For the first time in a number of years, Khalil Rountree Jr. is living at home in Las Vegas, and returning has rekindled some things he now understands were beginning to atrophy during his time living abroad.
“I’ve been living back in Vegas since March, and to be honest, as sad as I was to leave Thailand and finish that chapter for now, I feel really good to be back home,” the introspective and articulate 31-year-old began, reflecting on his latest journey just a few days ahead of his return to the Octagon against Modestas Bukauskas this weekend at the UFC APEX.
Rountree spent the previous two years, give or take, in Thailand maintaining a simple existence; spending his days training and enjoying his surroundings, as well as the fact that many of the trappings and distractions of North American life were nowhere to be seen. Following his loss to Ion Cutelaba in Septmeber 2019, he pondered fighting out his contract and walking away from the sport, content to continue his martial arts journey away from the Octagon, and the spotlight, and everything that comes with it.
“In Thailand, I had never been more comfortable in my entire life,” he continued. “I had actually gotten to a point where I was just content with my life. I was like, ‘I’m going to be here for the rest of my life.’ I found my place in life.
“As good as that felt, when I came home, I realized how damaging it actually was to me because I was starting to let go of a lot of my aspirations as a fighter because I was content with a simple life back in Thailand. I had everything I needed, happiness and peace — it was just like, ‘Man, I’m set for the rest of my life!’ — and part of my fighting dream and the drive for fighting kind of died.”
That would be a staggering statement coming from the vast majority of competitors; a warning sign that perhaps their head isn’t as much in the game as it needs to be.
But after years of speaking with the honest and reflective former Ultimate Fighter finalist, I know that it’s simply an acknowledgement of a past truth, a previous reality, one that has been replaced by a renewed fire to become the best possible version of himself, inside and outside the cage, and a continued appreciation of this adventure called life.
“I’m always remodeling the house,” he said with a cackle, jokingly framing his frequent major life changes in terms of home renovations. “I spend a lot of time internally, thinking and visualizing, asking myself serious questions instead of avoiding them, and really trying to face my own truths and my own demons so I can overcome them after all this.
“If I were to get to the end of this and never become a champion, but all of this learning, all of these experiences and the growth I’ve been getting, if that’s all I get to take away from this — then cool.”
He paused, giving the heft of what he just admitted the time such a weighty statement deserves.
“Obviously I want to be at a higher level and make the biggest mark that I can in this sport and as a person, but the amount that this competition and everything causes me to grow is…”
He paused again, this time to find the right words.
“Man… there has been nothing else in my life that has caused me to grow so rapidly.”
As many fights have over the course of his career, Saturday’s meeting with Bukauskas feels like the start of a new chapter for Rountree Jr. — not only because he’s returned home, but also because he’s approached things this time around with a different appreciation and greater intentionality.
While he’d been to the UFC Performance Institute many times in the past, the older, wiser, humbled light heavyweight acknowledges that he now travels the halls grateful for everything the facility has to offer, rather than feeling like “the top dog,” as he put it, because he was in the UFC.
Additionally, he’s more attuned to the value of the quieter moments that happen far away from the cameras; the things fans don’t see and likely don’t particularly care about that carry a great deal of importance to him as he continues down this long and winding road that leads him back to the Octagon on Saturday.
“I was talking to John and he’s like, ‘I’m proud of you. You haven’t taken a day off in the past three months and I acknowledge that,’” Rountree Jr. began, recalling an interaction with Syndicate MMA head coach John Wood. “Little things like that or my coach saying, ‘This person said they’ve never seen you so focused’ — those things hit me straight to the heart because it doesn’t really mean a lot to other people, but to me? F*** man — that’s big.
“That acknowledgement and that recognition is so important to me,” continued the returning 205er who holds stoppage wins over Paul Craig and Gokhan Saki, but enters this weekend’s contest on a two-fight skid. “Most of the attention we get is when we’re on television or once we get to the top — that’s when we get our flowers — so for me to get my flowers now, from my coaches and people I trust and that mean a lot to me, feels real good.”
And feeling good has been a key piece of this entire year for the globetrotting martial artist.
After getting up to 250 pounds or so and needing to focus a great deal of his camp for his January clash with Marcin Prachnio on Fight Island simply on getting back into fighting shape after more than a year on the sidelines, Rountree Jr. has remained dialed in since returning to the United States following that contest, allowing him to work more on technique and endurance this time around.
He’s enjoying the work, attacking the work, and living in the satisfying feeling of knowing he’s pushed himself to the hilt and the rewards those efforts can produce this weekend.
“My thing lately has been after the gym, I’ll go home and do my best to just soak in these thoughts and these moments that I see myself in — having my hand raised and feeling good after the fight; those things,” he explained. “Nothing else really matters. I’d rather spend five hours at home, alone, in silence, thinking about these things because they feel good.
“It’s not just about thinking them either, because when I’m done with that, I go to the gym and bust my ass to back it up.”
Part of that comes from wanting to silence the little devil on his shoulder, questioning why he’s resting, but part of it also comes from knowing Bukauskas is doing the same, as he too enters Saturday’s clash having lost back-to-back contests.
“I’m on this losing streak and obviously part of me fears losing my spot in the UFC, but I try not to spend too much time thinking about that,” Rountree Jr. admitted. “Instead I focus on me doing my best and what my best is to me now. That bar that I’ve set, I’ve set it pretty high for myself, so now it’s just about reaching it on fight night.”
Despite all the changes and the starting of another new chapter, one thing has always remained the same when it comes time for Rountree Jr. to cross the threshold into the UFC cage.
“I’m always going to be me,” he said. “I’m always going to have my feelings and my mind focused on putting on my best performance, and I’m always going to go in there and do my best.
“And I’m always going to learn and have something to share.”