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A.J. McKee’s flashy victory over Patricio “Pitbull” Freire at Bellator 263 was the coronation of a new dominant force in the sport. McKee’s skills have been apparent for some time as he plowed through increasingly difficult competition, but on Saturday night he took a two division champion and the winningest fighter in Bellator MMA history and made quick work of him. McKee’s path forward will be exciting to witness, as the sport is more fun when transcendent talents emerge. However, the story of Saturday was about more than just A.J. McKee; it was about one of the most compelling father-son stories in the sport’s young history.
Antonio McKee was a unique figure over the course of his MMA career. The MMA world in general and the Ultimate Fighting Championship in specific have always gravitated towards fighters with styles that are perceived to be crowd pleasing. Brawlers with knockout power tend to get more and better opportunities while defensive oriented grapplers need to accumulate more wins to get ahead. Even in that environment, McKee was an outlier. The cerebral wrestler’s skills were well known and his record glowing but few of the top promotions of the day would give him fights because of his style.
The lack of opportunity led to frustration and the elder McKee was outspoken about his critics, including those in the UFC. The promotion finally brought him in, but it was clearly an awkward pairing. When McKee lost a close split decision to a quality opponent in the then 11-2 Jacob Volkmann, he was cut. It was an unusual decision to cut someone after one split-decision fight, let alone someone with McKee’s resume, but it was a reflection of the tension between fighter and promotion. McKee never fought for the UFC again.
Antonio McKee had a successful MMA career, but it never reached the level to which he aspired. That makes it all the more poignant that he was not simply able to watch his son achieve goals he didn’t, but that he was able to actively guide him in that direction. Antonio understood MMA well and helped to train elite fighters who worked with him, but he was handicapped from the start. That’s because while Antonio came from an accomplished wrestling background, he didn’t get into MMA until he was significantly older. A.J. McKee at 26 years old is 18-0 and a champion. Antonio McKee didn’t have his first professional fight until he was 29.
It’s natural that someone who only knew one discipline for much of his life would rely on that discipline heavily when trying to win. Antonio did not want to sacrifice defense when trying to win, and that meant getting fights to the ground. When it came to his son, the equation was completely different. A.J. was able to get instruction from his father since he was young, meaning offensive techniques became second nature. A.J.’s more crowd-pleasing style wasn’t about him choosing to throw caution to the wind. He hasn’t lost, after all. Instead, he developed the skills that allowed him to aggressively look for finishes without putting himself in fight ending danger. He was given opportunities his father wasn’t and he has fully capitalized on them.
In so doing, A.J. McKee accomplished another goal that his father wasn’t able to reach. Antonio was always at the mercy of MMA promotions. Pay wasn’t good and he didn’t have leverage to demand more. By contrast, A.J. is now in fantastic position to become a wealthy man through his fighting ability. He has the opportunity to negotiate a new contract with Scott Coker at a most opportune time. Bellator surely doesn’t want to lose a fighter who is already this good and is entering into his fighting prime.
McKee also has another tantalizing option: sit out a year due to contractual obligations and join the UFC. McKee has the résumé to call for an immediate title shot and would have compelling matchups against Alexander Volkanovski, Brian Ortega or Max Holloway. If he elects to sign with the UFC in the near term or in the longer term future, he won’t be at the mercy of the company. He can dictate very favorable terms, as much as any fighter can against a promotion that is willing to squeeze even the likes of Jon Jones. He also has the power to thumb his nose at the UFC and reject any advances they make. That, as much as anything else, has to bring a smile to his father’s face.
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