This Weekend’s Warriors: Rhys McKee’s Baptism of Fire

Rhys McKee | Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors

This Weekend’s Warriors is back once again! As always, here at Severe MMA we like to shine a light on MMA fighters from the island of Ireland competing worldwide. As domestic promotions begin to announce events scheduled for later in 2020, one of the biggest news days of the year in Irish MMA emerged early Sunday morning from Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.

Within hours of Irish MMA stalwart Joseph Duffy’s retirement, ESPN’s Brett Okamoto broke the news that Ballymena fighter Rhys McKee was the hot favourite to step in on short notice to face surging Swedish prospect Khamzat Chimaev, who thoroughly demolished SBG Ireland’s John Phillips just 3 days previous in his UFC debut.

In a moment that truly felt like a changing of the guard for Irish MMA, the UFC confirmed the news via the ESPN broadcast for UFC Fight Night: Figueiredo vs Benavidez 2. Farewell Joseph Duffy, and welcome to the UFC, Rhys McKee!

Rhys “Skeletor” McKee (10-2-1) vs Khamzat Chimaev (7-0-0)

McKee has widely been tipped as the hottest prospect out of Ireland in 2020. The Next Gen NI athlete was originally scheduled to fight for the Cage Warriors welterweight title in the main event of CW115 in May. That event would have been the European promotion’s first professional fight card to be held in Belfast, however, the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the goal may have been to win the Cage Warriors title and then graduate to the UFC ranks, McKee’s career now takes a different path as he steps in on a week’s notice to face Sweden’s Khamzat Chimaev on the main card of UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs Till.

McKee is no stranger to fighting with little time to prepare; his professional MMA career began in similar fashion. When John Redmond’s bout against Kieran Davern fell through ahead of BAMMA 22, it was McKee who jumped up two weight classes to take on “Johnny Jitzu” on short notice, submitting the 14-fight veteran in the first round.

Photo by Dolly Clew / Cage Warriors

McKee would go on to twice win the BAMMA lightweight title, before progressing to UFC feeder organisation Cage Warriors. “Skeletor” would go undefeated in the promotion, knocking out Jefferson George, submitting Perry Goodwin, and most recently dropping Håkon Foss with a jab and finishing the fight with follow-up strikes in the main event of Cage Warriors 110 in Neptune Stadium, Cork. At just 24 years old, the Next Gen NI man has more than proven himself on the regional scene, but his UFC debut against Khamzat Chimaev will be the biggest test of his young career to date.

Chimaev is a hot prospect in his own right. The Chechen-born Swede is undefeated, and has never so much as seen a third round in his career. “Borz” (chechen for “The Wolf”) made a name for himself under the Brave CF promotional banner, implementing a relentless pressure-heavy wrestling strategy to overwhelm his opponents and then break their will with ground and pound.

After repeatedly impressing in the Bahraini fight circuit, Chimaev received an invitation to the big show. “The Wolf” made a loud statement with his annihilation of Phillips, drawing comparisons to UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. A dominant UFC debut finish wasn’t enough for Chimaev though, as he pleaded with UFC President Dana White to be matched once more on Fight Island. When McKee agreed to be his Huckleberry, Chimaev’s wish was granted.

Khamzat Chimaev | Photo by Jeff Bottari / Zuffa LLC

An undefeated prospect who had one of the most dominant UFC debuts in history. Is Rhys McKee being thrown to “The Wolf?” The bookies would have you believe so, with Paddy Power recently offering a McKee match win at 6/1. If I was a betting man, which I am, those odds would look very appealing to me.

There is no question that this is a far from ideal stylistic matchup for McKee, especially on a week’s notice. McKee is a long rangey fighter who does some of his best work striking from a distance, while Chimaev’s forte is closing the distance, dictating where the fight takes place, and wearing down his opponents. The odds are stacked against McKee, and Chimaev is a rightful betting favourite.

That being said, there seems to be a narrative that Chimaev simply needs to show up on the night, and walk through McKee, and I don’t think that is accurate at all. McKee has bona fide knockout power in his hands. His teammates and former sparring partners routinely refer to the “death touch” McKee possesses, and the Ballymena man has looked more and more impressive each time he has stepped in the cage. I am also interested to see how Chimaev adjusts to moving back down to welterweight, just 10 days after fighting 15lbs heavier. If Chimaev does take him to the mat, McKee should be more comfortable and dangerous than John Phillips was, as displayed when McKee submitted Kams Ekpo off his back with a triangle choke.

Is McKee facing a massive challenge? Yes, but he is also more than capable of rising to the challenge, and as the only active Irish UFC fighter, he is faced with an incredible opportunity to come in on a week’s notice, steal Chimaev’s shine, and begin his 4-fight UFC contract with an underdog victory story.

For now, we will have to wait until Saturday night to see how it all plays out. McKee vs Chimaev will be broadcast on the main card of UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs Till, and it can be watched on BT Sport.

Andy is a multimedia reporter, interviewer, writer, with a strong focus on Irish MMA. Co-host of The Auld Triangle podcast. Follow Andy on Twitter (@andyste123) and Instagram (@andystevensonMMA).

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