LAKEWOOD, Calif. -- AJ McKee remembers being in Southern California gyms as a kid almost every day. His father, Antonio McKee, was one of the toughest fighters on the MMA regional scene, frequently training with some of the sport's biggest stars -- names such as Tito Ortiz, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Randy Couture.
When AJ was 7 years old, Antonio headlined against Karo Parisyan at the Hollywood Palladium. Parisyan won that night, and three fights later he was in the UFC Octagon against Georges St-Pierre. AJ was 12 years old when Antonio went 4-0 in the now-defunct International Fight League, a promotion positioned as a league-based UFC rival.
At the gym, between rounds, AJ would walk over to his father and tell him, "Don't work so hard, relax a little." Antonio, an undersized welterweight, would reply, "F--- that, one more round." And then he'd go back into sparring, often against men two or three weight classes bigger.
"Who has that man not whooped up on?" AJ told ESPN. "I've seen that dude run through everybody from 'King Mo' [Muhammed Lawal] to Rampage. Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell. These are not little dudes."
After years of watching his father's success in the gym and the cage, AJ is now the family's standout athlete. He's the Bellator featherweight champion, and Friday he will defend his title against the man he beat for the gold, Patricio "Pitbull" Freire, in the main event of Bellator 277 in San Jose, California. McKee, 27, has already been ESPN's top fighter under 25 years old and is currently ranked No. 3 in the world at featherweight.
McKee's first-round submission of Pitbull, who at the time was considered the promotion's franchise, at Bellator 263 last July put him on the cusp of MMA stardom. McKee is already considered a top fighter, and with two bouts left on his Bellator contract after the Freire fight, he's set to cash in soon. To make the most of that opportunity, Antonio, now AJ's coach, wants the son to do the opposite of what the father did.
Antonio was one of the best regional-level fighters in his day, but didn't get an opportunity in the UFC until he was in his 40s and never achieved legit stardom. The reason why depends on who you ask, but most would say Antonio's wrestling-heavy, methodical style and his defiance with promoters -- including UFC president Dana White -- held him back. A few months ago, the outspoken Antonio called White "a piece of s---" in interviews and appeared in Jake Paul's music video insulting White.
Antonio wants AJ to steer away from the same path he went down.
"Be quiet, son," Antonio told ESPN, explaining his advice to AJ. "Play the game and keep doing what you're doing. If you try to go the other way with this, you're gonna destroy your career. You're gonna destroy everything, and guess what? They'll say he never was a UFC champ."
AJ, though, has a lot of his father in him. The apple doesn't fall far from the toiling cage fighter tree. And if contract talks don't go his way, AJ said, he's willing to throw it all away to make a statement.
"I might just turn into the old Antonio McKee my Dad was, but that's just me pissed off," AJ said. "Just go on a rampage. Let them know how you truly feel. I've been quiet many years. I've kept a lot of feelings and emotions to myself. But it's getting to the point where I know I cannot be stopped. The only thing you can do is slow me down. And I'm seeing that I'm being slowed down."
AJ CAME ACROSS the Bellator cage in a southpaw stance. The 5-foot-10, lengthy southpaw bounced into range, framed with his right hand and let loose a whipping left kick. Freire took it hard to the right side of the head. As Freire wobbled against the cage seconds into last July's title fight, McKee landed a punching combination to drop him. McKee lifted his arms to celebrate.
Freire, though, was not finished. He was getting up, and the fight was still on. McKee collected himself, bent down, grabbed Freire into a standing guillotine choke, and landed a knee to the body. Referee Mike Beltran saw Freire's right arm go limp due to the squeeze and stopped the fight less than 2 minutes in.
The nearly 6,000 fans at The Forum in Inglewood, California, rose to their feet. McKee had taken out the best fighter in Bellator history -- a two-division champ who had stopped current UFC lightweight Michael Chandler in one round two years earlier. That cemented McKee as a high-level featherweight. Critics will argue that he has yet to prove himself against the elite 145-pound fighters in the UFC, but "Pitbull" has long been considered top-tier, and McKee slayed him in 1:57.
"It's been the same s--- my entire career," McKee said. "And everybody is arguing. I'm at the top now and it's still 'when the competition gets better.' At this point, I think people need to wake up and realize I am the f---ing competition."
The victory moved McKee to 18-0 as a pro fighter with 13 finishes. He has spent his entire career in Bellator, and his winning streak is tops in the promotion's history. AJ has the most finishes and submission wins (seven) in the Bellator featherweight division.
By comparison, Antonio had 30 career wins, but only five came via knockout. That at least accounts for the fights that have been officially recorded. Antonio was a dominant wrestler as a fighter. But he was not a finisher, preferring to play it safe and understandably not take any undue damage to his brain. Antonio's conservative strategy and willingness to fire verbal barbs at promoters may have been why he didn't get a chance in the UFC until 2011 when he was 40 years old.
"He was more of a ground-and-pound wrestler," said Liddell, who has known Antonio since the two wrestled at their respective California high schools. "Almost like the ground and hold. Great pressure on top. Take guys down. Hard to stop getting taken down by him, hard to get him off you. It wasn't the most exciting style."
Liddell trained under Antonio for his comeback fight against Tito Ortiz back in 2018. During his camp, the former UFC light heavyweight champion got a chance to work with AJ, and he came away highly impressed.
"He's the most complete fighter I've seen as far as ... he has explosive knockout power, he has explosive, creative submissions," Liddell said. "He's good from every position. He's really tough."
Antonio recognized his shortcomings, and after AJ convinced him to let him fight, he wanted to create a more dynamic McKee, someone whose fights resulted in highlights. In Bellator, AJ has had an 8-second knockout and a neck crank submission finish from bottom that few have ever pulled off in MMA.
