MMA star Rhys McKee has set his sights on a swift return to the UFC if he can overcome Justin Burlinson in a welterweight title fight in Cage Warriors’ inaugural event in Belfast this week.
The 26-year-old headlines the event which also features local talents such as Andy Young, Paddy McCrory, and Jordan O’Neill, and has expressed his excitement for what is set to be a historic night for mixed martial arts.
“It’s been so long since I’ve fought in Belfast so it’s going to be a special night and anything I am doing in preparation is testament to how much it means to me. Anyone who has been around me will know that it is such a big deal,” he said.
“The most tickets I have ever sold for a fight was 80 in London one time and this fight is over four times that already, so it is going to be crazy and rightly so given the fighters on the card. To headline the first ever event like this in Belfast is going to be so good.”
Looking specifically at his fight, McKee believes that whilst Burlinson will prove a stern opponent, he can get the better of the Englishman and finally get his hands on a welterweight belt he was initially meant to fight for in 2020 before the pandemic curtailed those plans.
“Justin is a firm test, but I am confident,” he confirmed.
“As much as he is a skilled fighter, and everyone is talented at this level I don’t believe that he is anything I haven’t seen or overcome before, so I’m fully focused on making sure that I win.
“I was due to fight for the belt before, so I feel that this has always been written in my story to happen. It’s a massive deal and all eyes are just on the 25th June and making sure I can secure the belt because obviously there is still a good bit of work to do.”
A productive training camp which is still in full flow ahead of Saturday’s fight has only enhanced his view that he is well prepared to scoop the welterweight title.
“Training has been intense,” he reports.
“I had a mini pre camp for four weeks then I had a few days off to get a bit of sun but now I’m in the second half of the camp where the foot doesn’t come off the gas until after the fight.
“Everything is heightened with two-day sessions and nutrition becoming more important. The weight is coming down so everything is becoming more tailored day by day but, again, maybe because it is in Belfast it feels different this time.
“Sometimes when you are fighting in a different location training and preparation can be a bit of a slog but in this camp, everything is good vibes and I know I am going to be standing in front of a huge Belfast crowd that are just crazy and that spurs me on for sure.”
McKee made the move back to Cage Warriors last year following a bruising experience in the UFC where he lost his only two fights against Khamzat Chimaev and Alex Morono before bouncing back by defeating Aleksi Mäntykivi by TKO, which according to the fighter, was a real confidence boosting victory.
“It was crucial to get the win in October,” he said.
“Coming back from the UFC people always have this stigma that you can’t lose your first fight back in a smaller promotion, so it was important to get the win. Not that I forgot that I could win fights, but I had never lost two in a row in my career at any stage, so I didn’t want to lose three in a row.
“The UFC experience was great in terms of exposing me to everything the higher level has, and it made me realise how bad I want to compete at that level and how I feel that I am destined to do so.
“In the greatest respect to Cage Warriors, I’m built for the UFC, and that is why I’m doing this fight to get back to the UFC. Cage Warriors was the most realistic way of achieving that.
“If I wanted big pay days and to become a celebrity, I would have gone to a different promotion but I’m playing the long game here. I know some people will probably think I’m crazy turning down big money for fights and sometimes maybe I think the same but in the long run it’ll be worthwhile.”
McKee isn’t fazed by the magnitude of the occasion and believes that winning the welterweight title in front of a home crowd would be the fairytale ending to his time in Cage Warriors, before launching himself back into the UFC for a second bite at the cherry.
“It’s the perfect chapter for a book some day to be able to say that I came through Cage Warriors went to the UFC came back completed Cage Warriors by winning a title and returned and to the UFC,” he outlined.
“It’s not something many people have done, Nicolas Dalby did it and I take huge inspiration from his story.
“Ever since I was a young kid, I relished having the pressure and being in the spotlight, so this is another chance to show what I am made of this time in front of a huge crowd, and I just hope to have the fruits of my labour pay off.”