Antonio McKee has questions. At the top of the list: Is being a mixed martial artist worth the time, sacrifice, energy and potential hardships? For a 40-year-old man on the cusp of his 30th professional bout, it seems like an odd moment to wonder something like that. But the fact is McKee has articulated these things for a long time -- people are just now beginning to hear.
McKee (24-3-2) will defend his Maximum Fighting Championship lightweight title Friday in Edmonton, Alberta, against Luciano Azevedo, another in a long line of opponents during McKee's seven-year unbeaten stretch who, while no pushover, certainly would not qualify as an elite fighter.
How good is McKee? For anyone other than the fighter himself, it's a difficult question to answer. (He humbly ranks himself as the best.) McKee said leading up to Friday's fight, which airs live on HDNet starting at 10 p.m. ET, that if fans are dissatisfied with his performance, he'll leave the sport for good.
In an interview with SI.com, McKee had a lot more to say about his career and his perception of MMA.
SI.com: So is this actually it? You're retiring after this fight?
McKee: Yeah. I'm getting tired of being bored.
SI.com: Where does the boredom come from?
McKee: Oh, I don't really feel like I'm being challenged in this sport. I know what I do. I can go out and do it and no one can stop it. That gives me a little state of confidence and arrogance. But at the same time, you can't take away all the wins. Regardless of whether I knock 'em out or I submit 'em, I win. When you look at Floyd Mayweather and some of these other fighters, some people just have gifts. Some people can knock people out. Some people can out-technique everybody. Some people can submit everybody. But I think at the end of the day, it's the man that gets his hand raised, the one we have to look up to and respect what they do.
I did this in wrestling. I did this for five years, 164-0. Going undefeated is not strange for me; it's a normality for me. It's bad that these people aren't educated in the sport. They should realize that I dominate with supposedly just wrestling, that all I do is hold people and lay on them, which is funny because I never grab anyone -- they're always grabbing me if you study the tapes. I'm always punching to try to finish and hurt people. Every opponent needs stitches afterward; I walk out untouched. So I think boredom comes from the fact that I'm able to dominate and do what I do so well. People can't appreciate that.
SI.com: Maybe you don't feel it's your position to do this, but what have you done to try to fight the best challenges out there? Have you made any steps to that end or just fought and hope they come to you?
McKee: I signed a contract with MFC and I stand behind that contract. I'm not like some of these fighters that sign contracts and then they run off because they were offered more money. I'm a man of integrity and I stand behind my word. I was offered a three-fight deal with Mark Pavelich. I fulfilled that three-fight deal and told him I would go unbeaten, and I would be the MFC champ. I told the IFL the same thing: You have nobody at 170 pounds that will beat me. I will be the IFL champion. They removed me and wouldn't let me fight anywhere else. I was the only unbeaten welterweight -- fighting up a weight class.
I don't think it's about me anymore. I think it's about the organization now. We forgot who great fighters are. Unless they fight for the right organization, they're not recognized. Come on, you and I both know I'm top 10 at 155 pounds. I've never lost at 155. I haven't lost in over seven years. How could I not be rated as one of the top 10 fighters at 155? Just on my winning record alone.
SI.com: Certainly impressive. I'd say the only argument would be strength of opposition. What do you think about the guys you fought? You say you're bored with them. Do you think they were good enough where if people see you winning they should respect those wins as real and legitimate?
McKee: How could you not respect it? We both have the same intention when we get in the cage and that's to fight. And I've come in supposedly with one dimension. Why couldn't anybody knock me out? Why couldn't anyone stop me from taking them down? Why can't anybody submit me when we get to the ground? So obviously I have some type of control in all three aspects of what we consider this sport to be. I dominate with wrestling and control.
SI.com: The opponent you're facing on Friday, Luciano Azevedo, are you bored with him already?
McKee: It's more of a challenge for me now. I'm fighting for the crowd. I'm fighting for Mark Pavelich. Just go out there and be exciting. Hopefully this guy doesn't want to grab me and hold me and do jiu-jitsu -- if I take him down. Hopefully he'll want to go for submissions, to commit to submissions.
