AJ McKee will begin his career reinvention at lightweight, with his sights set on the Patricio Pitbull trilogy.

It may sound strange given his 18-1 record and young age of 27, but former featherweight champion AJ McKee’s lone pro setback on Saturday’s Bellator 286 show marks the start of a rebuilding process.

McKee will make his lightweight debut in the co-main event against heavy underdog Spike Carlyle (14-3) in what appears to be a get-well homecoming for the Long Beach, California native, who will fight professionally for the first time in his hometown. However, the conditions for “The Mercenary,” who has only fought in Bellator since making his pro debut in 2015, could not be more different than they were a year ago.

McKee recorded a decisive first-round submission over the most decorated fighter the company has ever known in the finals of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix in July 2021, using Patricio Pitbull’s signature guillotine submission to choke him unconscious. The victory not only earned McKee the 145-pound title and the $1 million prize money, but it also established him as a global pound-for-pound danger who outperformed the long-term hype he generated.

McKee never completely profited on his newfound celebrity, and he sat out for nine months while attempting unsuccessfully to negotiate a new contract. In his rematch with Pitbull in April, he lost a tight decision in a much more technical five-round battle, and he recently confessed that he experienced a severe emotional breakdown in the aftermath.

The fighter, who had previously boasted to himself as “the Floyd Mayweather of MMA,” was forced to confront the terrible truth of losing his invincibility.

“Well, I’ve lost already, so who [I fight] doesn’t matter,” McKee said on “Morning Kombat” immediately after the Carlyle bout was announced. “If you put someone in front of me, we can go to 170.”

My record is now flawed, and it has played a significant role in who I am and who I want to be, which is an unbeaten fighter like Floyd and Khabib [Nurmagomedov], to conclude my career as one of the best and be unblemished as one of the finest. But now, let’s get going. Who is there? I don’t care who I fight at 145 and 155 pounds. Can we reach 170? Now we’re talking about big money bouts.”