Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. This might make sense in the business world, team sports, or even in true war. In the fight game, those waters can get muddy. With all of the cross-training fighters do and the fact that the MMA world is a pretty small one, friends and acquaintances might have to fight on occasion, even if they don’t want to. It doesn’t mean they are enemies, though. It’s just business.
Legacy Fighting Alliance lightweight Aaron McKenzie grew up in Oklahoma City, Okla. He is the oldest of five siblings who range in age from 32 down to 12. Of the five, he was the only real athlete.
“I had a great mom and great grandparents that helped bring me up,” McKenzie told Combat Press. “We didn’t live in the nicest area. I probably had double-digit bikes stolen, but it was never a bad time. I was out every day, playing sports with my friends, playing football out in the street or in the field across the street, skating, just doing what we could to be outside. I can’t really complain too much.”
McKenzie played football when he was growing up, but he didn’t play organized sports when he went off to Northeastern State University in northeastern Oklahoma. He kept his head down and earned two Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s degree, all in the realm of health, human performance, and kinesiology. It was in Tahlequah that he found his first foray into martial arts.
“I quit playing football in college,” McKenzie said. “I was playing every pick-up sport known to man still. I was out playing volleyball, football, soccer, [or] basketball just about every day of the week, and I just needed something. I found out there was an MMA gym in town. I went and showed up, and I never stopped showing up. I took my first fight three months later and won, and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.”
Upon returning to his hometown after college, McKenzie started training under the wing of highly decorated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor and fourth degree black belt Rafael Lovato Jr., who went on to become the Bellator middleweight champion after going 10-0 in MMA.
“I’ve been working with Professor Rafael now for six years,” McKenzie stated. “I started in 2015. I have a purple belt. I was fighting a bit as an amateur before that.”
Since making his pro debut in September 2015, McKenzie has gone on to become one of the standout fighters from Lovato’s team. He currently sits at 9-2-1 and has finished his opponents in all but one of his victories. He has never been stopped, either. McKenzie has fought and trained a lot in his home state and in Texas. He has cross-trained at War Room Kickboxing & MMA under striking coach Steven Wright in Fort Worth. Wright is the head coach for Thai “Landshark” Clark, who McKenzie spars with regularly.
McKenzie’s last fight took place at LFA 94 in October, when he went the distance with former The Ultimate Fighter Season 27 contestant Joe Giannetti. McKenzie picked up the unanimous-decision win and had a good learning experience.
“Joe is such a weird guy, and he has a style unlike anybody,” McKenzie explained. “It just kind of helped me to realize I have to be comfortable in bad spots, because you’re going to be there sometimes. I just keep working on being comfortable in bad spots. And when I get the opportunity to get a finish, I need to full-on get that finish. I can’t miss it. I missed a couple opportunities in that fight, and I don’t want that to happen ever again.”
About five weeks ago, McKenzie found out he would headline this weekend’s LFA 104 card in Shawnee, right outside of his hometown. Everything was looking great. Then, he found out who his opponent was going to be: Brandon Phillips.
“As soon as I heard the name, I got a little sad,” admitted McKenzie. “He’s my best training partner’s cousin. [Thai] was the very first person I texted, before I even messaged Rafael. I was like, ‘Hey, they offered me Brandon as an opponent. What do you think? If you don’t want me to fight him, I won’t fight him.’ So, [the LFA] and I talked a little bit, and I asked them if there was anybody else available, maybe, for me to fight, because I would take them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anybody else.”
Phillips and Clark may be cousins, but they don’t train at the same gym. Phillips fights out of the American Top Team affiliate in Oklahoma City. McKenzie and Phillips have never trained together, but McKenzie has streamed one of Phillips’ fights for Clark while Clark was competing in a tournament.
“Brandon is just a tough dude,” McKenzie said. “He’s been around for a long time. He’s only lost to the best guys out there. Like, his only losses are to guys like Bryce Mitchell and AJ McKee. That’s pretty high level. Watching the AJ McKee fight, there’s people that thought he might have won. He’s definitely as tough as they come, you know? He’s moving up weight classes, though, so I’d like to welcome him to this one. I’d like to make it not so good of a time for him.”
While Phillips does not quite have the finishing rate of McKenzie on paper, his only stoppage loss was to Mitchell, who is now a UFC standout. He also has his fair share of wins by finish. He has competed professionally in both boxing and kickboxing as well, so he is certainly no slouch on the feet.
Both men have a couple appearances in the Bellator cage, and each has suffered both wins and losses there. They are no strangers to the big stage.
“If I’m feeling good on the feet, I might keep it there,” said the Oklahoma native. “The advantage that I have with my grappling is that I can kind of decide where it’s going to be. He might be good at getting off the bottom, but I’m good at putting people back down there over and over again. We can play that fight if we need to, but I’m just going to see where the fight flows and figure it out from there.”
After college, McKenzie realized he was a lot happier punching people in the face than he was using his degrees, so, for now, those are on the backburner. He has a wife and two pugs. His life mostly revolves around them, his training, and his job at a feed store. While he would have preferred an opponent who was not related to his training partner, he knows that if he wants to continue to build his career in MMA, then he needs to take the fights he is presented with and understand that business is business.
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