Bellator's A.J. McKee reflects on 'honor' of working with Chuck Liddell before Tito Ortiz trilogy
Over the past few years, the name of MMA veteran Antonio McKee has become associated with a pack of young talent he’s helped grow and sharpen at Team Bodyshop in Southern California.
Many of those names, such as his son and unbeaten record-breaker A.J. McKee, as well as wrestling wonder turned knockout artist Aaron Pico, currently can be found on the front lines of Bellator’s stacked prospect roster. Wrestling ace Joey Davis and hard hitter Kevin Ferguson Jr. can be added to this group, where ages range from 22 to 26.
More recently, though, the mats of Team Bodyshop were graced with a different type of notorious presence. Namely, former UFC champion and all-time fan-favorite Chuck Liddell, who trained under Antonio McKee for his return to the cage at 48 after an eight-year retirement.
A.J. McKee got a unique view of Liddell’s preparation for his trilogy fight with longtime foe Tito Ortiz. And, with his own Dec. 14 bout in sight at Bellator’s “Salute the Troops” event in Honolulu, the 23-year-old puts in no uncertain terms just what Liddell’s presence meant to him.
“It was an honor,” McKee told MMAjunkie. “I would have stopped my training just to train with Chuck, just because of who that man is. And then, once I personally got to really know him and realize how much of a genuine, amazing, nice guy he is. He is honestly this. I would say that’s why he fits into our gym so well. He came in, and it felt like home. He felt like it’s just like everyone was caring and everyone was loving. And he’s just such a nice guy.
“I actually blew up on some friend after his fight, because he’s trying to ask me about the fight, and I was upset. That’s like a teammate. It’s like a brother to me in there fighting. I would rather go in there and get knocked out than see a great man like that go in there and have that happen, you know?”
“That” was a first-round knockout to Ortiz in the headlining bout of Golden Boy’s inaugural MMA event last month. In the aftermath, Liddell’s ill-fated return dominated the MMA conversation for days – and mostly not in a good way.
There’s really no question that Liddell is one of the most remarkable, exciting fighters in MMA history. At one point, he claimed the UFC’s historically slippery light heavyweight title and defended it four times. The end of his octagon stretch, however, wasn’t quite as bright, and Liddell retired on a three-knockout losing streak.
That helps explain why his return wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. Despite Liddell’s own excitement about being back in camp, there were questions about the safety of the bout. The outcome gave credence to a lot of those concerns, and there was no shortage of criticism to aimed at those responsible for putting the fight together.
McKee, for his part, can understand different sides of this equation.
“I understand his family’s side,” McKee said. “People that genuinely care for him, no one wants to see someone they love go through that.”
But McKee also understands what it’s like to be, at your very core, a fighter. And he sees why someone who at one point was one of the “baddest mother(expletives)” in the division – or, better yet, in the world – wouldn’t just be able to let go of it so easily.
“He’s always going to have that fight in him,” McKee said. “And that’s why I understand. He’s always going to want to fight. That’s part of the game. But hey, he’s done a lot. And I’ll still go spar with Chuck any day. And he knows that. Chuck, you want to do a round today? Hey, dad, I’m going go to drive up to Chuck’s house, or we’re going to move around it. That’s how you learn. That’s how you grow.
“That’s a fighter. He loves fighting. You can’t – I don’t know what I would do without fighting. I really don’t. It’s a part of me. And that’s why, when I was only half-doing it, it really bothered me. And now that I’m back where I’m at, and enjoying this and really fueling myself off of this right now, it’s an amazing feeling.”
In the lead-up to the match, Antonio McKee talked about the specifics of training someone like Liddell. Speaking to MMAFighting.com, the Team Bodyshop leader said he was worried when Liddell first came in but was soon impressed with how quickly the UFC Hall of Famer adjusted and progressed in just a few weeks.
His son’s vision of Liddell’s camp is very much in line with that.
“He put in the most great, scientific and tactical training camp he could have had,” McKee said. “That’s exactly the way I would put it. We had doctors working on him, we had my dad working on him, me sparring with him. There were so many things we were trying and putting into him at once, and he soaked it up like a sponge.
“And that’s the thing about being a (expletive) great like that. It doesn’t take time to learn. And he learned it quick.”
Things didn’t turn out that well for Liddell, as we all know, but “The Iceman” seems to have taken positives from the experience, judging by a somewhat upbeat video statement he left afterward.
Most recent stretch notwithstanding, there’s no doubt that Liddell left plenty of inspiration for those that came after him. That group most definitely includes McKee, who doesn’t restrict his admiration to the confines of a cage.
“I’ve watched Chuck since I was a kid,” McKee said. “It’s ‘The Iceman.’ It’s my cousin’s and I favorite fighter – he’s Joey ‘Black Ice’ Davis. Where does she get the ‘Ice’ from? That’s ‘The Iceman.’ He got it from Chuck Liddell. We watched him bang out as kids, man. He’s been through some wars, and he’s sat some great fighters down. And he’s been sat down by some fighters – and that’s part of the game.
“He really changed the game for me, because I’ve never seen someone lose and have a stadium really come together like that and still support him, even when you lose. And that’s what was so phenomenal to me. It was, honestly, no one was really there for Tito, whether he won or lost. It was Chuck.
“That’s why I was like, ‘Man ‘I’m in the entertainment world, OK, I can go be that badass and go be Mr. Crazy turn-ups and be crazy.’ But that’s not me, you know? Chuck has always been that genuinely cool, nice guy. And that’s why his career is the way he is. And I want to be that way. So I don’t care about the entertainment. I’m going to be that genuine, nice A.J., cool guy that I am.”