When a loud horn signaled the end of the first round during A.J. McKee's fight against Cody Walker at Bellator 160 last August, many fans were disappointed. It was the first time the 22-year-old hadn't beat a professional opponent in less than five minutes.
He wasn't happy, either. "I'm kind of upset I couldn't get the first-round finish," McKee said during his post-fight interview at the Honda Center. The undefeated Long Beach native needed only 32 seconds in Round 2 to lock a modified guillotine choke around Walker to secure the fifth victory of his career. "Next time, I won't be out partying the night before."
Since then, the 145-pound featherweight has won two more fights in the world's largest MMA promotion outside of the UFC, solidifying his status as one of the best young fighters in his weight class. Yet McKee is still disappointed by his most recent victories: both have been by unanimous decision instead of knockouts or submissions.
"I've been slacking a bit, and it shows" McKee says, after an intense morning training session. "After my first five fights, I was starting to get bored. I started slipping away and getting a little big-headed because I was just in the gym every day and fighting every three months. Now I'm focused and fired up. I'm ready to get back on track with those knockouts."
At Long Beach's Panvimarn Thai Cuisine, a regular post-training lunch spot, he's dressed in an all-gray sweat suit to cover up any evidence of a workout. McKee politely asks the host for a table, a far different young man than the one who was loudly laughing and talking trash with his teammates less than an hour ago. But whether polite or brash, under the Fight Night spotlights or not, McKee is the center of any room he enters, radiating an energy that makes him impossible to ignore.
McKee represents a new generation of MMA fighter—someone who not only grew up in the sport, but who also has it in his DNA. His father, Antonio, is a former Maximum Fighting Championship lightweight champion, UFC veteran and decorated amateur wrestler who amassed a 29-6-2 record since beginning his career in 1999 (although he hasn't fought since a 2014 victory at age 44, a time when most fighters can't remember if they brushed their teeth in the morning). Pops trained alongside Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and other legends, bringing his son along almost from the start. He now runs Team Bodyshop, a Lakewood-based MMA squad that counts A.J. as its star project.
But describing the younger McKee as Junior following his dad's unfulfilled dreams is a disservice to their relationship. Antonio is also his namesake's best friend, roommate, coach, manager, mentor, go-fer and more. Their loud friend-like banter can catch strangers a bit off-guard in the middle of a Thai restaurant. "We just have a good relationship, and I don't understand why more fathers can't have fun with their sons," Antonio says. "I don't see too many fathers who have the relationship that we have. He's making a shitload of money, and he's still living with me. I'm keeping everything together because it's just us as a family."
"Sometimes I don't even think about him as my dad," A.J. adds. "We joke around like best friends. We'll go to the store, and people won't believe he's my dad, so I tell them I'm his dad. We have a friendship and a connection that most people don't."
The two differ in one aspect, though. Antonio had a grinding wrestling style that earned him a long, respectable career, but little else; A.J. is all pizzazz, whether it's a spinning kick to the head or a powerful takedown leading to a vicious choke worthy of his nickname, "Mercenary." He still has occasional weak spots that only experience and cage time can fill, such as the handful of right hands he ate in his most recent match. But his dad is already certain that only A.J. himself can stand in the way of becoming Southern California's next MMA star.
"That kid's a freak of fucking nature, and within a year, nobody's going to be able to touch him," Antonio says. "The only challenge for him is weed. He was smoking weed all the time, and I told him if he continued to smoke that shit, that I was out. He can do whatever he wants to when he's done, but you can't be doing that in this sport. He'd go out and win a fight after he was smoking weed, but I told him that's going to catch up to him eventually because hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."
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When Antonio McKee Jr. was born in Long Beach on April 7, 1995, Antonio Sr. felt he finally found meaning in the world. He had lived a rough life—molested as a child, jail stints, homelessness—but now he was committed to becoming the father and role model he never had. "Things started out crazy because my life was crazy," McKee says of his beginnings as a single father. "When he was a baby, I lived in a garage because I couldn't afford an apartment. I bathed him in a crockpot, and he'd sleep on my chest. He changed my life and took me out of the streets. He gave me a reason to want to live. I didn't give a shit about living until he came along, but then when he was born, it was like he was a spirit talking to me, and I started changing."
Antonio did his best to get his own life together while protecting his son from the harsh realities of the world he knew. Their salvation was MMA. With his strength, technique and work ethic, Antonio had been a champion wrestler at Long Beach Poly and Cerritos College in the 1980s, but after college, without an outlet for grapplers, he went back to brawling in the streets. The birth of his son just happened to coincide with the rise of MMA.
