SAITAMA, Japan — AJ McKee felt a bit of pressure heading to the ring Saturday night. And it wasn’t just the weight of the black samurai costume he wore for his elaborate walk out.
With a McKee win, his Bellator promotion would sweep its competition with Japan’s Rizin. On top of that, the last time McKee fought in a ring rather than the traditional MMA cage, he was knocked out as an amateur, the only time he has ever been finished in a fight. And then there was the fact that his father and coach, Antonio, lost his only ever fight on New Year’s Eve in Japan back in 2012.
McKee was able to overcome all that potentially bad mojo with a unanimous decision win over Roberto “Satoshi” de Souza in the lightweight main event of Rizin 40 at Saitama Super Arena outside Tokyo. Bellator won its friendly co-promotion competition with Rizin 5-0, taking all the main-card fights on the card. De Souza is Rizin’s lightweight champion.
“For me, it was redemption for not only myself, but for my father,” McKee told ESPN.
McKee did more damage throughout the fight, landing hard combinations on the feet and a few vicious blows on the ground. On several occasions, McKee attempted to utilize Rizin’s different rules, going for kicks and knees to de Souza’s head while de Souza was on the ground, which would be illegal under the Unified Rules of MMA.
De Souza, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu wiz, had McKee in some bad positions on the mat. In the second round, he had McKee’s back for about two minutes, but McKee was able to escape. In the third round, de Souza had McKee’s back with McKee standing up. McKee went for a forward roll, trying to plant de Souza’s head and shoulders on the canvas. But de Souza held on, working for a choke until the final bell rang.
“I wasn’t really worried about his ground,” McKee said. “… Grips and hips, as my father always says. It shuts down everything. I just made sure I kept my hips under me so he couldn’t lock up the triangle and just for little strikes to hit him.”
In the co-main event, Bellator featherweight champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, a rival of McKee, beat Rizin featherweight champion Kleber Koike Erbst by unanimous decision in a nontitle, champion vs. champion matchup. Bellator’s Kyoji Horiguchi defeated Rizin’s Hiromasa Ougikubo and Bellator’s Gadzhi Rabadanov defeated Rizin’s Koji Takeda, both by unanimous decision. Rabadanov had all-time-great former UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, one of his coaches, cheering him on from ringside.
In another main-card bout, Bellator’s Juan Archuleta beat Rizin’s Soo Chul Kim by split decision. On the undercard, top women’s atomweight fighter Seika Izawa beat Si Woo Park by close split decision to win Rizin’s super atomweight grand prix tournament.
McKee (20-1) has now won two straight after losing the Bellator featherweight title back to Freire back in April. The 27-year-old from Long Beach, California, is also a former Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix $1 million champion.
De Souza (14-2) had a five-fight winning streak snapped. The 33-year-old Brazilian-born fighter, who lives in Japan and is half Japanese, has been Rizin lightweight champion since he beat Tofiq Musayev via first-round submission in June 2021.