"My father has built me to be a better version of himself, especially in the fight game," AJ said. "He dissected his style and he was like, 'What's gonna be [my son's] style?'"
Bellator president Scott Coker said he saw an "x-factor" in AJ from the moment he met him when AJ was still in his teens. Coker sees AJ in the same vein as the fighters he and his team helped develop a decade ago in Strikeforce, names such as Ronda Rousey, Daniel Cormier, Cris Cyborg, Luke Rockhold and Tyron Woodley. All went on to become UFC champions after UFC parent company Zuffa bought Strikeforce. AJ is Bellator's biggest success story regarding a homegrown talent during the Coker era, which began in 2014.
"We're very good at star identification and star building," Coker said. "There's a certain formula that we use and I think we're really good at it. We give a fighter the opportunity to grow and shine and start creating his own pathway. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But if you look at the amount of talent that we've taken from ground zero, let's say, to becoming an MMA star, I think we've had a very good success rate."
AT THE POSTFIGHT press conference after beating Pitbull, AJ expressed his desire to move up to lightweight and challenge for that title, which Freire also held. He was hoping to make that fight happen before the close of 2021, but those plans didn't come to fruition.
Freire relinquished the lightweight title, which his brother Patricky won last November in a fight against Peter Queally. McKee has not fought in nine months since he took out the younger "Pitbull" sibling at The Forum.
McKee feels like he was put "on standby" by Bellator, like his career was delayed. He said that contract talks with the promotion have grounded to a halt. McKee said he's currently making $250,000 per fight and is expecting more in his next contract, whichever promotion that may be with. He has three fights left on his current agreement, including Saturday's Freire rematch.
"The organization, they know what I want," McKee said. "They know what I've wanted for many years, so for me it's -- how can I word this without being offensive? -- it's kind of a slap in my face, regardless. I could understand if I'm making a [million dollars] per fight again. I'll stay 145, sure."
Other things have frustrated him recently, including Bellator's efforts to make him more of a star.
"I have an upcoming fight? OK, every six [Bellator] posts [on social media], I should be one," McKee said. "You've got other people being posted. All right, cool. There are other stars, they put on great shows. They're entertaining. That's where I say mixed martial arts is more entertainment than sport at the moment. The day it becomes a sport, I feel like my talent will be more respected."
Antonio agrees with his son's sentiment. AJ very well might be the best featherweight in the world. Still, his profile isn't near former UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway, who has nearly 3 million Instagram followers compared to AJ's 110,000. AJ's name isn't as big as Alexander Volkanovski, the current UFC featherweight champion, or his last challenger, "The Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung.
"He is the best fighter in the world," Antonio said of his son. "He's brilliant to market, he's good-looking, he's dressed nice, he's clean, he's sharp. He's educated, he's articulate. He understands business. Why is he not the biggest fighter known right now? Why is no one talking about AJ McKee? Did his name need to be Gracie? Did his name need to be Couture?"
But Antonio doesn't want AJ to talk about any of these things. He'd prefer AJ stay out of the fray, keep his head down and focus on training.
"Sabotaging his career is speaking against what's wrong," Antonio said. "Just be quiet. I told him, 'Be quiet, play the game.' Don't be like me. Play the game. Play the game, get that check. Isn't that what most men of color have to do?"
Coker said he has heard the critiques from the McKees and he and his team at Bellator appreciate and respect the family. He said Bellator and AJ's team -- top talent agency Creative Artists Agency represents him -- would re-enter into contract negotiations after the fight this weekend. Coker is confident that AJ will return to Bellator and insinuated that promotion parent company Viacom might have some perks to dangle, including opportunities in Hollywood.
"You're gonna see him on TV at some point, as far as being on a show," Coker said. "I think he's gonna have that kind of appeal. ... I think he's gonna end up on television somewhere."
Coker added that he does not believe McKee or anyone else has to go to the UFC to prove themselves as a star in MMA, inside or outside the cage.
"We sold Strikeforce to the UFC and our fighters went over there and kicked all their asses," Coker said. "That's my point. This happened in Strikeforce, too. It's just propaganda from their side."
Despite the gripes, McKee said he would like to stay with Bellator because of the opportunities for endorsements that might not exist in other places. The UFC does not let fighters wear the logos of their sponsors in the cage or during fight week as Bellator does. McKee wants blue-chip partnerships with brands likeSnickers, Rolex and Porsche. He also wants to be the first MMA fighter to make $100 million for one fight. His nickname isn't "The Mercenary" for no reason.
These are lofty goals, but no one has more confidence in McKee than AJ himself. Except for maybe Antonio. He believes his son will be a UFC champion one day, even if it's not on the next contract. He never wanted AJ to fight, calling it "the reality that I didn't want to live with." But now that it's happening, you'd best believe Antonio will do everything in his power to make his son a success -- a bigger star than Antonio himself ever had a chance to be.
"This is my revenge, my redemption for the way the sport did me," Antonio said. "My son is 18-0 and no one can take that away."
Only AJ himself, depending on his next moves.
Sometimes AJ thinks back to those days when he was a kid at the gym with his father. He said it took him until 2019 to legitimately get the better of Antonio in training. As much as his dad wants him to shut up and fight, AJ plans to speak his mind and still become one of MMA's most prominent and wealthiest stars.
It's the family business. Antonio built his son into a better version of himself. That means the complete McKee package and everything that comes with it.
"Everybody knows Antonio McKee and they know how Antonio McKee was," AJ said. "They see he's calmed down. But you're talking about his son, his son's future and the generations to come of the fighting McKees. I'm a second-generation fighter. There aren't many of us around."