Initially, Antonio only wanted his son to follow in his wrestling footsteps, but A.J. wanted more. "I put him in wrestling, and he did it, but you could tell that it wasn't what he was about," Antonio says. "I'd had these visions of him fighting and us training together. When he said that's what he wanted to do, I started waking his ass up by choking him and putting him in armbars and just wrestling with him. He just had a knack for fighting."
He went pro when A.J. was 4, training in garages with his toughest and scariest friends from the street before switching to actual gyms, where he got jobs teaching fighters how to wrestle. The younger McKee tagged along, observing and listening, picking up whatever he could.
That lifestyle led A.J. to repeat the championship path his father forged at Poly and Cerritos College, with a year-long foray at Notre Dame College of Ohio and an eight-fight amateur MMA career—his only amateur loss came by a flash knockout. Meanwhile, Antonio built a reputation as a steady, if unspectacular, MMA fighter and for controversial comments, often believing that promotions had it out for him because of his style or race. But he knew his limits—after a sole UFC appearance (a loss), Antonio shifted his focus to A.J.'s career.
Part of that was opening Bodyshop Fitness in 2000. While the small shopping-center space looks as if it could turn into a Chipotle or Panda Express within a week's notice, Bodyshop earned immediate fame once Rampage Jackson began training there. A young A.J. soaked up the knowledge imparted by dozens of fighters, but as he got older, fighters began flocking around Bodyshop not only for Antonio's smart coaching, but also for A.J.'s ebullient ways. "A.J.'s one of my best friends, and he's like the brother to me that I never had," says Anthony "PrettyBoy" Taylor, one of McKee's teammates and another Bellator featherweight. "He's so unbelievably goofy that he can come off as kind of a weirdo sometimes, but he's funny, and he's all about having fun. He has that energy that attracts other people, and it makes everyone want to be around him. He's willing to go above and beyond the normal amount when it comes to helping others out, even if he doesn't know you."
Taylor says the relationship between the McKee men offers a family model for many of Bodyshop's fighters: Taylor grew up without a dad, and Bellator welterweight Kevin "Baby Slice" Ferguson Jr. is the son of late fighting legend Kimbo Slice. "Certain things that I do, I do because I've been doing them for so long that I can just tap into them," Ferguson says. "It's the same thing with A.J. It's easy for him sometimes, and he doesn't have to think about it as much. Just growing up around it and watching it all, even if you're not training, you still have the knowledge of everything. That's the advantage we have over the other guys."
* * * * *
A handful of Bodyshop members are gathered around the gym's small front desk watching Taylor's most recent fight, a third-round submission loss to undefeated 20-year-old Irish featherweight prospect (and McKee's biggest rival) James Gallagher at Bellator 169. Most notably, the bout ignited furious words in interviews and social media between Gallagher and McKee, which began after the Irishman claimed McKee betrayed Taylor before the fight (A.J. had traveled to Ireland to help coach Taylor).
The flame war devolved from there. After Gallagher won his most recent match in February, he told an interviewer on live television, "A.J. McKee, you're a fucking pussy, and you're next . . . London, the 19th of May. I will strangle you. You came here bitching out on your teammate. You come here, and I'll show you who's fucking real."
McKee responded on Instagram: "#signthecontract so I can get away with legally murdering you in that cage, little man."
With prospects such as A.J., Taylor, Ferguson and undefeated NCAA wrestling star-turned-MMA fighter Joey Davis, someone at Bodyshop is almost always only weeks out from a high-profile match. Training starts every morning at 11 with jumping rope, as team members loosen their limbs and crack jokes at one another. After that, everyone pairs off to work on drills under the coach's watchful eye. Today, it's three-hit combos that end in a spinning back kick.
"Move around like you're in a fight!" Antonio directs over a stereo as he walks around the mat, J. Cole's "A Tale of 2 Cities" playing on the stereo. "Boom! Boom! Boom! You're not just going to be standing there in a fight. Move!"
In a flowing long-sleeved gray shirt and blue tights, the 5-foot-10 A.J. looks as if he's giving up 20 or more pounds to many of his training partners. But what the coach's son lacks in mass, he makes up for in grace. When each fighter is told to pick their favorite kick and launch it 100 times, most of the group chooses basic leg kicks or straightforward side kicks; A.J. goes for a complex spinning back kick. He whips his body around like a combative ballerina and ends each strike with the loud pop of a clean connection on his partner's training pad. As polite as A.J. is off the mat, the Mercenary takes over once the adrenaline starts flowing.
