LONG BEACH, Calif. — With a 2-year-old son, Antonio McKee knew he needed to live out of a garage. He ditched his apartment payments for about six months to keep his son, AJ, in a private daycare and continue paying rent on his gym.
He wanted AJ to have a better life than he did growing up and that meant keeping his business functioning and eventually putting AJ into private school. The stay in the garage only lasted about six months, and was followed by a brief period when Antonio was living in his gym.
Before AJ entered preschool, his father had set a precedent. The McKees are fighters and mixed martial arts would help them make ends meet.
“It's in the McKee DNA,” Antonio said. “It's in our blood.”
On Saturday, both Antonio and AJ will fight about 20 miles north from their hometown Long Beach in Inglewood, California, inside The Forum at Bellator 228. It’ll mark the second time in MMA history that a father-son duo is fighting on the same card. Antonio, 49, hasn’t fought in nearly five years but owns a career 29-6 record. AJ, 24, is 14-0 and will be fighting in the first round of the 16-man World Featherweight Grand Prix but will first watch from the corner as his father fights.
“I'm scared,” AJ said. “So I told him my warmup is going to be his fight because I'm going to have an adrenaline rush during his fight for sure.”
AJ first learned to fight through wrestling with his dad at 5 years old. Antonio, a former lightweight division champion in the Maximum Fighting Championships, was an expert at holding opponents on the ground, which some fans viewed as boring, Antonio said.
The goal was to morph AJ into a more exciting version of Antonio’s past self: A fighter that can knock someone out with a vicious kick to the head but still hold his own on the ground.
“My dad, he's just been around it for so long,” AJ said. “He literally knows f----- everything about what you need for the fight game. It plays a big benefit and improvement utilizing him in my gameplan.”
Despite an undefeated record, AJ hasn’t always been fully focused on fighting. In those moments Antonio has treated AJ the same as any other athlete at his gym, BodyShop Fitness.
Marlen Magee, a longtime family friend who also trains at Bodyshop Fitness, said that the elder McKee focuses on not allowing outside factors to impact training.
“When that seems to happen that's when the scolding comes,” Magee said.
In 2016, Antonio told AJ his sloppy performance at a workout was unacceptable and as the father and son exchanged words, AJ threw his left hand into a Mini Cooper. He’d fight his next event with a broken hand.
A year later, AJ barely showed up to training for a fight in Dublin, Ireland, against Brian Moore. While AJ spent late nights out drinking vodka or Hennessy in Hollywood nightclubs, Antonio paced his house praying. That was the worried father. When it came to training, Antonio wasn’t so sympathetic. He knew AJ would have to learn the consequences of not preparing for a fight.
In the fight against Moore, AJ struggled and a cut above his right eye gushed. After a slow start to the fight, AJ eventually submitted Moore late in the third round.
“It was kind of like a wake up point in life in general,” AJ said.
Not long after that fight, Antonio stopped driving AJ to the gym every morning. He made him set his own alarm. And in the last six months or so, Antonio thinks AJ’s beginning to come into his own as a professional.
Now, just as AJ’s beginning to figure it all out, dad will come back for at least one more fight. Antonio’s trained with his team at Bodyshop alongside his fighters over the last several years and believes he’s ready. He noted that if he is to win on Saturday, he thinks he could be competitive for the championship belt at 155 and will stay unretired hoping for that opportunity.
But the result of Antonio’s fight on Saturday isn’t the most significant thing to either McKee. It’s really just about a father, a son and a shared passion for fighting.
“There is no loss,” Antonio said. “Nothing but victory. I fight the same night my son fights, how could you lose?”
More from Yahoo Sports: