Not a bad way to close 2022.
A.J. McKee obviously relished his New Year’s Eve unanimous-decision victory over Rizin lightweight champion Roberto de Souza in their non-title main-event fight in front of 23,361 fans in Saitama, Japan.
McKee also took immense pride in capping a 5-0 performance by Bellator fighters against their Rizin opponents in the cross-promotional card, which took place early Saturday morning for those watching here on the West Coast.
But the highlight of the night, the Long Beach star said in an exclusive interview Saturday morning, was his walk to the ring at Saitama Super Arena, replete in a black samurai outfit and sword as McKee 100 million yen bills were showered onto fans.
“The walkout was awesome, man. I feel like that was the best part for me. Just being able to relate to their culture, my culture and going back many, many, many, many years,” said the former Bellator featherweight champion, who is now 2-0 as a lightweight.
“You know, there were black samurais. People don’t know that. So just being able to kind of relate their culture, my culture, you know?”
𝑴𝒂𝒌𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒊𝒕 𝒓𝒂𝒊𝒏 💵
AJ McKee enters the legendary Saitama Super Arena in Samurai armour ⚔️
🇺🇸 Full Replay at 8pm ET/PT on @SHOSports#RIZINvsBellator#BellatorvsRIZIN#RIZIN40 pic.twitter.com/yC1MCTTknk
— BellatorMMA (@BellatorMMA) December 31, 2022
McKee showcased his striking, takedown defense and willingness to go to – and stay on – the mat against an acclaimed jiu-jitsu practitioner.
“I just knew I wanted to keep it, you know, kind of on the feet, but I also wanted to show that I wasn’t intimidated by his jiu-jitsu,” McKee, 27, said.
In fact, at one point in the opening round, McKee (20-1) was on top of de Souza (14-2) and his extremely active guard. McKee’s corner yelled at him to allow de Souza up and get away from his array of submissions.
But McKee ignored their pleas. “I didn’t feel threatened. I heard them telling me to let him up. But I was doing so well controlling him on the ground,” he said.
The fight peaked in the second round with each 155-pounder throwing wild punches before de Souza got the fight to the ground. McKee eventually escaped and began unleashing a slew of punches, knees and head stomps, which were legal under the Rizin rules.
“That was my main goal, you know, be able to go out there, use the kick and head stomp. So I got a couple of them off,” he said. “But my opponent, he’s just very good at the jiu-jitsu aspect, right? So it was hard for me to posture up and really create an opening to be able to do so.”
McKee was able to avoid any significant danger in the third and final round, despite de Souza picking up the pace, scoring several takedowns and locking in on McKee’s back in the final minute.
In the end, McKee showed much respect for his “very tough” opponent while acknowledging he is still getting acclimated to fighting at a bigger weight class.
Most important, he was able to show his complete arsenal and hold his own on the mat where he was believed to be at a disadvantage.
“It was everything that I expected. It showed a different side of my jiu-jitsu, even with a high-level jiu-jitsu artist like that, you know, black belt, however many degrees,” MeKee said. “I just continued to fight, you know, continue to bring the fight to him and tried to cause damage the entire time.
McKee will spend an additional two days in Japan, appreciative of the fans there — “The culture is just different, I feel they appreciate fighting on a martial arts status” — before returning home.
Upon hearing it was raining Saturday in Southern California, McKee’s already-underway 2023 got even better.
“That means it’s snowing in Big Bear. I’m … happy. As soon as I get home, I’m hitting the slopes,” McKee said.