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'I feel like what I’m experiencing is something that money can’t buy'

After recently picking up the biggest win of his career, Rhys McKee is moving towards a shot in the UFC.

Rhys McKee BAMMA lightweight world champion Rhys McKee. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

THE BIGGEST FIGHT of his life was just moments away, but this wasn’t how Rhys McKee had envisaged the final stages of his preparation unfolding.

Perhaps a consequence of the previous day’s arduous weight cut, he felt lethargic and nauseous. The contents of a 330ml bottle of water spent just a couple of minutes in his system before being projected down the sink in his changing room at Belfast’s SSE Arena. The battle hadn’t yet begun, but the tank was already empty.

Two seconds shy of the end of the first round of his meeting with Tim Barnett at BAMMA 28, the referee intervened to stop the fight and confirm the first defeat of Rhys McKee’s professional career. Feeding off the vociferous backing of the Belfast crowd could only sustain him for so long. The depleted fighter who shared the cage with Barnett was a shell of the man who stormed to stoppage victories in each of his five previous bouts.

While the taste of defeat was something McKee was unfamiliar with as a professional, he was gracious nevertheless in the aftermath. Beaten by a better man on the night of 24 February, 2017. But the man who faced Tim Barnett wasn’t the real Rhys McKee, he insisted. His words were taken at face value by those who supported him, but actions would ultimately be required to set the record straight.

McKee had to be patient in his pursuit of a rematch. He was back in the cage five months later, when a thrilling bout against undefeated Straight Blast Gym prospect Richie Smullen — who’s currently knocking on the UFC’s door by competing on The Ultimate Fighter — ended in a draw.

But after submitting Kams Ekpo last December, an opportunity to avenge the only defeat of his career came McKee’s way last month. This time, the stakes were even higher. Following the departure of lightweight champion Ryan Scope for the Bellator promotion, BAMMA put their world title on the line on 9 March at London’s Wembley Arena.

Tim Barnett in action against Rhys McKee McKee under pressure from Tim Barnett during his loss at BAMMA 28. Source: Presseye/Matt Mackey/INPHO

“If my performance in the rematch was me at 100%, I was probably at 1% for the first fight,” says McKee. “I didn’t really have any fuel in my body that night. I ate a banana and some honey, and even that left me gagging. I wasn’t in a good way.

“Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but the bottom line is that whole experience has matured me so much. In a way I’m almost grateful for the lessons I learned. Of course, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have fought. I had to go about it the hard way to learn that lesson, but I’ve come out of it the other end.

“I 100% knew the rematch was a fight I’d win as long as my preparation went okay. I’d be lying if I said there was no pressure, because losing to the same person twice would have been tough to recover from. About 10 minutes beforehand that kind of hit me. But once I left the changing room it was plain-sailing and I was back in a good mindset. Nobody wants to lose to the same man twice, but I was pretty sure that it wasn’t going to happen.”

Just like their first encounter, the second clash of Rhys McKee and Tim Barnett ended via TKO late in the opening frame. But this time the result was reversed. As referee Marc Goddard raised his hand and BAMMA matchmaker Jude Samuel wrapped the belt around his waist, McKee wore an ‘I told you so’ expression that tallied with his pre-fight assurances of vengeance.

“The win was so important for me. A fighter’s mind is a sensitive thing. As much as everybody else wants to find out how good you are, it’s also important for a fighter to prove that to himself as well. A fighter wants to know and remind himself that he’s capable of great things.

“I feel it was my best performance. It’s the most calm and calculated I’ve been. It was the best weight-cut as well, which obviously helps,” says the six-feet-one-inch lightweight, whose nickname – Skeletor – is derived from his emaciated appearance when he steps on the scales at 155 pounds on weigh-in day.

Rhys McKee’s journey in mixed martial arts has been relatively brief, but it has progressed at breakneck speed. At 22, he’s already a world champion for BAMMA, which is one of the biggest statements a fighter can make in a bid to woo the UFC. Current UFC athletes like Tom Duquesnoy, John Phillips, Paul Craig and Mark Godbeer all travelled that route to MMA’s premier organisation.

Yet when he was 16, McKee couldn’t tell an underhook from an uppercut. Between seasons with his local football club in Ballymena, his search for something to fill the gap led him to the Next Generation MMA gym. There, he encountered the likes of Norman Parke, who was on the cusp of a UFC debut, and head coach Rodney Moore, a pioneer for mixed martial arts in Northern Ireland. Six years later, McKee hasn’t kicked a football since.

“I was a total non-fighter,” he says. “I was never in a fight on the street and I never liked confrontation. I wasn’t physically strong either. Even in football I was probably always one of the weakest players. It was a pretty dramatic change for me. But the thing about it is that to fall in love with a fighting sport like this, I don’t think you necessarily have to be a fighter. The most important thing, in my opinion, is having a martial artist’s mentality.”

