Bellator should be credited with A.J. McKee's meteoric rise

Bellator MMA has done a masterful job of bringing A.J. McKee along and turning the undefeated featherweight fighter into someone fans and followers of the sport know they need to pay attention to going forward.

After collecting the first three wins of his career in early preliminary-card assignments with the Scott Coker-helmed promotion, McKee has become a main-card fixture for the organization. Each of his last eight appearances has been on the televised portion of each event, including two co-main event assignments and a headlining turn when the Bellator cage ventured to Dublin, Ireland, last November.

Along the way, he has beaten reasonable competition to push his record to a perfect 11-0 heading into his main event match against John Macapá on Friday.

This is the approach the UFC used to use with early “Ultimate Fighter” winners.

Go back and look at how Diego Sanchez, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans and Michael Bisping all began their careers inside the UFC. Fight after fight, no matter whom they were facing, the organization got those athletes onto the main card and in front of as many people as possible. Their time on “The Ultimate Fighter” introduced them to a wider audience, but then they became fixtures on televised fight cards and pay-per-view events, so fans were constantly exposed to this crop of promising fighters in whom the promotion had invested.

They were all headlining fight cards within a couple years of competing on the long-running reality TV show and all four ended up fighting for championship gold at some point in their careers, with Sanchez being the only member of the group who failed to win a UFC title.

But that constant exposure and early permanent presence on the main card further entrenched them as household names and foundational pieces for the promotion to the point where it didn’t matter if they were coming off a win or a loss; they were main-card fighters and some of the most recognizable talents in the organization.

Bellator has wisely replicated that approach with McKee, constantly putting him in positions where he’s one of the featured names on the fight card and given an opportunity to shine. To his credit, the 23-year-old has held up his end of the bargain every step of the way, continuing to post victories every time out and make steady progress up the featherweight ladder.

While Saturday’s fight card has undergone some changes, it remains a crucial next step in McKee’s development — not just as a fighter, but also as a potential foundational piece of the puzzle for the promotion going forward.

Initially scheduled to face former featherweight champ and tenured Bellator veteran Pat Curran in what would have easily been the toughest test of McKee’s young career, Curran was forced out of the pairing in the middle of last month and replaced by Macapá.

Although Friday’s contest still represents a step up in competition for McKee, it’s a slightly less sizable one; the 31-year-old Brazilian does have twice as much experience as the Team Bodyshop representative but also enters the contest on a two-fight skid and having been out of action for the last 11 months.

Losing Curran increases the pressure on McKee and intensifies the spotlight on this fight.

Falling to a former titleholder, who has shared the cage with the best fighters in the history of the promotion, is no big deal for a promising 23-year-old, but stumbling against Macapá would raise a few more red flags and create more questions for the organization; the veteran’s ceiling has been firmly established, and it sits below the elite class.

It would even be different if McKee were facing another rising star in the featherweight ranks or someone with clear championship upside — someone like Juan Archuleta, Ádám Borics or Emmanuel Sanchez, for instance. That way, if he were to lose, it would propel someone else forward and wouldn’t come as a major setback.

Falling to the more experienced Macapá wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially given that McKee is 23 and no one expects any fighter to make it through their entire careers without suffering a loss, but it would set him back and eliminate an intriguing rising star from the title conversation without really replacing him with anyone new.

In some ways, this is why you would like to see Bellator test some of its young stars a little earlier in their progression, rather than having them stack up win after win against opponents they are expected to beat.

Conversely, an impressive victory for McKee would be a home run and establish the “Mercenary” as a fringe contender in the 145-pound class while putting him in a position to face off with some of the more established names in the division in 2019.

From there, McKee would almost get a clean slate. All bets are off, in a sense, because he would have advanced into the upper echelon of the division so quickly that it would be expected that he would encounter some struggles while facing the likes of Curran, Daniel Straus or Daniel Weichel.

Bellator has done an excellent job identifying and cultivating young talent in recent years, with fighters like McKee at the forefront, but now it’s time for those athletes to take the next step forward and graduate from being outstanding prospects to legitimate contenders.

The build to this point has been perfectly managed and expertly crafted, but now it’s time to see if it will all pay off.