SI.com: I know that this attitude and perception has followed you for a long time. Forget the boring thing. Just that winning isn't enough. You've talked some about race. How much do you really think that's a component of where you are in your career at this point?
McKee: When I talk about race, people want to attach color to it. No. I don't say "black" or "white." I say people are racist toward my style. But it's very funny to me and the reason I say "racist" is because Sean Sherk does it, Matt Hughes does it, GSP [Georges St. Pierre] is doing it, Jon Fitch has been doing it. But what do you hear about them? You hear how great they are and how awesome a fighter they are.
This last fight, with Randy Couture and James Toney -- OK, that was the most boring, stupid [expletive] I've ever seen. Why didn't Randy stand up and attempt to bang with him? Why? Come on, you're an MMA fighter. Attempt to stand up where this guy's strong. He didn't. You know what he did? He went right out there, shot, took the guy down, pounded him in the face and submitted him. Were you entertained by that?
SI.com: Not really.
McKee: OK, so where do we draw the line? I get a lot of positive feedback, believe me. I get a lot of people saying, "McKee, we appreciate how you're attacking these promoters and going after people for not paying fair wages." You get a guy who comes out there and puts it all on the line and plays Sock 'Em Robot and gives the fan everything they want; he makes $2,000. His stitch bill costs more than that. Ten, 15, 20 years from now, this kid is going to be sipping out of a straw, can barely say his name. What do people really care? That's the problem with our society. We're so caught up with what we want, and we take our emotions out of it as long as we're not attached to it and don't give a [expletive].
But you see, Dana White, he cared a lot about Chuck Liddell, didn't he? He said, "Listen, I don't want you fighting anymore." Now you have a guy like Chris Leben and he goes out and puts on a show. He takes punishment. He gets beat. He gets bloody. Have you heard one time Dana White say, "Hey, Chris Leben, I don't want you to fight anymore because I care for you"? That's what I'm talking about.
SI.com: Well, look, Chuck fought for him after he said that. At the end of the day, Chuck fought and made money for Dana, so I don't know what that means.
McKee: What I'm saying is when you have emotions and you're attached to somebody, you look out for their well-being. If you had to make a difference between a fighter who fights like me and a fighter that fights like Chuck, you'd rather have him fight like me and know when he's 50 years old he'll be able to hold a conversation with his grandkids.
SI.com: I think you fight smart, quite honestly. The way I've always interpreted it is, Here's a guy doing what he has to do to win and he's doing it taking the least amount of damage. Now is it exciting for some people? Maybe not. The question people have had about you is, How good are you really? You've fought tough guys, but do you think you've fought the best of the best?
McKee: No, I don't think I've fought the best of the best until I fight the best of the best. But I've fought anyone they've ever put in front of me. I've never backed away. You get some of these promoters now, they go, "Oh, no, that guy's too tough, we don't want him to fight him." What? When did this sport go to handpicking opponents? "Oh, my guy needs a couple wins before we take a tough fight." Huh? Where is the dignity, the integrity of MMA?
You take a guy who's had six or seven fights and you put him up against a guy that had over 40 fights. The commission approves it, first of all. He goes out there and wins a boring decision -- I'm talking about Mo Lawal [against Gegard Mousasi]. And then he gets another guy [Rafael Cavalcante] that's close to his record but he goes out trying to entertain people and he gets knocked out. Is this entertainment or a sport? I'm confused. I think it's a combination of both, right? If you want to dress up the fighter, then you put the fighter in a compromising position and you put compromising pay on the table. You don't take a guy who's a UFC champ and pay him $180,000 and give the runner-up $18,000. That's crazy.
SI.com: Clearly you're passionate about fighter rights issues. How much of that is based off your experience and how much of it is your passion for the sport in general?
McKee: I think everyone who's ever interviewed me and anyone who's ever listened, I've followed the same [ideas] in every interview: I'm concerned about the fighters. Why? Because no one else does. The promoters don't give a [expletive]. And the fans, you're only good as your last fight. I watched Rampage [Quinton Jackson] knock out Chuck Liddell and we got bottles thrown at us and we got booed. I watched Rampage lose to Forrest Griffin, who comes from The Ultimate Fighter show where there's a lot of sponsorship and marketing going on, in a decision he shouldn't have lost and should have had a rematch. But instead I watched Shogun [Mauricio Rua] kick the [expletive] out of [Lyoto] Machida, and because it wasn't a fair decision, I watched them come back and do a rematch. I watched B.J. Penn get beat by a guy [Frankie Edgar]. They didn't like that so they brought him back and he got his ass kicked again.
