nothing to gain'?
"All he has to gain is to derail my 'hype train', For me that's motivation he has something to prove. I have everything to lose. That undefeated record, I'm not looking for it to go anywhere. I'm looking to be the Floyd of MMA. With so many different angles with knees, and kicks. There's so many chances for me to be caught. For me to be 10-0, to be undefeated, it's phenomenal. Of course everyone wants to take that notch and be the first win over me. That shit ain't happening."
He had talked a bit about being in a similar position. Do you think at all about when that 0 goes away if it does?
"No. That's where a lot of people let it get to their head. That's where me slacking off training three weeks for a main event fight came into play. Slacking. I don't get tired, I never get tired I gassed in that last one, had nothing left in the second round and that was the difference. Seeing that, realizing that. Most people's egos are like 'I'm still good'. Nah. Fuck that. Humble yourself, figure out where the problem is and the majority of the time you're the problem. You've got to fix your problem and come back stronger. I'm 23, there's a lot to learn. I'm in here fighting guys 25+. These are grown men, and I'm barely coming off my teen years. Of course I want to go party and hang out with my boys but there's sacrifices you've got to make."
This feels like the type of win that puts you into the title talk.
"Definitely. I see Brian Moore as a gatekeeper. Justin Lawrence is a gatekeeper to those title fights. That's why I said I'm looking to go out there and make an example out of Justin Lawrence. Who's really finished him? No one has knocked him out on his feet. No one has really finished him. I'm going out there to make a statement and do something no one's done. That's the difference. I'm not worried about what he's going to do or how his camp went. I'm worried about what I'm going to do. That's the difference between cocky and confident. If you're confident you're not worried bout what anyone else is going to do. You want them to worry about you are going to do. That's the mindset and the grind that I feel I have that's different."
When Justin was here, he was comparing who he trains with.
"I don't care who the fuck he trains with. Dude, we have a 4-time NCAA Champion, 133-0. Who has done that? Everybody wants to compare who you train with. I don't give a fuck who you train with. It's not about them, when we step into the cage it's not about who he trains with. It's who you are and what are you going to do. That's the difference in our gym, everyone is focused on their selves, and everybody is grinding for their self. We push each other because we're all focused on ourselves, and make ourselves better, tired. At the same time it's an ego, but it's a friendly ego. I don't even train with a mouth piece, that's how light we go, we point fight. We're not trying to knock each other's heads off, we save that for fight day."
Tickets for Bellator 197 are available from the Family Arena box office: http://familyarena.com/event/bellator-mma-primus-vs-chandler/
Full fight card:
Michael Chandler vs Brandon Girtz
Justin Lawrence vs A.J. McKee
Kevin Ferguson Jr vs Devon Brock
Joaquin Buckley vs Logan Storley
Rebecca Ruth vs Juliana Velasquez
Josh Sampo vs Dominic Mazzotta
Zac Bucia vs Derek Anderson
Jordan Howard vs Eric Ellington
AJ Siscoe vs Justin Robbins
Jordan Dowdy vs Jeff Crotty
Adam Cella vs Dewayne Diggs
Cort Wahle vs Joe Roye
Bellator 197: Chandler vs Girtz
Friday, April 13th
The Family Arena, St. Charles, MO