"It's just as much about entertainment as it is about fighting at this point," McKee says. "That entertainment is what draws the people in, and it's what America is built on. When I fight, I love throwing entertaining flashy stuff. I like to spin; I like to flip. I like to be different and unique. In my seven fights, I feel like I have more highlights than other people have in their entire careers."
An old-school boxing bell marks the end of drills and the beginning of the day's sparring session. As Team Bodyshop takes a quick breather and a sip of water in preparation for their rounds against one another, a sweat-coated A.J. is more energetic than any of his training partners. "The best part about [A.J.] is his dedication to hard work," says Tracy Hess, A.J.'s primary coach other than his father. "Most people with his athletic ability don't have the work ethic to match. He's the first person at the gym and the last one to leave. He hasn't even gotten his man-strength yet and is already 7-0 on one of the biggest stages in the industry. Even as a 5-year-old in wrestling tournaments or simply sparring in the gym, he never settles for less than first place."
MMA analysts see a younger, smaller, potentially more dangerous version of former UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones. And although Bellator president Scott Coker sees plenty of talented young fighters—he has reinvigorated the promotion by bringing in big-name veterans and bright prospects since taking over in June 2014—the veteran industry executive is rather keen on A.J.
He's "an incredibly talented and exciting mixed martial artist," Coker says. "He's got the style and charisma to match his fighting skills, and he's proven that already at the age of 21—only seven fights into his young career. We have many of the best featherweights in the world fighting for Bellator, and A.J. has left no doubt in my mind that he belongs in that group."
* * * * *
"Can I train tonight and have tomorrow off instead?" A.J. asks his father as he loads his training bag into the family's white minivan to head to lunch. He already knows he probably won't like the answer. "I'm trying to go paintballing tomorrow.
"The toughest thing is just sacrificing all of those normal college parties, kicking it with your boys and being a normal [twentysomething]," the younger McKee says later. "I literally wake up, go to the gym, go home, eat, take a nap and go back to the gym. It's all I do. It's a lifestyle for me."
On the way to lunch, Antonio receives an update on A.J.'s potential next opponent at Bellator 178, scheduled for April 21. Another fighter pulled out with an "injury" as soon as A.J. agreed to the match, a trend that has happened too much for A.J.'s liking. Although the matchup he really wants is with Gallagher, the McKees believe Bellator wants to build up each undefeated prospect separately before having them battle over a championship belt.
Once the McKees are seated at a table on the second floor of Panvimarn, the young fighter searches YouTube for his proposed opponent's latest fight. His teriyaki salmon, pineapple fried rice and coconut chicken soup wait while he watches the entire Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt's most recent loss. Neither he nor his father is impressed. "He probably saw the last couple of fights and thought this would be an easy win," Antonio says. "That's what I would think. He's going to get in there and realize he's dealing with a completely different fighter."
Days later, Bellator officials tell A.J. that the fighter he watched at lunch won't be his next opponent—and neither will Gallagher. Instead, he'll fight Pennsylvania-based Dominic "The Honey Badger" Mazzotta this Saturday at the Mohegan Sun Arena. The 29-year-old with an 11-1 record figures to be another good test for A.J.'s grappling ahead of a potential showdown with his Irish nemesis.
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But A.J. is focusing on a larger goal. "Jon Jones is the youngest champ in history at 23, but I'm only 21, so I want to be the youngest champion," he says. "In the long term, I want to be the [Floyd] Mayweather of MMA. If I'm not making that Mayweather money, then I'll walk away.
"It's not something I'm going to risk my body for because you only have one body and one life," he continues. "I'm not trying to be 60 years old in a wheelchair. One day, I'm going to have to explain to my kids that I made $3,000 for a fight and got my face split wide open, but I'm not going to do that forever. You have to know your worth, and as long as you have that undefeated record, you can tell them your worth."
There's one other aspiration: fighting on the same card as his Pops.
"There's only been one other professional athlete to do that [father and son in the same pro match], and that was in baseball [Ken Griffey Jr. and Sr. for the Seattle Mariners in 1990]," A.J. says. "Being in such a physical contact sport, I think it's phenomenal that he's at his age and can still compete. I thought he never got the respect he deserved because people didn't like his style of fighting, so now it's my job to come out and make sure our last name gets that respect."