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Dublin: 15 °C Friday 14 August, 2020
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Ballymena's Rhys McKee out to cause an upset in tonight's short-notice UFC debut

‘I’m really not here to get a nice new tracksuit,’ the 24-year-old says. ‘I’m here to take the win.’

Rhys McKee is aiming high as he gets set to compete on the biggest stage in MMA.
Rhys McKee is aiming high as he gets set to compete on the biggest stage in MMA.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

RHYS MCKEE WAS on his way home from training last week when his phone rang.

His next fight wasn’t due to take place until September, but the man from Ballymena likes to stay in shape – just in case. Now, that approach has been vindicated.

“From early in that two-minute phone-call it was very evident that definitely my next week was going to change, but then in turn my life would probably change,” McKee says of his call-up from the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

After grasping the opportunity to step in on short notice, he’ll make his debut on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts tonight in Abu Dhabi.

“I’ve trained for nights like this my whole career – not just the UFC but any previous promotion I was in,” insists the 24-year-old, who’s a member of the Next Generation camp under veteran coach Rodney Moore.

“I was always training for the opportunity to get a big fight at the last minute, so it’s something I’m very very used to. This isn’t the first time I’ve worked hard. This is probably one of the first times that it has truly paid off as I got the call I’ve always wanted.

“I suppose consistency comes into it when you’re working hard when you don’t even have to, so I’m kind of proud how we stuck to our guns and kept working.”

McKee (10-2-1) makes the step-up after establishing himself as a prospect with UFC potential while competing on the European circuit for promotions like BAMMA and Cage Warriors.

Currently riding a three-fight win streak, his next bout was scheduled to be for the Cage Warriors welterweight belt that once helped to launch the career of Cathal Pendred.

Having been a relative latecomer to the sport, McKee has made rapid progress to reach the highest level. He was 16 when his search for something to fill the void between seasons with his local football club led him to MMA.

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The Antrim native – who told The42 in 2018 that he aims to represent fight fans on both sides of the border – is now backing himself as a future UFC title challenger.

“I really do believe with the right wins, the right opponent, the right finishes, there’ll be no other choice but for me to fight for the belt eventually and I know that will come in time. I’m certain of that.”

Nevertheless, it’s set to be a baptism of fire for McKee as he kicks off tonight’s main card (1am, BT Sport 2) against the hotly-touted Khamzat Chimaev (7-0). The bill will be headlined by the meeting of Darren Till and ex-middleweight champion Robert Whittaker.

Remarkably, Chimaev is making a swift return to the octagon having been a UFC debutant himself only 10 days ago. After an impressive second-round submission of John Phillips at middleweight (185lbs), the Swedish-based Chechen is dropping down to 170lbs to face McKee.

“There’s a lot of hype behind him,” McKee says of his opponent. “He made his debut last week or two weeks ago, but that is only really in my favour.

“He is a style that I have prepared for many times – he’s a wrestler that wants to spoil my game. As someone who was preparing for a fight in September, it’s kind of no different, just a different face and a nicer, warmer place.

“It’s a fight that excites me. I’m looking forward to getting a hype train under my own name, taking all the followers he had and making them realise that I’m there for a reason and on the main card for a reason as well.

“I never would have signed that contract unless I was coming home with anything less than a win. Again, I’m really not here to get a nice new tracksuit. I’m here to take the win.”

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Paul Dollery

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