Terrance McKinney has come back from the dead twice to be a rising UFC star

By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 2 months ago

Terrance McKinney’s UFC debut last all of seven seconds.

He walked to the center of the Octagon in his traditional southpaw stance, touched gloves with Matt Frevola, and dropped him with a clean one-two, swarming with follow-up blows as referee Jason Herzog scurried to get between them.

As soon as Frevola lifted his right leg slightly off the ground, McKinney pulled the trigger.

Pop-POP!

“We were drilling it in the back. Before he planted from the kick — because I knew he was testing the distance — we trained in the back to go with the one-two,” said McKinney, recalling the right-left two-piece that put the veteran New Yorker on the deck, earned one of the most impressive knockouts of the first half of the year and fifth position on the UFC editorial staff’s list of Top Newcomers at the midway point.

“I think that’s the best debut in history.”

While it’s place in the pantheon of first showings is another debate for another time, the road that led to McKinney making the walk at UFC 259 and delivering such an eye-opening performance is one of perseverance, faith, and finding your calling.

The Night McKinney Died … Twice

Six years prior to McKinney’s seven-second debut, the Spokane native was tased multiple times and died twice, one last night of youthful excess gone horribly awry.

“I knew I wanted to start changing my life, so I was like, ‘I’m just going to party one last time and I’m gonna take everything seriously this year, try to win a national title,’” McKinney told OSDB recently, recalling the events of June 10, 2015.

“So I got everything set up, get some liquor, we’re smoking and drinking, and I take a vial of acid and over an eighth of ‘shrooms. I’m at the mall and it starts hitting me, and I’m like, ‘I need to go home ASAP.’ We go back to the party, we’re in there, and things are getting crazy.”

The 20-year-old was spiraling out in the midst of a bad trip — freaked out by everyone around him, seeing demons, speaking in tongues.

He fell through a window, suffering a pretty gnarly gash over his eye.

That’s the last thing he remembers, but footage from his encounter with police later that evening has helped fill in some of the blanks.

Seated up against a wooden fence wearing nothing but his boxer shorts, high out of his mind and bleeding from the cut over his eye, the officers approached McKinney, trying to converse with him. When they tried to engage him, McKinney fought back, flailing his arms and legs, resulting in two officers deploying their tasers, which ultimately allowed them to subdue McKinney, getting him onto a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance.

Strapped down with a spit hood over his head, blood still streaming from the bandaged gash over his eye, McKinney’s heart stopped twice while he was being transported to the hospital.

“I figured all this stuff out the next day when I was in the hospital,” said McKinney, who has become a certified peer counselor and taken to sharing his story as a cautionary tale to others that could travel the same path. “I thought I was going to be in jail for a long time because I injured four cops, but God really blessed me that I didn’t have to go to jail for that.”

The experience was an eye-opener for McKinney, who earned junior college All-American status at North Idaho College before moving on to Division-II Chadron State College in Nebraska. Shuttling between college and home to deal with court dates and the fallout from his chaotic night was trying, prompting McKinney to leave the school, and after a semester at a Notre Dame College of Ohio, he shifted his focus to fighting.

An Abundance of Upside

Michael Chiesa met McKinney when the former was serving as a wrestling coach at his alma mater, Shandle Park High School, and the latter was an undersized, but eager freshman.

“His freshman season, he didn’t have the best start,” recalled Chiesa, a fellow Spokane native who won Season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter and is current stationed at No. 5 in the UFC’s welterweight rankings. “I think he was maybe .500, but it sparked this fire in him, and once the spark was there, it turned into this great blaze.

“Wrestling consumed his life. His mom made him his own little wrestling room in his basement that he called ‘T-Rex Wrestling,’ and by his sophomore year, he got third at state. His junior year, he wins it, and then he repeats again his senior year.”

One of the mixed martial arts trailblazers for the “big small town” they each call home, Chiesa and McKinney would eventually end up in the same gym, training alongside one another at Sikjitsu under Rick Little.

The scrappy freshman who had passion, but limited results was an aspiring fighter, eager to follow the path blazed by the 33-year-old “Maverick” and teammates, Sam Sicilia and Julianna Pena, all of whom worked their way onto the UFC roster.

Next month at UFC 265 in Houston, Chiesa and Pena share the Pay-Per-View main card, with Chiesa taking on fellow welterweight hopeful Vicente Luque, and Pena battling reigning champ Amanda Nunes for the bantamweight title in the co-main event of the evening.

As far as Chiesa is concerned, he wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if McKinney ascended to similar heights in his UFC career.

“He’d always talk about wanting to be a fighter, so to me, it comes as no surprise that he’s in the position he’s in now,” said Chiesa, who also serves as a studio analyst for UFC broadcasts on ESPN+ and recently starred in a Jose Cuervo ad alongside fellow standout Justin Gaethje. “He’s pound-for-pound the strongest guy I’ve ever trained with.

“There is so much talent there, and usually, talented guys don’t like to train, but Terrance loves to train; he loves to be on the mat. It’s no surprise to me that he is where he is and I’m really excited to see where he goes from here. He can take this thing as far as he wants, as long as he makes the right choices outside of the Octagon.”

