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Antonio McKee: I Should Have UFC Belt by End of 2011

Antonio McKee has a plan. It's simple, really.

"By the end of the year I should have the UFC [lightweight] belt," he told MMA Fighting. "I've got to get through [Jacob] Volkmann here, beat up Volkmann real quick, and after I get done with Volkmann they'll think I'm serious and we can start moving forward and making progress."

See? Nothing to it. After 11 years as a pro fighter, the 40-year-old McKee is set to make his Octagon debut at UFC 125 this Saturday, so of course he already has his future mapped out.

But does he really think becoming a UFC champion is going to be that easy? Seriously?

"Oh yeah, come on, man. I've got a four-fight deal, so I'd say that sounds about right. Randy [Couture] won the belt when he was about 44, right? I'll be 41 by the end of the year, and I think McKee is made of a little better stuff than Randy, so I should have it by then."

If you're not familiar with McKee's approach to trash-talking/self-assessment, rest assured that this is about par for the course. One minute he talks about Volkmann as if he's little more than a punching bag for McKee to practice his striking on, a lightweight who's "on his way out" of the UFC after Saturday night. But if you sound like you might be agreeing with him, that's when McKee immediately comes to Volkmann's rescue, touting his wrestling credentials and explaining what a tough, underappreciated talent he is.

It's the same when the talk turns to his fighting style. For years McKee has wrestled his way to one dominant (but not terribly exciting) decision victory after another. He won 11 straight fights this way over the course of the last six years, but the paychecks and the adulation were both slow in coming, mostly because, well, he wasn't much fun to watch, and he didn't particularly care whether you were entertained or not.
I'm just going to go out here and bust people's faces open, that's all.
-- Antonio McKee

Then, at age 40, he decided he'd had enough of that. He vowed to finish a fight and give the fans a show. He talked up a storm, promised to retire if he went to another decision, then went out last September and elbowed a hole in Luciano Azevedo's face at an MFC show in Canada, ending the fight in the first round.

Weeks later he had a UFC contract and a chance to show what he could do on the sport's biggest stage. So now what? Back to playing it safe and relying on his wrestling skills, or continue with the same strategy of smack-talk and fight-finishing brutality that got him here?

"I'm just going to go out here and bust people's faces open, that's all," McKee said. "I feel sad for the opponents, you know? I hope maybe they'll just let me submit them, because I really don't want to hurt them. What are they going to do, stop me from taking them down? Stop me from ground-and-pounding them? Stop me from hitting them with the elbows? Come on, you serious?

"Nobody's going to stop McKee from doing that. I'll do that when I need to and just hope they're smart enough not to take too much face-bashing before they're like, 'McKee, go find an armbar please and get this over with.' Because you know I ain't looking for submissions; I'm looking to punish your face."

So that means he must be embracing the newfound attention he got as a result of pounding Azevedo into a bloody first-round stoppage, right? Not so fast. Nothing is that simple with McKee.

"I'm popular now," he said with a wry laugh. "I split somebody's head open, and I'm popular now. It's crazy to me. ...When you go in there and split somebody's head open, make them have to get staples in their head, you become an icon. I don't want to be recognized for that, to be perfectly honest with you. I want to be recognized for being a good person, not because I split some guy's head open and made him bleed. I don't want to be liked for beating some guy up and making him tap. I'm not in this to win a popularity contest. I'm in this because it's my job."

The fact that the fans only started paying attention when he started making people bleed, that's more an indictment of the fans than anyone else, according to McKee.

"Fighting is something I've been doing all my life, and I'm getting paid for it. It's kind of fun to do, based on the salary, but when I see the mentality of the people who are watching it, they're so barbaric. I'm like, dude, what if that was your mom or your dad or your son out there getting knocked out? How would you enjoy the show then?

"See, I'm back there and seeing these fighters suffer, seeing them with their noses busted, in all this pain, on Vicodin and Oxy[contin]. These guys are tearing their bodies up. You know, doing steroids and anything they can just to be somebody. And most of these guys are intelligent and have degrees. It's kind of confusing. You go to school and get a degree to fight? I did this sh-t on accident. Growing up in the hood and dealing with criminals and crooks. I didn't plan that. It was just an economic thing for me. Mama didn't have no money."

For a guy who's been in this sport for more than a decade, McKee doesn't exactly sound like someone who enjoys it. Only, hold on, that's not true either.

"Oh, it's not that I don't want to do it," he said. "I just want to make sure I'm getting paid enough to take those risks."

Now in the UFC, with a contract that kicks off on New Year's Day when he and Volkmann will open the show in Las Vegas, McKee couldn't be happier with his financial situation, he said.

"They took care of me, gave me a four-fight deal. It's cool. I've had a lot of controversial stuff to say about the UFC in the past, but so far I'm really impressed with how well they take care of their employees."

Which means...what, exactly? That the money is finally good enough to justify the physical risks? That he'll split people's heads open for the cash, even if he finds it slightly distasteful? That we'll see the careful, conservative McKee in the Octagon, or the more reckless version who insists he'd rather quit than go to the scorecards in another snoozer?

For answers to those questions, we'll most likely have to wait and see for ourselves. Maybe McKee is playing it close to the vest, or maybe he really hasn't decided yet. Judging by the speed with which he can change his mind on any given topic, either seems entirely possible.

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