When compared to fighters like Wanderlei Silva and Chuck Liddell, you wouldn’t be out of place if you called Antonio McKee a pacifist. Oddly enough, he might agree with you, as he gives you little reason to suspect otherwise, both in his words and actions.
A married father of three, McKee – who makes his UFC debut this Saturday night against Jacob “Christmas” Volkmann – boasts 18 decision wins on his 25-3-2 record, and it’s a statistic he doesn’t shy away from. For him, mixed martial arts isn’t about hurting his opponents; it’s about winning, and if he can do so without inflicting harm on his foes, all the better.
“You know what – it’s not exciting to watch,” he says, referring to his fighting style. “You know why? Because I dominate. It’s like GSP (Georges St-Pierre) – he dominates. There’s just no way to be exciting when you win the same way over and over. People complained about Mike Tyson knocking people out. I guess if you’re in business you have to deal with the people, the mass media, and how they see things. But as far as me, man, I’m just out here trying to do it, have some fun and keep everybody happy. I’m a smart fighter. You put me in a street fight and I’ll street fight. But if I can outwrestle you and outslick you and out technique you, you’d best believe that’s what I’m gonna use.”
It’s worked for him over the last 11 years, and when you win 25 of 30 pro bouts, you must be doing something right. So why has it taken so long to see the Dayton, Ohio native gracing the Octagon?
“They had to soften me up a little bit,” he chuckles. “I was too hard in the beginning. I’m like a glass of wine; I get better with age. And I think it’s quite apparent - the things that I’ve been saying and how outspoken I’ve been - it’s realistic, it’s what’s really going on. If you say you’re the best, and you have the best fighters in the world, then you need McKee there because McKee is the best 155 pounder in the world. And a lot of people want to see it - they want me to shut up and get out of there or they want me to get what’s due and the titles to come.”
But in an ironic twist, it was the other side of Antonio McKee that finally got him his call to the big show. Since August of 2003, the only blemish on McKee’s record was a draw against Akbarh Arreola in a 2004 bout in Mexico, and through 2009, he had won nine in a row, including victories over Ronald Jhun, Mike Dolce, Derrick Noble, and Carlo Prater. As 2010 dawned, he knew the only think keeping him from the UFC was a display of his finishing skills. In March he submitted Rodrigo Ruiz via kimura. Then came a September bout against Luciano Azevedo. The pre-fight buildup became heated on both sides, with McKee declaring that he would retire if he didn’t finish his foe.
He lived up to his vow to finish, halting Azevedo with a brutal ground and pound attack in the first round. The pacifist had left the building.
“We had a personal beef,” explains McKee. “He called me old, senile, senior citizen, and when you piss me off, now you’re dealing with a different element. I don’t care what man is on this planet, if I can touch him, he will have a problem if we are going at it like that. I’m very quiet, I’m very passionate about what I do, I don’t go around boasting and bragging about what I do, and I’m really a pretty mellow guy to those who know me. Now if you cross my path and want to bring me some problems, you’d better be ready to deal with it. I ain’t trying to be Billy Badass, but I’ve been through wars, man. I’ve been shot at, I’ve been stabbed, I’ve seen it already, so what are you gonna bring to me? I hope you’re ready for what I’m gonna bring back, and that’s what Azevedo did – he brought a war. That man said some mean s**t about me, and for him to be a fighter, I thought he had no respect so I had to teach him a lesson – I had to punish him, and that’s what I did. And I’d do it a thousand times again if I had to, just to show him discipline.”
This paradox makes McKee one of the most fascinating figures in the fight game today, and whether you care for his style or not, his personality will compel you to watch him and listen to him. And it’s easy to respect where he’s coming from, because he comes from a background where violence surrounded him every day. Now, as a settled and well-adjusted adult, he’s not looking to return to that environment or mindset.
“I used to collect money for bad people,” he explains. “But I didn’t realize they were bad people because I was caught up in the mix of that bad. I was raised in that. No excuse now, but it was an excuse back then because I didn’t have the mentor that I am to these other kids that are out there who are exposed to that now. The UFC should be pushing for me to be the champion. Why? Because Antonio McKee is truly a champion. Not just in the ring, but outside. Do you hear any stories about me spitting on somebody or running somebody off the road or using steroids or drugs? No, what you hear about McKee is that he’s talking smack. That’s it. But what do you see McKee doing? McKee is out here in the streets, he’s really putting down some stuff for these at-risk kids. He feeds the community, he goes to the neighborhoods and has a non-profit program – this is what you want as a champion in America, you would think. I may be wrong, but I’m the people’s champion.”
