A.J. McKee was 12 years old and in love with fighting. He’d tag along with his father, Antonio, to the gym and watch him spar with legendary MMA stars such as Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Rampage Jackson and Tito Ortiz.
More often than not, despite being significantly smaller, Antonio got the better of those legends, A.J. said.
There was little doubt what A.J. planned to do with his life. He went to college briefly to pursue wrestling, but he dropped out because all he wanted to do was to fight.
When he was 12, he wrote himself a check for $1 million. He misspelled million, he says now, chuckling, but it is evidence of the way he thought even at an early age.
“I can’t even remember how I spelled it, but it was way wrong,” McKee told Yahoo Sports. “My dad still has it. It was something I was fascinated about, having a million dollars. Me being a businessman and knowing where I’ve come from and the things in my life that were in my path, well, $1 million is a substantial amount of money. It’s an amount of money I’ll never have to look back. It’s the first step for me to get generational wealth.”
Now 25, that $1 million check is suddenly very much within his grasp.
On Thursday (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network/DAZN) at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, McKee will meet Darrion Caldwell at Bellator 253 in the semifinals of Bellator’s featherweight grand prix.
There is a $1 million prize to the winner, and McKee is two fights away from getting it.
His father and trainer was a highly successful MMA fighter, at least record-wise. He went 30-6-2 in an MMA career that extended through last year. But he was never in the right place at the right time. He made it to the UFC for one fight, in 2011, when he was 41 years old and lost to Jacob Volkmann.
Young A.J. observed what his father went through and not really get rewarded for it.
It made quite an impression.
“I watched my dad train and beat up all kind of guys,” A.J. said. “He trained Rampage, Couture, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz. Anybody you can possibly think of, and these were big guys, they weren’t 155 pounders. I watched my dad toy with these guys in practice. I used to ask him, ‘How come you don’t have the fame that they have? How come you don’t get the recognition that they get?’ It is something that kind of motivated me early on.
“I started to have that problem in my own career. I started worrying about, ‘Man, they don’t respect me. They’re not giving me enough recognition. How come they’re giving this person all the clout?’ But I got to a point where I said screw it. None of it matters. I just chose to focus on being the best person I could be, inside and outside of the cage. These last two years, I’ve refocused my mind and my thought process and the way I carry myself, and it’s been a huge positive difference for me.”
He said he’s learned to approach fighting as a business, and while his initial goal of making $1 million is within sight, he’s already put up a larger goal.
He wants to make $100 million before he walks away from the game. And that starts, he said, by doing the little things it takes now to beat fighters like Caldwell.
“At the end of the day, this is a business and you can’t lose sight of that,” he said. “But for the people watching, it’s entertainment. It’s a distraction from the problems in their everyday lives. If you want to develop, you have to win, because everyone loves a winner, and you have to entertain.
“This sport is still young and it’s still growing and I don’t know if at this point $100 million is realistic, but it’s my goal and I’m going to work toward it. I have learned so much about myself, about life and about fighting in a short period of time and I feel I have a good understanding of what it takes to get myself to that next level where I want to be.”
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