Often, dreams are born from nightmares. Just ask the scariest dudes and women inhabiting the world of combat sports. Most have needed to make their way out of the most unimaginably oppressive situations by thriving in the hurt business. It’s actually a tradeoff that allows us to embrace the brutality of the sport. So, inside the Octagon, Khalil Rountree Jr is a bad, bad man. The UFC light heavyweight did his job on the main card of UFC Fight Night 203 inside the promotion’s Apex Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 15. The official stoppage of a savage beatdown at the expense of Carl Roberson came at the 0:25 mark of Round No. 2. When it was over, he stood flat footed, and laid bare his thoughts for the world to hear.
“I don't want to wait until I'm a champion to be able to tell my story, and where I come from, being a 300-pound kid on the brink of suicide, burdened by depression, and not knowing what to do with my life—not knowing where to go.”
So what is his story?
Known as “The War Horse,” the 32 year old Khalil Rountree Jr (11-5, 1 NC) was over 300 pounds at his heaviest, at age 20, before he was introduced to Muay Thai and MMA by his older brother, fellow MMA fighter Donavon Frelow. He wasn’t looking to become a professional in the sport. Instead, Rountree desperately wanted to lose weight and shed the mindset that had him wrapped in binge eating and cigarette smoking. They were coping mechanisms from being a social outcast and touring the country with rock bands. By age 19 he didn’t know if he was “going to wake up in the morning.” When his journey to health and wellness began, he dropped 100 pounds in just 11 months of training.
The lucidity found in the violence of combat sports can be liberating. Most fighters are either desperately fighting their way out of something, or fighting to achieve what they once thought was impossible.
Khalil Rountree Jr was introduced to a wider audience as a finalist of season 23 of UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). (Click here if you want to check out his Instagram page.) During his appearance on the show, he shared that his father, Roderick “Khalili” Rountree, was murdered in Chicago. The road manager for multi-platinum selling R&B group Boyz II Men was shot in the head during a robbery plot. Khalil was just 2-years-old at the time. Until he was a young teen, he was led to believe his father died from a sickness.
Khalil Rountree Jr happened to be one of the best bets on that UFC 50 card, paying out at +250. That’s highly appropriate for a man who used what is typically a perfunctory post-fight interview as a battle cry to affirm others. “I want to be able to tell a story with my life and not just come in here and fight. Yes, this made me who I am today but I want to be able to do something big. If I want to take on the world that way, I've got to have focus.”
The Los Angeles native took the mic and said what a lot of us have known for quite a while, that a fighter’s life doesn’t begin and end at an event. It’s the journey, all the time in between is where the most important moments live.
Rountree shared with reporters, “We’re still people. Yes, I come in here and I put on performances, and people know me as fighting. That whole part of when I was 300 pounds with not a hope or a dream, or dollar in my pocket, stepped into an MMA gym to try to change my life. Every time I’m in here that’s still the growth. It’s not like I’ve just surpassed that person. Every single day I have to wake up to that person. Every single day I have to fight that person.” He spoke through tears, “Just because I’m in the UFC doesn’t mean, just because I fight doesn’t mean that person is long gone. I still have doubts.” He bravely admitted that he'd faced down suicidal ideation, that he's battled depression, and said he wanted to maybe lift up a few folks who are down on their luck and are feeling hopeless. Props to him for showing that admitting to emotions isn't weak, it's in fact a show of fortitude.
Rountree has been a professional for 12 years. That’s a long time to carry the weight of uncertainty. Perpetuated by round-the-clock media cycles it’s damn near impossible for any athlete to cut through the clutter and tell personal stories. Especially if they’re not winning. In an admonishment of the structure of post-fight interviews, Khalil Rountree Jr said, “I have to keep winning. Everything takes money. For one, I make half of my money, and two, nobody gives a shit.” His impassioned speech continued, “The person who loses the fight kind of gets forgotten about. Nobody interviews them.”
And that’s the sad truth. Focusing on the Ws and Ls inherently devalues the human aspect of the sport. In actuality, these athletes win in more ways than the score sheet reveals, and they feel pain, physical and mental, more than us outsiders assume.
As for what’s next, Khalil Rountree Jr hopes to continue to use his platform to inspire others to overcome their own adversities. “I’m going to keep fighting as hard as I can and do whatever I can to help ultimately save lives.” He pulled the microphone down, inhaled, and buried his face in his ring towel before looking up to say, “Your life matters. You can be special. You can be strong. You can be seen. You can be heard. Life is beautiful if you make it that way. It doesn’t have to be how everybody else makes it seem. Stick around. Stick around another day.”