Mostly because it was such a strange sight.
“That was my first time seeing that sh*t,” the former UFC champion says, laughing.
It was the late 1990s — and A.J.? He was 3 years old.
“Rampage” was floored.
“I’d never seen a 3-year-old boy in the gym training wrestling and jiu-jitsu and stuff. He was doing everything — wrestling, jiu-jitsu, he was doing standup,” Jackson says.
“You could just tell. I told Antonio McKee, I was like, ‘Hey, your boy is going to be a champion. Your boy is going to be one of the best fighters in the world.’”
The thing about growing up around legends is the extraordinary becomes ordinary fairly quickly. And the extraordinary became ordinary for A.J. when he was barely out of diapers.
Now age 26, A.J. has made Jackson’s words look prophetic. He’s won all 17 of his bouts in the Bellator cage and blossomed into one of the most talented featherweights in the world, with his head coach and father — 38-fight MMA veteran Antonio McKee — by his side. On Saturday, the tandem will stand across the most decorated champion in Bellator history when A.J. meets two-division king Patricio Freire in the finals of the promotion’s featherweight grand prix at Bellator 263. A $1 million grand prize will be on the line.
And it’s all a little surreal for the men who witnessed this story unfold from the beginning.
“Every time you saw Antonio McKee, you saw A.J.,” says Jackson. “You know how most kids be like momma’s boys, they be all over on their moms and stuff like that? That’s how A.J. and Antonio were. A.J. was a daddy’s boy. He was always curled up and hugged up on him.
“But I think [Antonio] knew it. I think he knew it. Because just like Tiger Woods, how Tiger Woods got good — he was good at golf because his dad had him in there playing golf when he was real young, that’s why Tiger Woods was so good at golf. Like, that’s all you know. And as soon as A.J. learned how to walk, he was in the gym. He was doing something in the gym. And sometimes when you start a kid off in a sport too young, they get burned out. But A.J., he never got burned out. He loved it. It was like breathing for him.”
Jackson was years away from becoming the chain-wearing, moon-howling superstar of Pride FC went he first came across young A.J., same as many of the future Hall of Famers who flocked to Antonio’s west coast haven in search of knowledge and live bodies in MMA’s primordial era. Expertise was a precious commodity back then, but the McKees’ room was star-studded — names like Jackson, Randy Couture, Mirko Cro Cop, and Tito Ortiz.
The sport was villainized by the American mainstream in those days, dismissed as a domain of derelicts and degenerates. U.S. senator John McCain’s remarks about human cockfighting had dragged MMA into a near death cycle, and good gyms were a rarity. They certainly weren’t flush with children scampering around like they are now, but A.J. was always the exception, the omnipresent kid surrounded by tattoos and barroom toughs, embedded in ground zero of a sport that most of polite society wouldn’t dream of touching.
“He just would walk around with a strut,” remembers former UFC light heavyweight champion Ortiz. “He’s walking around like he was going to do something great. And it was just kind of cool. For me, a kid like that — I want to see confidence. I want to see someone with an attitude that is willing to push themselves to be better.
“He was the only kid around pretty much. I think Rampage’s kids were around a little bit, but they really didn’t apply the martial art mentality. A.J. did though. A.J. was the one that was doing the wrestling, and in his mind, he wanted to be a champion. So it’s just crazy as time turns around and he’s just doing so damn well.”
A.J. was around the age of six or seven when Ortiz first came upon him. He was a cocky kid, too damn smart for his own good. But the signs were already there.
One particularly memorable day when A.J. was a teenager, the boy’s principal called to inform Antonio that school officials had found his son fighting for money in the high-school bathroom. It was apparently a regular occurrence. A.J and his friends would station an offensive lineman up at the door to ward away any potential looky-loos, then they’d fight all comers and gamble on the outcome. The most A.J. ever made on those bathroom brawls was $100, but then came the day the 135-pound teen knocked out an adult man who also happened to be affiliated with The Crips. Antonio told me years ago that he’d resisted his son’s thirst to dive fully into the family business up until that point, but after that day, he knew it was pointless to resist. He figured the discipline would serve A.J. well — and it has.
“[Antonio] showed his son everything, and it showed,” Ortiz says. “His son always came to the gym with him just with an open mind and always wanting to learn and had that confidence, and it just built as the years went on and on.