Staying Focused

Chiesa isn’t the only one that recognizes the high upside the explosive UFC newcomer possesses and the key piece to making sure he reaches those heights.

Pablo Alfonso, the owner and head coach at Warrior Camp, had heard tales of McKinney’s athleticism and wrestling acumen, as well as the grisly details of his police encounter when the aspiring fighter walked through the doors of his gym in early 2020, stuck in a two-fight skid.

“I talked to him about his past and he told me, ‘I want to straighten my life out. I want to join this gym, be with you guys, and pursue my dreams,” said Alfonso, a former pro fighter himself who has shifted his focus to helping the next generation realize their dreams. “I promised him that I was going to take him to the UFC, because I knew this kid had talent and had a good wrestling background.”

McKinney’s terrible night was a major story in Spokane, which has continued to produce elite-level MMA talent, including current Ultimate Fighter contestants Brady Hiestand and Josh Rettinghouse, and so the message from Alfonso to his new charge was simple.

“I told him, ‘If you don’t show up every day, I’m not going to hold mitts for you and I’m not going to do extra stuff for you,’” recalled Alonso, who was quick to add that McKinney has been in the gym nearly every day since.

McKinney didn’t compete at all in 2020, a combination of COVID-19 sidelining the majority of the regional promotions throughout the country and the aspiring UFC fighter taking time to work with Alfonso to further develop his game.

Already a strong wrestler with a solid submission game, the two focused almost exclusively on striking, while McKinney also made the decision to move up a division and compete at lightweight.

“I just took a year straight to work on my stand-up,” said McKinney, who entered the year with a 7-3 record, having lost his last two fights to current UFC competitors Sean Woodson and Darrick Minner. “I closed the gaps I knew I needed to work on because I knew that once my stand-up was complete, I would be a dangerous, dangerous dude.

“I got stronger, and quit cutting weight too because I never used to get injured before I started cutting weight to make 145, and I feel like that played a huge part in my performance as well,” added McKinney, who anticipates moving up again at some point in his career.

The diligence in the gym clearly paid off, as the man known as “T. Wrecks” came out of the gates white hot to begin 2021, registering two wins in eight weeks over a combined 33 seconds before taking on Michael Irizarry in the main event of LFA 109 on June 4.

He pushed his winning streak to three by dispatching Irizarry in 72 seconds, and the following day, he got the call to fill in for Frank Camacho opposite Frevola at UFC 263.

“I already felt in my spirit that the call was going to come because as you see, I’ve been putting people’s lights out all year,” he said with a well-earned confident laugh. “I knew the call was going to come and that this time, I needed to stay low in my stance, not be so overly aggressive and just pick my shots.

“I’m just real, real grateful for the opportunity; it was such an honor,” McKinney added in regards to his short-notice call-up to the major leagues of mixed martial arts. “I’ve been dreaming about this forever.”

What’s Next?

When you deliver a performance like that, everyone sits up and takes notice.

The next thing they do is start projecting where you fit in the division, working through fantasy matchmaking options, and trying to figure out if your breakthrough showing was a fluke or foreshadowing of things to come.

With 10 first-round stoppage finishes in his 11 career wins, including five others that took less than a minute, it’s pretty clear that McKinney is an explosive finisher, whether on his feet or on the canvas.

As for what comes next and where he’ll ultimately end up, Chiesa urges patience in trying to figure out where his former wrestling student and teammate fits within the lightweight hierarchy.

“When you have these great entrances into the UFC, there is an immense amount of hype that gets put on you, rightfully so,” began Chiesa, shifting into the analyst role he’s transitioned into seamlessly when he’s not preparing for his own appearances inside the Octagon. “I think he’s going to win a lot of fights in the UFC; that’s the one prediction I can make.

“He’s had shortcomings in his career and that’s where you learn to grow, learn a lot about yourself. I think he’s going to win a lot of fights in the UFC and he can take this thing as far as he wants to go, as long as he puts in the work and keeps himself on the straight and narrow.”

 

Alfonso agrees, though he’s willing to set the ceiling even higher.

“He’s still evolving and he picks things up like The Matrix,’” Alfonso offered, likening teaching McKinney a new technique or drill to plugging him into a computer and downloading the information directly into his head. “He’s very smart, has a very high Fight IQ — if I can keep this kid confident and I can keep this kid focused, he can go all the way to the title.”

As for McKinney, he’s eyeing lofty heights too, only his focus extends beyond his exploits inside the Octagon.

“I always looked up to GSP,” began the breakout lightweight, invoking the acronym of Georges St-Pierre, a former two-division UFC champion largely considered to be amongst the best to compete and a leading example of sportsmanship and how to carry yourself like a professional in the occasionally wild mixed martial arts world.

“With him it was always, ‘Don’t just be a champion in the cage — be a champion off the mat too,’ and that is the kind of the energy I’m trying to carry throughout my whole life.”

But when he does step back into the cage, McKinney doesn’t feel any pressure to replicate his debut effort, though he knows he’s more than capable and prefers handling his business in expedient fashion.

“I’ve got 10 first-round finishes out of my 11 wins,” he stated, reiterating his penchant for finishing quickly. “We don’t get paid by the minute, and if I finish in the first round, the hourly rate is way better.”

Six years after the worst night of his life, Terrance McKinney is living his dream.

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