When Antonio McKee watched his son A.J. McKee win the Bellator featherweight title, it not only fulfilled what he said was a prophecy but set in motion the next phase of a career he believes is without limits.
On the Wednesday edition of The MMA Hour, the elder McKee said his son is a better version of himself in every way, and he needs to be compensated as such. That’s why Team McKee is leaning on the champion’s agents at CAA and the ViacomCBS-owned promotion to renegotiate his contract after his submission of Patricio Pitbull at Bellator 263.
A two-decade veteran of the sport, Antonio McKee said MMA is a dirty business, and particularly so for Black fighters.
“They’re underpaid, straight out,” he said. “I know the contracts. ... Go pull up all the paychecks and the stubs at the time and how these fighters were paid. This is why right now you have Francis Ngannou, these guys are not trying to fight, Jon Jones, they’re not trying to fight. Why? They want more money.
“If a company’s making the kind of money that the UFC is making, and you’re giving your fighters 10, 20 percent, less than that, and it’s usually the other way around, like, there’s something wrong.”
The elder McKee is referring to the UFC, which according to court documents has paid between 16 to 20 percent of its revenue to fighters over the past decade and expects to pay no more than 20 percent moving forward. Documents brought to light by an ongoing anti-trust lawsuit against the UFC revealed Bellator paid a higher portion of revenue to fighters, with 44.7 percent paid out between 2010-2016.
Like the UFC, Bellator contracts include a champion’s clause that automatically extends the number of fights owed to the promotion. Had A.J. McKee lost to Pitbull, he said, he would have been a free agent in September, though the company would have had the right to match his next contract offer.
Now that A.J. McKee holds the belt, he said he owes Bellator three fights, which could take over one year to fulfill, as part of the promotion’s champion clause. Should he reject the fights that are offered, Bellator has the right to extend his contract, giving his team the incentive to negotiate.
Admittedly too close to the subject, Antonio McKee said he has stepped away from his son’s negotiations so the two sides can come together. But he believes his son’s options are unfairly limited.
“A.J. should be able to go fight in the UFC for $5 million if Bellator’s only going to give him $1 million,” he said. “Why shouldn’t he be able to go get more money to take care of his family and do his job. Why would you want to work for someone and know you can go across the street, and there’s no harm done, and you can get a better job to have a better life? That’s what we’re in this for, and at the end of the day, he’s a corporation the way I look at it.
“I tell him I don’t have the emotions of being an employee. He’s a corporation, and I need to do [the] best for the company, because our family are the employees. And if he goes out, then all of us suffer. So let’s just line this up right.”
Asked about the status of negotiations, McKee explained his reasoning for putting another degree of separation between he and A.J.’s career.
“It’s out of my hands now,” he said. “I couldn’t get what I needed across. One, he’s my son. Two, I’m his trainer, so it seems like a conflict of interest, but when did you know for a Black man to go ask a Jewish man to pay his Black son money. When has that ever worked? When have they ever wrote a check to another Black man for the value of his self? No, I have to let wolves dance with the wolves. I’m a lion. I can’t be in the same place.
“I don’t know if I’m going to stay out of it, but I believe CAA works for A.J. They work for the McKee group. They’re employed by us to do a job. I’m going to hold them responsible for the job they do, based on what we want to be done. That’s the right way to do this. That’s why I don’t understand why everyone’s always heckling me and upset. I’m sorry I didn’t go to Harvard and come back with a master’s degree in vocabulary. I understand the game. I’ve been here a long time. I’ve seen the contracts. This is a ugly game. It’s ugly and nasty and you know it. And I love my son more than I love life sometimes, so I want the best for him just like any other father. So why is it a problem that I speak so passionately about the sport doing right by my son?”
A.J. McKee wants to make a quick turnaround and hopes to fight before the end of this year. He approves of a meeting with Pitbull for the Brazilian’s lightweight title and sees plenty of intriguing matchups to fulfill his remaining fights with Bellator.
“I don’t care about the money so much, but I just want to fight,” he said. “But obviously, this is how I take care of my family, my father’s family, so that’s key. And he’s been in the sport, he knows what to expect. He knows what the sport is.”
Antonio McKee has been there for his son’s journey from undiscovered MMA prospect to undefeated world champion. He hopes Bellator is willing to reinvest in a property that’s been built from the ground up.
“The way I look at it is, either you make this kid happy, or you let him fight out his three deals and you let him go,” he said. “UFC picks him up. Now, that’s another monster that we’ve got to deal with. But I know what he’s capable of. Here’s a real Conor McGregor, it’s just he’s got to figure out what lane he wants to be labeled as a fighter.”