This is not an opinion. These are factual things I can legitimately put on the table. I just want an explanation for it. It's not about color. But we all know this is a white-based sport. I told an interviewer earlier today that it's kind of funny to me that Maurice Smith is one of the first UFC champions but has not be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. But a lot of the fighters that he fought and beat, they've been accepted into the Hall of Fame. What happened? Forget the skin color. It's what he did. His actions. He was UFC champ and held that title. He knocked out [Mark] Coleman, you remember that? Kicked him with one of the greatest knockouts. But you don't even hear Maurice Smith's name. All of a sudden, he's disappeared. It's just stuff like that I pay attention to.
I look at where I fit in the sport. People always say, "How do you want to be remembered in this sport, Antonio?" I want to be remembered as a good man. Not as the greatest fighter, because I already know in my heart I'm one of the greatest fighters. Not as a guy who went out here and talked bad about people, but a guy that stood for truth, honesty and integrity. That's what I want to be remembered by.
I grew up in the ghetto where I was getting shot, kidnapped, stabbed. Every day was strive to survive. So I come to corporate America with this mentality that I'm going to do it all right. I'm not going to sell drugs. I'm not going to rob and steal. I'm not going to work a 9-5 for anyone, so I become self-employed. I produce quite a bit of revenue on the corporate world structure, become very knowledgeable. And then I realized the power of money.
But more powerful than money is politics. I'm not trying to point fingers. I'm just saying, Listen, fighters are out here putting on a show. There are billions and billions of dollars being generated from this sport. Please, athletic commissions, stand behind the guys that are making this money. Don't sit up and allow drugs to be so heavily concentrated in mixed martial arts. There's something wrong with this picture. Steroids. Pain killers. Growth hormones. Some of these guys growth hormone levels are so damn high. But you got to have money to afford growth hormones. So if you have a guy making $180,000 a fight, he can afford growth hormones versus a guy making $18,000 to fight. You see what I'm saying? We're always going to put the best in front? Absolutely not. Brock Lesnar comes in with three fights -- he's the UFC world champion? Was this done as a publicity stunt to lure in spectators of WWE or does he truly deserve that title?
SI.com: He won those fights, didn't he?
McKee: Yeah, but he didn't put in enough work, the way I look at it. You can throw him bums if you want or get him a real fight. Or you can open up that division and find out who the contenders are, then present that challenge. To me, it makes the sport kind of tainted when you allow a guy like James Toney to come in with no MMA fights to fight a guy like Randy Couture. I couldn't go fight Floyd Mayweather. I want to go fight Floyd Mayweather because I'm the best fighter in the world. I couldn't go decide I want to play on the Lakers. Well, I watched Herschel Walker walk right into MMA and take a fight. It kind of makes the sport look fishy. This is a suspect sport to me because as far as professionals, the definition I understand, is a pro athlete, not an athlete entertaining. That's why they don't grab their crotch or all that crazy stuff they do in MMA, licking blood.
SI.com: So you're substance over style. Again, the question remains: How do you think you would fare against Frankie Edgar or Gray Maynard?
McKee: You and I both know that I would kick B.J.'s ass. Why? Because Frankie Edgar is nowhere near the wrestler that I am. Gray Maynard -- do you think he'll win the title again? Edgar will have a hard time beating Maynard again. Why? Because Maynard's strength is Edgar's strength. Maynard is a lot more powerful, a lot bigger and a lot more dominant in wrestling. So do you want Gray Maynard as a champion? He's undefeated. Or do you like a guy like Edgar? You'd want Edgar because he's going to stand up and bang. But against a really good striker that understands footwork who's going to be disciplined, he'd get his ass whupped and he'd have to take that guy down.
SI.com: But the fact that he can makes him a complete mixed martial artist. That's kind of the point.
