MMA
Greg Rosenstein, ESPN Staff Writer 97d

Father-son bond pushing A.J. McKee to Bellator stardom

MMA

This story has been updated ahead of A.J. McKee's Bellator 187 fight with Brian Moore.

When A.J. McKee landed a perfectly timed head kick to Dominic Mazzotta last April -- a strike as beautiful as it was violent -- the 22-year-old fighter sent the MMA community into a frenzy. It was a top play that night on SportsCenter. Thousands of fans watched (and rewatched) his finishing move at Bellator 178 on phones, tablets and television screens with their jaws dropped.

But not Antonio McKee.

"That was what we planned on," A.J.'s father and longtime coach says. "So for me, it was 'What's next?'"

The notion of not feeling content and immediately looking toward the future is a hallmark of the McKee family. Prepare, win and move forward. Antonio, now 44, consistently did this throughout his 15-year pro MMA career, where he compiled a record of 29-6. His son will look to continue that legacy on Nov. 10 against Brian Moore at Bellator 187.

It's a matchup he's expected to win -- as he has done his entire professional career thus far. A.J. is undefeated through nine contests, and only three have gone the distance. His 73-inch reach and speed have been major problems for opponents as evidenced by the variety of ways he has won: first- or second-round finishes by head kick, knees, punches, rear-naked choke and guillotine choke.

His father defeated a majority of his opponents by decision, electing to utilize his superior wrestling skills because "there's not enough money for me to stand up and tear my body up like that."

A.J., though, understands that MMA is more than just winning -- it's how you win.

"If you make the people happy, you'll make the organization happy," he says. "I'm not trying to give them submissions. I'm trying to give them a knockout -- a show -- and the people what they want. Nobody wants to see jiu-jitsu. I'd rather throw elbows and pop their faces open like that."

Both men exude extreme confidence with every word spoken. Yet it wasn't always like this. A.J. and Antonio experienced tough periods early in their lives -- and needed each other to get out.


"A place in my life where it was complete darkness"

There's no way around it -- Antonio's childhood was difficult. Growing up, he didn't know his father, and his mother was an exotic dancer who battled a drug addiction. With little parental guidance, he often found himself hanging with the wrong crowd. Fighting became an everyday means of survival in Nashville; he lived in and out of drug houses and eventually was sent to an all-boys school with hopes of altering the violent path he was on. Except rather than changing, it intensified.

Antonio moved with his mother to Long Beach, California, at age 12, but there was no change in the crowd he associated with. He got into fights so often that the state of California asked for permission to put him in a mental hospital. But his mother refused. Once in high school at Long Beach Poly, he took up wrestling -- because "it was the most like fighting" -- and thrived. Antonio won two state titles and then took his talents to Cerritos College in nearby Norwalk, California, where he became an All-American. However, despite his athletic success, his friends outside of the sport were all drug dealers or in gangs.

He couldn't leave the streets because it was all he knew.

"I've seen it all. Every week, friends of mine were getting killed or got life in jail for murder," Antonio says. "I hung out in areas where drive-by shootings would happen every other day. I've done some things I'm not proud of, but that was a stage and a place in my life where it was complete darkness."

After college, he started his own stereo business primarily from items off the street that deep down he knew were stolen. But he had to provide for his family, particularly with a child on the way. At age 25 he had A.J., and they moved into the garage behind his company's office.

"I remember bathing him in a crock pot," Antonio says. "And he used to sleep on my chest because body heat keeps me warm. So I would put him on my chest and wrap him up in a blanket, and he would fall asleep on my chest."

Antonio's association with the wrong crowd continued early in A.J.'s life but changed when his child was 3 years old. He was set to meet with friends to be part of a robbery, but A.J. screamed "Don't go! Don't go!" He eventually listened to his son. That night, two of the three friends were shot to death, and the last was caught by police and eventually sent to prison for life.

A.J. saved his father's life that night and continued to do so as he grew older.

"That's when I started changing," Antonio says. "I had to make ends meet or I would have to get back into the streets again and hustle. I didn't want that, because I had this little boy who needed me to be a dad."

He started training future MMA stars like Dan Henderson and Rampage Jackson ahead of their fights. Then, realizing he could leverage his wrestling experience, he embarked upon a 15-year career himself.

When A.J., as a teenager, expressed an interest in following in his footsteps, Antonio realized he was the best person to provide his son proper training -- and to set him on the right path. Antonio spent any money he had on getting A.J. into good private schools and worked with him on the side at a gym he ended up owning. At his father's alma mater, Long Beach Poly, A.J. became one of California's top wrestlers and eventually went on to Notre Dame (Ohio).

Similar to Antonio, A.J. didn't care much for school. Instead of focusing on progressing as a student-athlete, most of his time was spent partying. His father -- recognizing where things were headed -- told him to leave school and come back to California. He followed his father again to Cerritos College and dominated the competition. He also decided he was done with classes and needed to fight full-time. The only option was the BodyShop Fitness gym -- coached by Antonio.


"He will be a devastating fighter"

Growing up, A.J. saw his dad train alongside MMA legends Rampage Jackson, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and others. Their work ethic was ingrained in him from a young age, but it wasn't until recently in his pro career that his mental focus was sharpened. He relied on his natural abilities to get by opponents and continued to party and smoke weed.

Three fights into his Bellator career was the turning point, he says. A.J. defeated J.T. Donaldson with vicious knees but also suffered an injury in the process. Midway through the first round of that December 2015 fight, he had an accidental head butt split open his eyebrow in two places. He was forced to get 20 total stitches.

"That was literally an eye opener to me that I needed to get my stuff together," A.J. says. "'You're ahead of the game but not doing what you're supposed to. You're not letting everything fall into place. You're not making sacrifices now for later.'"

Since then, A.J. has slowly but surely limited his extracurricular activities, winning six consecutive. He says he has not smoked marijuana since last New Year's and has no intention of doing so again. At just 22 years old, he understands it's not too late to fulfill the promise many see in him.

His father vows to make sure of it.

"I'm a straightforward guy. I speak the truth," Antonio says. "I told him, 'You're smoking dope and don't take your career seriously.' We got him off that s--- and now you're seeing it. He will be a devastating fighter. This is just the beginning."

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