From North to South, Rhys McKee is the most unanimously praised emerging pro in Ireland.
The 21-year-old Next Generation product has set the scene alight since making his pro bow in September 2015.
His assignment that night was 15-fight veteran John Redmond, a former national title challenger. Despite jumping up two weight classes from his featherweight mainstay as an amateur, McKee submitted Redmond in the first round of their showdown in front of a sizeable gathering at the 3 Arena.
The wins and finishes have continued to come thick and fast.
Alex Masuku, Shane Luther and decorated Irish Muay Thai proponent Tommy McCafferty all ended up on the wrong side of McKee’s sublime striking sequences on route to first-round losses.
In his last outing against Jai Herbert, McKee showcased his composure, grit and killer instinct in his dispatch of the celebrated lightweight. In what has since become a seminal moment in the young Ballymena man’s career, he dedicated the spectacular win to his father who passed away in the weeks leading up to the fight.
Just 14 months into his professional career, McKee had already claimed his first title and ever since then it’s been impossible to overlook the momentum and excitement that is steadily growing around the unbeaten 155er.
Now, as he prepares to perform as a professional for the first time in Northern Ireland at BAMMA 28 on Friday night, McKee is very aware of the buzz that he has created.
“Everyone is flat out talking about the fight at home,” said McKee after the Bellator 173/BAMMA 28 press conference in Belfast yesterday afternoon.
“Honestly, there are members of my family that have never even been to Belfast before and they’re going for the fight. They’re real country folk, so even seeing them in the arena will be weird.
“I can feel the momentum gathering, and rightly so. I’ve had five professional fights and I have five finishes. It’s going to be six after Friday night, so I think everyone is right to be excited about me at the moment.”
Joe McColgan, who has sparred ‘Skeletor’ in the past, has noticed that similarities between McKee’s threats and that of UFC superstar’s Conor McGregor. According to the FAI man, as well as having knockout power, McKee has the boxing acumen to set up his finishing shots.
McKee believes his ability to shut the lights out on his opponents only adds to the intrigue that has been building.
“I think the fact that I’m a knockout artist definitely has helped me get some attention. I don’t look like the most intimidating guy in the world, but when I hit someone clean I know they’ll go down.
“People sign on the dotted line to fight me and they always think that my last opponent had a weak chin and that’s why they got knocked out. I know they’re going to feel exactly the same way when I hit them.
“It’s great to have that kind of stopping power, it’s got me out of a few sticky situations in the past!” he laughed.
Asked whether he feels more pressure than usual going into his bout with fellow unbeaten lightweight Tim Barnett, McKee insisted that he feels better than ever since leaving his full-time job to focus on his fight career.
“Honestly, I don’t feel pressure. I felt pressure when I had a nine-to-five job and I had to balance that with my fighting career. Now that I’ve gone full-time with fighting, it feels like I’m living the dream every day. Not a lot of people get to do that.
“I worked as a coach builder in a bus factory, that’s a recognized trade. Up here, a lot of people would consider that a job for life, and a very good one at that. I agree with them, but I just feel better making money for myself rather than someone else.”
You get the feeling that a lot of doors could open for McKee with another win on Friday night. Confident that he can embrace his new platform and defend his title for the first time, the Lonsdale champion believes he can be the man to endear the broader Northern Irish masses to MMA.
“This is the fight that will change everything for me. I can’t exactly put my finger on what it will be, but there is something in the air ahead of this one. It’s just different.
“I’m really excited to get this fight won and then see what it will lead to. I’m very excited about the next step in my career.
“Everybody in Ireland is talking about me. It’s sort of confined to that bubble at the moment. There is interest in Europe, but I feel like this is my chance to really let everyone know what I’m all about.
“I’m ready to put Northern Ireland on the map again. You know, there have been plenty of boxers who have struck a chord with the people up here, but I feel like I could be the guy that gets everyone up here excited about MMA. I would love to be the guy that leads this little country to the success that it deserves.”
McKee always looks for the hardest task he can find in terms of opponents. He highlighted that despite being offered a less experienced fighter as well as Chris Stringer after Myles Price was forced out of the initial title fight, he opted for Stringer because he wanted to challenge himself.
Stringer’s late withdrawal made way for Tim Barnett; an opponent McKee is grateful for due to his standing in the UK.
“When Myles Price had to pull out I was offered a veteran of the game, Chris Stringer, and I got offered another guy with a smaller record. I took the fight with Stringer because I wanted the harder challenge.
“I’ll continue to go after the hardest fights. You don’t get anywhere from cutting corners in this game.
“I’m glad that my opponent is well respected on the UK scene. He’s 3-0 now, but unfortunately, my journey will continue on Friday night and he will be stalled out a bit.”