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Antonio and A.J. McKee are more than just father and son. The fast-talking fight tandem are best friends who’ll always have the other’s back—even while occasionally getting under each other’s skin.
The two should have plenty to talk about when they make MMA history Saturday at Bellator 228 on September 28. But when trying to dig into the workout details of L.A.’s first family of mixed martial arts, both Antonio and A.J. become as closed-mouthed as Bill Belichick at a press conference. And with good reason. Whatever it is that goes on inside Team Bodyshop, it’s obviously working.
“I can’t tell you because if I tell you that then other gyms are going to copy,” boasts Antonio (29-6-2), who at age 49 will step into the cage for the first time since 2014 when he faces William Sriyapai (13-8) in a 165-pound catchweight match on the Bellator 228 undercard at L.A.’s Forum. “That’s why you don’t see any training videos on my page. All you see is victory, victory, victory.”
After his bout, Antonio heads to the corner of son A.J., who’ll take on journeyman Georgi Karakhanyan (28-9) in the first round of Bellator’s Featherweight Grand Prix, a 16-fighter contest in which the winner will take home a $1 million paycheck as well as the Bellator featherweight title.
The pair will become the first father-and-son MMA fighters to be on the same fight card in the United States. (In November, Israeli fighters Haim Gozali and son Aviv will both compete at Bellator 234 in Tel Aviv.)
Antonio calls Saturday’s historic family affair “a father-son takeover” of Bellator. Then, like a proud father, he quickly gushes about A.J.’s potential takeover of the featherweight division.
“All I want to do now is just show everybody how good A.J. is,” says Antonio, “And I want A.J. to just dominate. This kid has been trained to be a f—ing beast. He’s going to be a true legend of this sport. I’ve been telling Bellator since Day 1. If you guys don’t pay attention to what you have, you’re going to lose it.”
Part of Saturday’s featherweight Grand Prix includes main event “Pitbull” Patricio Freire vs. Juan Archuleta (23-1) as well as Darrion Caldwell (13-3) vs. Henry Corrales (17-3), Daniel Weichel (39-11) vs. Saul Rogers (13-2). Derek Campos, Adam Borics, Pedro Carvalho, and Emmanuel Sanchez advanced to the second round following their victories at Bellator 226.
But all eyes this weekend will be on A.J. (14-0), the 24-year-old unbeaten phenom who has so far run roughshod over his Bellator opponents, including last May’s methodical dismantling of two-time champion Pat Curran. Dreams of hoisting a belt and cashing a big check have gone hand-in-hand since the age of 12 when he took a family check and casually wrote it out for a cool million dollars. Now, A.J. is four wins away from both the belt and payday. “It’s about time to cash that check,” he says.
Adding to the bucket list moment is sharing the billing with his father, a former MMA contender whose career spanned from 2009 to 2014 with stops in the UFC, King of The Cage, K1, and now Bellator. A.J. seems more nervous about his father’s in-ring return, even with Karakhanyan standing in his way of the featherweight title.
“It’s just kind of surreal that it’s happening, you know,” A.J. says. “I kind of know what Georgi’s going to do. He’s a brawler, he’s going to come at me and go wild. I’m not really too worried about him…I think I’m going to get Bellator’s fastest knockout. I’m going to be more worried about my dad’s fight than my fight.”
But listening to Antonio, who in 2009 held a lightweight title in the Maximum Fighting Championship league, his son doesn’t have much to worry about.
“I’m going to pick [Sriyapai] up and I’m going to slam him on his head. Then I’m going to elbow him ’til the ref stops it,” Antonio says. “I’m telling you. That’s what’s going to happen.”
A.J. won’t argue: “If he says he’s going to do it, then he’s probably going to do it.”
“Man, I’m gonna fight three times, maybe four,” Antonio proclaims, in a half-serious tone. “Who’s gonna beat me? [Michael] Chandler? Pitbull?”
It’s this kind of brash trash-talk that even has A.J. shaking his head.
“This is the problem I have,” A.J. says. “He wants to fight the people I want to fight. It’s always been this way. That’s what everyone fails to realize.”
They may be similar professionally, but that’s where most similarities end. “My fashion is much more phenomenal,” A.J. says. “I just got to keep collecting a couple more checks and then I can bring out some, sexier and swaggier things.”
Antonio agrees to an extent. “He dresses better but I still talk better.”
Their generational divide manifests each morning, several hours before practice begins. Around 5 a.m., Antonio is wide awake, starting his day by reading a passage or two from the Bible before taking off on a 3-mile run through L.A.’s Spring Hill. Meanwhile, A.J., a self-described night owl, is sound asleep.
“He always looks peaceful,” Antonio says. “Sometimes I’ll just wake him up to see if he’s asleep.”
A.J. doesn’t see the humor. “That’s kind of what it goes—my dad harassing and irritating the living hell out of me.”
“Honestly? I couldn’t even tell you our entire workout because I get so tired that I forget half the s— we do,” A.J. claims.
Around 10 a.m. A.J. and company—including fellow Bellator fighters Joey Davis and Baby Slice—arrive ready to roll. By then, Antonio says he’s usually wrapping up a session with former UFC champion Quentin “Rampage” Jackson at Team Bodyshop.
The McKees divulge only the workout basics exercises that make up each several-hour session: 100 pullups, 400 situps, followed by heavy bag work and kick drills, and some band work, A.J. adds.
The only surprise, they say, is A.J. and Davis, two of the best bangers in the sport, do this in the ring without any high-impact banging-and-bruising sparring drills. “I’ve never even trained with a mouthpiece,” A.J. admits.
Despite the success of the Bellator star, it’s the old man who may be reaping the most benefits of Team Bodyshop. Working out with a group more than half his age has led him to the fountain of youth.
“Man look at me. I ain’t got no damage—no bruises, no problems,” Antonio says. “I can fight. That’s the problem. I now think I can fight anybody because I train with A.J. and Joey. Most fighters will have trouble beating both of them. They’re that good.”
How scary is Antonio’s physical stamina at 50? Tough enough to instill fear into his title-contending son.
“I won’t train with my dad right now. It’s like he’s on crack,” A.J. says. “I’m literally beat up, and he’s just breaking in. The crazy part is he knows the body and knows when you need the rest. He’s why we win.”
That part’s no secret.