The 40-year old isn’t afraid to put his money where his mouth is either. In addition to his fighting career and the gym he owns (Bodyshop Fitness), he’s the founder of a non-profit organization named Fight for Kids, a varsity wrestling coach at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, and the Warriors Challenge Tournament Director. He’s hands on in all aspects of his life, and has made a complete 180 degree turn from where he was growing up.
“I lacked discipline, I lacked home training, I lacked stability, and as I got older and realized what I was lacking, I was able to make those adjustments,” he said. “And once I made those adjustments, everything fell into place.”
“20 years ago, you might want to lock your doors if you just heard I was in the neighborhood. That guy doesn’t exist anymore.”
The turning point was a simple, yet profound one.
“When that baby came out and said ‘daddy,’” said McKee, referring to the birth of his son AJ. “And I didn’t have that myself to understand it, but I said ‘wait a minute, this feels so good. This little man is saying ‘daddy.’ Are you serious? I’m a father.’ It stuck to me. McKee turned in his street credits and decided that he was gonna do the right thing.”
He hasn’t turned back, and with the help of wrestling (he was a two-time California Community College state wrestling champion), mixed martial arts, family, and his work in the community, he’s made it to this point in his life. But back to Azevedo and the fight that unleashed the beast in McKee. What was the aftermath like for someone who had to reconcile his feelings about hurting his opponents with the bloody finish of his last fight?
“I went back there, I embraced him (Azevedo), I went to church, I prayed, I prayed for him to heal and that his career prospers,” he said. “There’s a certain level of respect that I’m gonna demand, I don’t care who you are. I always respect those who respect me and I will have nothing but respect for them. But when you come in here talking a big talk, you better be ready to walk that talk, because I’m gonna bring it.”
Which brings us to Saturday night and McKee’s first UFC bout against former Division I wrestler Volkmann. It’s an interesting clash that will open up UFC 125 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
“I don’t talk smack about ‘Christmas,’” said McKee. “I think he’s an awesome guy, I think he’s a great fighter, but damn, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s the way I see this.”
So which Antonio McKee is showing up this weekend?
“I pray and I ask God to give me some more submissions because I’m tired of laying in people’s faces,” he said. “That’s just not what I want out of this sport. But if that don’t get me paid and take care of my family before I’ve got to hit the streets again, you’d best believe people’s faces are gonna get busted up. And I’m gonna hold their hands after the fight, apologize, and I’m gonna offer them to go to church with me.”
“I use this phrase,” he continues, explaining his philosophy on fighting. “So you love the fight, right? How would you love it if it was your son out there getting beat up or knocked out? How would you feel if it was your cousin or someone you could relate to? All of a sudden, you don’t like the sport because it’s someone you love. I love people so I don’t like it when I see people getting hurt like that. I have a very passionate view on the sport and on the guys that are fighting. I’ve worked with a lot of the guys who are in the UFC, I’ve helped these guys, and now it’s my time. I sacrificed a lot to get where I’m at, I’m there now, and let’s see how this plays out. I’m real curious to see how it plays out and if these guys are really good enough to beat me or if I’m as good as I think I am. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
It is still a hurt business though. So why do it?
“I do it because I’m good at it,” said McKee. “I don’t get knocked out, I don’t get hit, I don’t get beat up. And that’s why I do it. And the day I’m getting knocked out five or six times, I’m done. There’s no need for me to do this anymore.”
In 30 professional fights, McKee has been knocked out once, submitted once, and decisioned once. Take away two draws, and he has won every other fight he has engaged in. At 40, he’s in better shape than most people ten years younger, and with an 11 fight winning streak under his belt, he may be in the midst of a Randy Couture-esque prime.
Now it’s time to show the UFC what Antonio McKee is all about.
“I represent the truth and I’m coming,” he said. “All y’all can run and hide, but I’ve got the 155-pound division shook up. They’re worried. Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard, all these guys, they know who I am. As much as I love Volkmann, this is the year that I won’t be celebrating “Christmas.” I think I’m gonna be the Grinch that beat up “Christmas”. I’ve studied him, he’s a great guy, but I’ve got to show the UFC who Antonio McKee is and what I’m about. This is business.”
The World According to Antonio McKee
“I represent the truth and I’m coming. All y’all can run and hide, but I’ve got the 155-pound division shook up. They’re worried."
Saturday, December 3
Las Vegas, Nevada