McKee: OK, but now he's boring because he can't stand up and bang with a really good striker.
SI.com: Perhaps for some people. Maynard is heavily criticized for his style, yet 10 fights into his career he's going to get a UFC title shot. Critics have said the same about you and yet you've never gotten the chance. Is that a time-and-place thing?
McKee: Well, I think I'm very boisterous, too. And I realize my career is not at the beginning. I'm a veteran. At 40 years old, I'm doing stuff 40-year-old men dream they could do. Wake up every morning and not have to shoot up pain medication or steroids. Train every day. Work with some of the greatest athletes in the world. Some of the most accomplished MMA fighters that I've worked with, they go "Wow, we didn't know you were this good. We didn't know you were this technical. McKee, you definitely got a spot in our heart."
I think over time I've won the right people over and now I've got a bigger fan base than ever before because people are starting to educate themselves in the sport. It's not just about getting in the ring and playing Sock 'Em Robot. We want to see some style. We want to see some technique. Look at the Rampage and Rashad [Evans] fight. That was the most boring fight I've ever seen, but it was the energy behind it that made it look so exciting, which was the UFC. They're very good at pushing and editing because obviously they have a lot of money to do those things. But there are a lot of other organizations out there that deserve the same opportunity.
SI.com: How do you go about resolving the issues found in MMA?
McKee: It starts with me. It starts with the fighter. It starts with a guy who's unafraid to say, I used to be a fighter, I had to walk away from it. You know why? Majority rules. Right now, majority isn't ruling. Money and politicians are ruling right now, and that's a serious problem.
I know you don't want your son out there fighting for nickels and dimes putting it all on the line getting your teeth knocked out, a porcelain jaw. You don't want that, so what do you teach? Teach him to go to school and things you're comfortable with. But he likes to fight. That's what he wants to do. So if that's the choice, wouldn't you want to make it as fair as possible, not just because he's your son but because it's better for everyone who decides they want to fight? That's where I'm at.
SI.com: You talked about retirement, but quite honestly I don't believe you. I think you want to keep fighting or you're going to keep fighting because you don't lose. But do you want to try to make that one run? Have you made a real effort of talking to UFC or another promoter where a top-ranked lightweight is a possibility to fight?
McKee: You know there's no other place to go other than the UFC. We all know that. Will I get the time? Will I get the chance? Only they know that. But what I do know is James Toney got in Dana White's face and just went about it a total different way than I am. I'm a man of integrity. I have kids and people that look up to me. I run a nonprofit program, Fight For Kids, a youth program. I can't step down from the level of integrity and respect I have for myself and my students and kids and adults have for me. I can't step down just to get my shot at UFC by calling Dana White out or threatening someone, or talking bad about somebody, personally and directly destroying their character. That would totally destroy everything I've been doing thus far.
SI.com: Maybe that's the problem. Maybe you just don't fit in the MMA business.
McKee: And that's why I say it may be time for me to go. It's not going to stop me from making money, but in the end I guarantee you people will say that guy right there is one of the best fighters in the world and he never got his shot. Because you can't take away the guys I beat. I beat Marcus Aurelio. I beat some world-class athletes. I went to a draw with Karo Parisyan and he outweighed me by 26 pounds.
I've tried to go and touch every aspect of this sport I can to deliver the honest truth. Not everyone is going to agree with me. But I tell you what, you line all the fighters up, you put them in a room, even if they don't like me they'll say we feel that way but can't say it. I talk to them all! I would like to know at the end of the day I'm not in tax trouble, that I got a little retirement money set aside. I'd like to know if I got my jaw broken, that they're going to cover the medical on my jaw, and pay me a little money when I'm out. Hell, if you tell someone you're an MMA fighter, you can't get insurance coverage.
SI.com: If you never get that shot to say, "I fought the best and I beat the best," are you going to be all right with that?
McKee: I can't ever say that I've fought the best because I believe I am the best. I've fought some of the best, but do we say they're the best just because they came from the UFC? From the guys that I've beaten that fought in the UFC, I demolished and destroyed. [McKee has a winning record against UFC veterans.] Does that not make me one of the best? Is it the organization that makes the fighter the best, or is it the fighter that makes the organization?