MMA legendary-fighter-turned-analyst Chael Sonnen makes fast-rising undefeated star AJ McKee the favourite for the Bellator Featherweight World Grand-Prix semi-final against Darrion Caldwell, which is live on Sky Sports on Friday morning.
Sonnen makes the call based largely on McKee’s family lineage in the sport. AJ is coached by his dad, former fighter Antonio and Sonnen likened his home-schooling in the art of combat to that of boxer Floyd Mayweather, whose father, Floyd Sr and two uncles, Jeff and Roger, were professional boxers.
“Floyd Mayweather’s would be a great example. When you grow up and your coach is straight across the hallway, you just have more access,” Sonnen told Sky Sports from his pre-event base in New York.
“When those guys moved the coffee table out of the way when AJ was seven years old and started working on all these techniques. He’s one where we don’t know where the ceiling is.”
McKee has powered to a 16-0 career tally and already holds the record for most consecutive victories. If he makes it 17-0 he’ll get to the final of the Grand Prix and secure a title shot against either the winner of the reigning champion Patricio Pitbull’s semi-final match with Emmanuel Sanchez.
Sonnen says the ominous aspect for Caldwell, is that at 25 years old, McKee is still improving rapidly.
“What is so impressive with McKee is he keeps getting better. A lot of times we’ll see it with a young athlete where he gets a little bit of success, gets a little bit of money and he starts getting distracted, or starts resting on his laurels.
“But McKee is getting better and the only way you can do that is by staying focussed and staying in the practice room. I think he deserves a lot of credit for how much he’s kept his eye on the ball,” Sonnen added.
Will it be 17-0 for McKee?
Sonnen sounded a word of caution for McKee though, warning that any complacency against former bantamweight champion Caldwell would see the unbeaten record disappear. And Sonnen believes Caldwell is more than happy for McKee to be picked to win by the pundits.
“I have to tell you, he’s the perfect fight for Caldwell. Caldwell loves a match where Caldwell is the underdog. When Caldwell is counted out, there’s something in that that alleviates the pressure in him and ups his motivation.
“Some guys like to the favourite, they like to be praised. Some guys like to be the underdog. Caldwell likes to be the underdog and he is the underdog. I contend that he’s going to compete very well with AJ.
“McKee’s a young man. Us as the viewers still have some questions. How’s he going to do in a five-round fight? No one’s been able to get into the championship rounds. But what if? How is his conditioning? What’s he going to do when his eye is swollen and his nose is broken? In fairness, he’s going to be locked in with a former champion of the world and this is a tough night any way you look at it,” Sonnen summarised.
Evolution of MMA
Caldwell (15-3) has himself thrown petrol on the fire of excitement around McKee by claiming his opponent represents, “the new breed of fighter, a complete package.” Whereas 32-year-old Caldwell came to MMA off the back of being a champion wrestler in college, McKee represents a generation of contenders who’ve trained specifically for mixed martial arts from the get-go. Sonnen agrees with Caldwell that an evolution has taken place.
“I only left the sport a year ago. But I swear to a goodness it’s a new sport. Guys are walking into gyms at 12 years old that are called MMA gyms. That wasn’t even a thing when I was growing up. You went and did your boxing on Monday night, caught some wrestling on Tuesday and maybe some weights on Wednesday.
“Your opponent was in the same spot, that’s where everyone was at. Now you can start MMA on day one. Not many guys do it as you can’t compete until you’re 18. Khabib (Nurmegomedov) (retired UFC lightweight champion) has retired but he was one of those guys, he started with MMA and it is its own sport.”
And the winners are…
Ultimately, Sonnen predicts the MMA all-rounder McKee will prevail over the wrestling expert Caldwell in Connecticut and move onto a title shot in the final of the grand prix, but he does not see it being a walkover.
“I think McKee is going to win. I think it’s going to be a hard fight though. I think it’s going to be the hardest fight he’s ever had and there’s a part of me that wonders ‘does AJ respect Caldwell?’ Because Caldwell is going to perform, he’s going to show up.”
If he keeps on his current trajectory, AJ McKee is destined for MMA legendary status. But arguably the highest-profile fighter on the upcoming card comes in the co-main event as former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson takes on Jason Jackson (12-4) at welterweight.
Henderson, 37, is coming off a knockout loss to Michael Chandler, but Sonnen foresees him securing his 29th career victory in MMA and did nt read anything into the defeat to Chandler.
“He came out and did everything right. He took a punch that would have put down a mule. Nobody could have taken that shot. Benson Henderson is a scary guy and he loves to compete. I would never ever underestimate Benson Henderson.”
Sonnen also believes the fact that Henderson regularly competes in jiu jitsu competitions will extend his MMA career rather than serve as a distraction.
“That’s a great way to stay young. I was there when Randy Couture (three-time UFC Heavyweight Champion) won the title aged 44 and that’s something he’d always do. He would train with the kids, he would go into the high schools. He would always stay current and fluent by going with the younger guys. I see Benson doing it and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s extended his career.”
And Sonnen believes Henderson will win in the early hours of Friday morning and that will potentially persuade him to stick in the division 15 pounds above where he made his name.
“I think this a good match for Benson. I like that he’s at 170. I hope he tries 170. I did it in my career (moved up) and it really did prolong my career. Beating the scale is such a hard fight that nobody sees and for Benson Henderson I like that he’s at 170 and I hope he feels rejuvenated.”
While Henderson looks to write another chapter into his long MMA career, unbeaten Joey Davis (7-0) is looking to showcase his emerging talent at Bellator 253 against Bobby Lee, who’s making his debut in the organisation.
And Sonnen says you’ll want to make sure you catch this one: “Davis is special. He was a division two wrestler (in college) but he won that damn thing four times. Very explosive, but he’s also gotten very good with his hands, particularly in the ground and pound. He’ll get a guy down and he’s looking to do damage. In that first round there’s going to be a storm and most guys won’t be left standing.”
Bellator 253 featuring the semi-final of the Featherweight Grand Prix is live from 12am Friday on Sky Sports Mix.
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