After cutting his teeth on the amateur circuit, McKee graduated to the paid ranks in September 2015 and went 5-0 in his first 15 months as a professional. The last of those five wins — a first-round KO of previously-undefeated Englishman Jai Herbert — was achieved in spite of an unexpected personal tragedy which rocked McKee to the core. In October 2016, just as he was preparing to begin his training camp, his father passed away unexpectedly.

“It completely came out of the blue,” he recalls. “It turned out to be to do with an aneurysm of the heart. It all happened over the course of 16-to-18 hours. There was no notice, no warning signs or anything. He went so quickly, which was very hard to take. I can still remember talking to him about the fight coming up.

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“I fought Jai Herbert eight weeks later. A few people approached me and said they didn’t think I should go through with it. It was the weirdest fight I’ve ever gone into mentally. It wasn’t about the physical training. It was all mental for that fight camp.

Rhys McKee in action against Jai Herbert McKee en route to victory over Jai Herbert. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“He is very much missed in the family but your only choice is to get back on the horse. My dad is with me every minute of every day. I’m proud of myself for what I’ve achieved and the rest of my family are proud as well, but there’d be no one prouder than he would be. Every day I’m trying to live the life that he would have wanted me to live, and I know for a fact that I’m doing that. He’s a massive part of my success.”

When McKee first entered a cage as an amateur, Conor McGregor was in the process of announcing an Irish takeover of the UFC. Fresh from a win over Max Holloway, McGregor opened the door for several of his compatriots to compete on the global stage.

Less than five years later, the so-called Irish invasion has been well and truly suppressed. McGregor’s 18-month absence from the octagon doesn’t look likely to end any time soon. Donegal’s Joseph Duffy, who’s now based in Canada, and Russian-born Artem Lobov are the only other fighters representing Ireland who remain on the UFC’s roster.

If a void exists for a fighter from these shores, Rhys McKee might be the ideal candidate to fill it. He remains contracted to BAMMA for another two fights — one of which he’s happy to be a score-settling trilogy bout with Tim Barnett — but once that commitment expires, the UFC is his desired destination.

With time on his side, however, McKee is in no hurry to get there. He’s been relatively active in the cage since turning professional, fighting every 14 weeks on average, while also working as a personal trainer to keep his income steady.

A title defence at BAMMA 35 in Dublin on 12 May was tempting, but instead McKee is focusing on improving his game until the time is right to return. Displaying an impressive level of maturity that belies his age, his plan “to get 1% better each day” seems a wise career move for a man who has also spent time training at the renowned Tristar Gym in Montreal, which houses the likes of two-division ex-UFC champion Georges St-Pierre and reigning Bellator welterweight title-holder Rory MacDonald.

“I’m in a unique position,” McKee says. “You see a lot of fighters kind of between the ages of 28 and 33 petitioning to get into the UFC. I’m already having that and I’m only 22. The fact that I’m eight, nine, ten years ahead is something that motivates me.

“I’m doing stuff that the average 22-year-old isn’t doing. I feel like what I’m experiencing — travelling the world, winning titles — is something that money can’t buy. I have bad days like everyone does, when I need a kick up the arse. But things are going well for me at the minute and the motivation comes from the desire to keep it that way.”

He adds: “I believe I’m ready for the UFC right now. I think I’m at a level where I could compete with a lot of the guys in the top tier there. My next two fights are contracted with BAMMA, but I’m ready to go in the UFC. I’m not in a rush, but I can see it happening sooner rather than later.”

Should an opportunity come his way to compete among the elite, McKee is determined to shed a positive light on mixed martial arts. Conor McGregor almost single-handedly put Ireland on the MMA map, but recent incidents involving the former UFC champion have done little to improve the reputation of a sport that already suffers from an image problem in the eyes of a sizeable portion of the Irish public.

“Representing the sport in a good way is something that’s important to me. I was at the Bellator card when Conor jumped in the cage and I found it embarrassing,” says McKee.

“You can be confident but you don’t have to be arrogant. You can be great without walking all over people. He’s done good things for the sport, but he could have done so much better. It’s a bit disappointing. If I can inspire one person in the right way, that would be an amazing thing for me.”

Rhys McKee celebrates his victory "My dad is with me every minute of every day." Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

McKee also intends to be a fighter that fans on both sides of the border can embrace. From Ballymena to Bantry, the Antrim native welcomes every bit of support he receives.

He says: “I always ask BAMMA not to give me a tricolour or a Northern Irish flag because I don’t class myself as being locked down to one country. I live in Northern Ireland but I’ve had most of my fights in the south. I’d rather represent both sides.

“I hate the fact that it always seems to be a case that you have to support either this or that. It’s not like that for me. We live on the same island. I can drive to Dublin in a few hours. I’m a flag-bearer for both. I know they accept me like that in the south and the north. That’s all I need to know.”

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