The Beaten Path: MMA Prospect A.J. McKee Learned the Ropes from Fighter Father

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterDecember 3, 2015


"Why is pain your friend?"

A.J. McKee doesn't mind his father's catchphrases. He doesn't even seem that eager to get away. He might even...does he...does he like it?

That alone might be enough to distinguish A.J. from most 20-year-olds. It probably helps his father's case that they're both in the same line of work and that the father had some real success there.

Hardcore MMA fans probably remember A.J.'s father, Antonio McKee, from his 15-year career as a pro fighter. During that time, Antonio went 29-6 in a variety of promotions, including—briefly—the UFC, before finally retiring in 2014 at age 44.

Now, despite the elder McKee's warnings against it, A.J. is a fighter himself. He's new on the scene with just a 2-0 record, but a good showing on the amateur circuit and perhaps a little help from that family name have launched him into the Bellator promotion. So far, he's returning the early investment, having earned one win by choke and one by (seriously) chokeslam. Neither opponent was distinguished, but to McKee's credit, he treated both as such, notching first-round finishes each time.

The featherweight will try to make it 3-of-3 Friday when he fights John Donaldson on the Bellator 147 prelims.

"Unorthodox and all over the place," A.J. said when asked to explain his style. "I'm going to put on a show. I call the arena my playpen. I love what I do."

A.J. trains under his father's tutelage at BodyShop Fitness Team in Lakewood, California, just a stone's throw from Long Beach, where he was born and raised. They live an austere life, with A.J. trading the usual diversions of the 20-year-old for a studio apartment he shares with his father and sister.

Even close relationships have had to suffer. A.J. talks to his mother, Michelle George, who lives in nearby Temecula, "all the time," he says, but doesn't see her much these days because of his training schedule. (George and Antonio never married and split shortly after A.J.'s birth.)

That sort of thing builds solidarity, of course, especially when the cornerstone of your life is your dad. You can hear the smile in A.J.'s voice as he talks about fighting and his father and, intentionally or otherwise, evokes the famous coming-of-age story of the sport's most famous figure.

"My dad," A.J. said, "literally wakes me up in chokeholds and armbars."

In fact, the upbringings of A.J. and Ronda Rousey are not far off. Both grew up immersed in fighting. But while Rousey's was a judo household, A.J.'s world was a little rawer. While a student at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, he joined the wrestling team but fought as often in bathrooms as he did on the mats. 

"Definitely a lot of bad paths in Long Beach," he said. "That's where you have to make a choice."

After high school came Notre Dame College of Ohio, where he shared a wrestling room with three-time Division II national champ Joey Davis. It didn't pan out. A stint at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California, sealed A.J.'s conclusion that "college was not for me."

While perhaps a temporary disappointment, it freed him up to join the school he might have cared most about all along: the one at BodyShop Fitness, administered by Principal Antonio McKee.

"My father is a first-generation fighter, so he was a mentor to a lot of guys: Rampage Jackson, Chuck Liddell. Just being around them and watching them was great," he said. "I was eight years old, and I'd be in the gym hitting the bags right there with them."

A.J. has some cool stories about the old days, one of which involved Jackson and a young Emanuel Newton, two light heavyweights training at BodyShop. At the time, Newton was eight years away from the Bellator Light Heavyweight Championship, while Jackson was at the peak of his powers in the UFC.

"I remember he and Emanuel Newton got in a scuffle," A.J. said. "Rampage lifted Newton in the air and screamed out, 'Don’t make me mad!' His head almost touched the ceiling, and then Rampage power-bombed him."

Old photo but with the great @Rampage4real pic.twitter.com/FkULWuyxJr

— AJ McKee Junior (@AJMcKeeJr) July 2, 2015

There were plenty of serious lessons from the elder McKee, a lightweight whose prime came and went before the UFC took off but whose career still allowed him to travel the world and face prominent fighters such as Shinya Aoki, Karo Parisyan and Carlo Prater.

A lot of those lessons were technical. Some were seminars on the strange and mercurial business that is MMA. 

"My dad never wanted me to fight," A.J. said. "He'd tell me, 'It's not set up for you to make it.' But it's evolving."

Antonio was often pegged as a boring fighter (21 of his 29 wins came by decision). If A.J.'s record to date is any indication, after accepting A.J.'s career choice, Antonio helped his son avoid the conservative path.

So far, three Bellator fights for A.J., three fights on the undercard, which is available only online. Will a win finally land him in front of a wider viewing audience?

"I hope so," A.J. said. "I get it: You can't just throw someone on TV and have a following. This is another steppingstone. ... I don't know what to expect [of an opponent]. So that makes me train harder. He knows me, though, and that puts fear in me."

He misses out on all those 20-year-old Long Beach things. It's a sacrifice, and A.J. admits it can be painful. But it's just another one of his father's many teaching moments. As Antonio says, pain is your friend. And why is that, anyway?

"Because it lets you know you're still alive."

The Beaten Path is Bleacher Report's series on top MMA prospects. For the previous interview in the series, click here. Scott Harris covers MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand.