From admiring boxing legend Carl Frampton on city center billboards to headlining Belfast’s SSE Arena in his own name, Rhys McKee is reveling in the moment.
The 26-year-old from Ballymena is gearing up for his biggest fight night yet, headlining Cage Warriors 140 in his own backyard against Justin Burlinson. There is also the small issue that there is a welterweight title on the line.
McKee remembers seeing Frampton, a former two-weight world boxing champion, light up the fighting scene in Northern Ireland. The Jackal regularly enjoyed sold-out parties at the SSE punctuated with partisan crowds and plenty of glory.
Read more: Cage Warriors 140: Justin Burlinson plays down title prospects for ‘home’ boy Rhys McKee
With Frampton now retired, McKee believes there is a void in the Northern Ireland fight scene, with fans calling for a new hero. And he is ready to deliver.
“I’ve worked my whole career to be here. To see Carl Frampton on billboards and things like that,” he told Belfast Live.
“You don’t really know if it’s possible when you’re young. But here we are and I’m living my dream.”
It’s McKee’s face that adorns billboards around Belfast ahead of Saturday’s world title clash. He headlined Cage Warriors ahead of the organization’s first visit to the city.
“It was a day after practice on a Saturday and my fiancée Rebecca and I decided to take a trip to see one of the billboards. There’s no better time than that,” a- he declared.
“It was really special, and much more special than I thought. I’m very proud of it.”
McKee also believes there is a “big gap” for a young MMA star to catch the attention of Northern Irish audiences. And an opportunity to make mixed martial arts a domestic sport here.
“There’s a big void there, that’s for sure. And a 6ft 3ft man from Ballymena could surely fill it,” he smiled.
“I totally agree. And MMA is still finding its way here, it’s not yet a household name in Northern Ireland.
“I think he’s still waiting to be accepted. But I think I bring something different to the table as an athlete.
“I’m not your Conor McGregor, your loud character. I’m a little more respectful, I guess.
“So I believe I can become a household name, and I believe I can help MMA gain more acceptance in Northern Ireland.”
He added: “I am proud to put Ballymena on the map. Unfortunately there is no notice board in Ballymena, that is something we need to change for next time.
“Maybe next time they’ll put one on. That’s when I would have.”
The SSE Arena will be a cauldron of noise when McKee and Burlinson enter the cage on Saturday night. Most will support the home fighter.
“I’m so excited to hear the roar of a crowd. Anyone who’s been on the Odyssey, as we know it, knows the big roar of the crowd,” McKee said.
“It’s just special, and it’s a special arena. I fought at York Hall and there were about a thousand fans there, so it’s going to be packed.
“It will be loud people, probably drunk too. And you know the noise is coming and it will be spectacular.”
And McKee says he would like this to be the start of something special for MMA in Belfast. And lead to more great nights in the city.
He added: “Even the boxing promotions will be watching this. They’ll be wondering what the plan is and how do they do it?
“And at the same time they can see me. So it’s good for me, good for Cage Warriors.
“We’re all in a really good position, and that’s accelerating it even more. That’s why people have to watch it if they can.”
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