“Being a father, you kind of have to make sure you find that fine balance between being a father and being a coach. And I think Antonio has made that balance perfect, where his son has his strut, his son has his talent. He has everything it takes to be a world champion.”
If Ortiz, Jackson, and former UFC champion Chuck Liddell were ever locked into the same room, that sentiment might be the only thing the old rivals would agree on.
Liddell knew Antonio from way back in the pair’s high-school days, when the stud wrestler Antonio missed his whole senior campaign because of academic ineligibility only to return late in the season with enough time to dash the rest of his division’s hopes for a California state title. Liddell says he realized right away that Antonio’s son was different. A.J.’s upbringing, he says, imparts something to a fighter that just can’t be replicated no matter how hard one tries.
“You grow up not knowing any better,” Liddell says. “You just grow up, that’s the way things are. You train hard and you work hard. No one quits.
“When you’re that little and you’re watching all the guys do it right in front of you, it’s obvious, you learn. And he’s been around top, top-level fighters for his whole life, and you just kind of absorb it. Especially when I see a kid like him, because he’s hungry to learn. When I came in, he wasn’t trying to show off or trying to show me what he could do. He was trying to figure out what could I teach him. He just wanted to learn.”
Liddell points to A.J.’s last fight as an example of what happens when MMA’s unique mechanisms are hardwired into a hungry and creative mind from the start. A.J.’s 71-second submission of Darrion Caldwell at Bellator 253 captured “Submission of the Year” plaudits on nearly every 2020 year-end list across the globe. He dubbed it the McKee-otine, and even an O.G. of the sport like Liddell had to go back to the source to unravel its subtleties.
“The McKee-otine, I loved that. He showed me how he did all that. I never thought about doing it, but it’s an awesome finish,” Liddell says.
“He’s always trying to create stuff, trying to figure out better ways to do things. And that’s one of the things — that guy is coming up with moves that no one else has seen. A guy like that makes moves that everyone else is doing a little bit better. He makes it his own — this little tweak here works, his little tweak there works. It’s all that stuff. Being in the gym that much and going in it [that young], it really, really can help if you don’t burn out. Sometimes you get guys who burn out, but he loves it. He loves fighting. He loves doing it. His was a real love of the fight game, and that’s as special as you can get.”
Liddell says he told Antonio that if his own son ever decides to fight, he hopes the two of them can have the same kind of relationship as Antonio and A.J. He says he’s delighted to see who has A.J. become. Jackson echoes the same. He says he looks up to the McKees, because Jackson, too, was a single parent early in his MMA run like Antonio, and he doesn’t understand how Antonio did it — juggling a career in a cutthroat industry while raising his boy to be the budding star he is today. Considering the lack of fanfare Antonio generated during his own time, he and Jackson often joke that A.J. is Antonio’s revenge on MMA.
“I remember when [A.J.] fought amateur,” says Jackson. “Me and Antonio McKee put on amateur shows and A.J. was just walking through opponents. They had way, way more experience than him, and he was just walking through them and making them look bad. Then when he got old enough to start training with everybody and all this shit, he was making people in gym look bad. Full-grown men. He made full-grown men look so bad.
“I’m very proud of him. I think he has a great, great chance of beating [Freire]. And I think that, no matter what, A.J. has already impressed the hell out of a lot of people. He’s already made his father proud.”
It’s funny, despite their myriad of differences and the animosity they shared during their own heydays, they all say the same — more than two decades later, none of the Hall of Famers who came up around A.J. are surprised to see how far he’s come. And on a week like this, there’s one memory, in particular, that keeps floating back to Ortiz.
It happened not long ago, late in Ortiz’s Bellator run but near the start of A.J.’s own.
The two old acquaintances ran into each other backstage at a Bellator event — Ortiz, then an all-time great nearing retirement, and A.J., then a blue-chip prospect just beginning to pen his own legacy, much like Ortiz was when they first met on the mats in the late 1990s.
In retrospect, the reunion told the whole story.
“I saw him and I said, “Hey, what’s up, A.J.? How you doing, man,’” remembers Ortiz. “And he was just very polite and very respectful, and I remember him just saying, ‘Man, I can’t wait to be a champion. I can’t wait to be a champion.’ And I remember looking at him and telling him, ‘Just do the work, son. You do the work, and you’ll make it happen.’”
Four years later, the kid who grew up among legends is just one win away.