A.J. McKee is creating quite a highlight reel early in his career. And this latest addition happened against his toughest opponent to date.
McKee, one of the top up-and-coming fighters in MMA, finished Darrion Caldwell with a rare submission, performing a neck crank from bottom position to get the tap at 1 minute, 11 seconds of the first round Thursday in the main event of Bellator 253 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
McKee vs. Caldwell was a semifinal bout in the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix. McKee advances to the final of the $1 million tournament, where he will meet the winner of a bout between Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Freire and Emmanuel Sanchez, which will take place in 2021. The Bellator featherweight title will be on the line in the final.
McKee's submission victory over Caldwell, the former two-time Bellator bantamweight champion, is likely to be talked about for a long time.
Caldwell, a former NCAA Division I wrestling champion at North Carolina State, took McKee down right away to start the fight. McKee landed some elbows from the bottom and then locked Caldwell in what appeared to be a guillotine attempt, but it wasn't. McKee was using a Brazilian jiu-jitsu technique called the "100 percent" position, locking his arms around Caldwell's head and cranking it downward toward the mat. Caldwell had no choice but to tap out.
"I like to play a lot of leverage," McKee said. "It's all about the angles. You've gotta have the right angles and you make anything work."
The submission is incredibly rare in MMA, especially at the highest level. But McKee has a flair for the dramatic. In this tournament, he has an eight-second knockout of Georgi Karakhanyan in the first round and a slick, third-round armbar win over Derek Campos in the quarterfinals.
In his postfight interview, McKee called out Freire, the longtime Bellator featherweight champion who also holds the lightweight belt. McKee said this win was "the beginning of the beginning."
"It's nothing personal," McKee said. "You've got great accolades, but I'm the new era, the new wave."
McKee (17-0), from Long Beach, California, has 12 finishes in 17 career fights, all in Bellator, going back to 2015. He has been a cornerstone of Bellator's future, going from prospect to legitimate title contender and elite featherweight. McKee, 25, trains under his father, Antonio McKee, himself a former MMA champion.
Caldwell (15-4) -- who is from New Jersey and trains in California -- had won two straight coming in. He had lost to only two men in his career coming in: Kyoji Horiguchi (twice) and Joe Taimanglo. Caldwell, 32, avenged the loss to Taimanglo.
Also on the Bellator 253 card, Jason Jackson defeated former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson in a welterweight bout via unanimous decision, and McKee teammate Joey Davis beat Bobby Lee via unanimous decision.