Ireland’s Rhys McKee was dealt one of the toughest decks of cards in recent memory when he signed for the UFC. A short-notice debut against phenom and now no.3 ranked welterweight in the world, Khamzat Chimaev, was followed by a matchup against 10-fight UFC vet Alex Morono.
After falling short on his first attempt, UFC matchmakers sent McKee away to hone his skills and reestablish himself on the European scene.
On Saturday night, in front of a sold-out Belfast crowd, the 26-year-old from Ballymena overcame a violent onslaught before stopping Justin Burlinson in the 3rd round of their CW140 main event. In doing so, not only did McKee become the new Cage Warriors Welterweight Champion, but he also sent a message to the UFC brass.
The fight itself was an all-time classic, right up there with the best wars in promotional history alongside Houston vs. Dalby and Wood vs. Reed.
McKee earned the title shot off the back of arguably a career-best performance too, stopping Finland’s Aleksi Mäntykivi in round 3 of their contest last October. After notching back-to-back finishes, it’s hard to argue that “Skeletor” doesn’t deserve to be mixing it again with the world’s elite fighters.
“I can’t see what else would be left to accomplish in Cage Warriors. I kind of completed it twice.” McKee explained to MyMMANews.com.
“I’ve no ill feelings towards the UFC about what happened before, but this will be the real debut. This will be the real signing, when I sign for them next. That will be the real one! I’ll count the next one as my UFC debut, for sure. Not the last one. I would smoke the kid that was in the UFC prior, definitely. I think that’s evident. I don’t think I’m even saying this to sell a fight or to sell getting re-signed. I think it’s that clear.”
When it comes to ticking boxes for UFC matchmakers Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby, McKee feels that the nature and occasion in which he captured the title on Saturday night should be more than enough to warrant him a return to facing the world’s elite fighters:
“I know I should be fighting with the best in the world,” McKee exclaimed.
“[My performance] showed being able to do it on the big nights. The brightest of the brightest of the bright lights in Belfast, in your home crowd. It showed dealing with an issue, staying calm. It showed having the pull, having the attraction to a crowd, having the attention on you and being able to come up with the goods. It showed that I’m a finisher, and it showed that I’m exciting. If there’s a motto of the UFC, all the words that I just said would be the motto. I’ve provided exactly what they want, and what I believe is what they want in their brand.”
The golden age of Irish MMA that saw the likes of Conor McGregor, Neil Seery, Aisling Daly, Paddy Holohan and more file through the UFC’s doors is long gone. However, there’s a new era of Irish fighters that have reignited the embers the previous generation left behind. Long-time MMA journalist Petesy Carroll underlined the importance of Saturday night, not only for Rhys McKee, but the Irish scene as a whole.
This is one of those nights that will become part of the legend of the Irish scene. Felt like 2012 at the Helix. https://t.co/u2V5zaogJZ— Peter Carroll (@PetesyCarroll) June 26, 2022
As far as fighters from the north of the island go, McKee is currently leading the pack. The general consensus from those on the scene is that it’s time for round 2 with Dana White and company. The question now turns to whether the UFC brass are receptive to the idea. For McKee though, it’s a simple decision:
“I would just say to watch the fights. Remember what you asked me to go and do, and then have a look and see if I’ve done it. And I’ve done it! You know, that’s it, it’s that simple. I followed a to-do list. I went and developed. I got the wins. I got the finishes. I made enough noise. I’m a completely different version of myself. I showed previously that I’d fight anyone, anywhere, and then I went and did what you asked me to do. I also never had a bad taste in my mouth, I never said a bad thing about the UFC. I still say they’re the best in the world, and all I want to do is prove myself against the best in the world. It couldn’t be any more simple. And everyone wants Rhys McKee back in the UFC!”
Andy Stevenson is an MMA writer, interviewer, and occasional podcaster based in Dublin, Ireland.