Standing in the center of the Octagon in March, Khalil Rountree Jr. reminded everyone that we can often know very little about the men and women that step into the UFC cage and compete on week-to-week basis.
Fresh off a devastating second-round stoppage win over Karl Roberson, the former Ultimate Fighter finalist was asked by Paul Felder about the icy focus he displayed all week, and rather than talk about training camps and pushing hard in the gym, the thoughtful and introverted 32-year-old bared his soul.
“This month marks 12 years that I’ve been fighting MMA,” Rountree began. “Man, I don’t wanna wait until I’m a champion to tell my story of where I come from — being a 300-pound kid, on the brink of suicide, burdened by depression; not knowing what to do in life, where to go.
“I just want to be able to share that and really inspire the millions of people out there that feel just like I do — that don’t have a dream, that don’t know what they’re doing, that just need something. I want to be able to share my story with those types of people so that maybe those are some lives that I can change.
“So when I come in here, that’s my focus, Paul,” he added, a wave of emotion evident on his face. “I want to be able to tell a story with my life, not just come in here and fight. Yes, this has made me who I am today, but man, I want to do something big, and if I want to take on the world in that way, I have to have focus.”
Seven months later, Rountree Jr. is poised to return to the Octagon, slated to face off with Dustin Jacoby in the opening bout of Saturday’s main card at the UFC APEX.
It’s the first chance we’ve had to speak since his last victory, since he stood vulnerable in the Octagon opposite Felder, and I open our conversation with an apology, feeling like I messed up by not speaking with him about his journey and struggles during one of the previous times our paths had crossed.
He says it’s accepted, but wholly unnecessary — thoughtful and considerate as always — as we slide into a conversation about what has transpired since his passionate, powerful comments following his win over Roberson.
“When that came out, it came out, and I did not expect the impact that it would make on so many people,” he said, stationed on the other end of the phone just a few days prior to facing off with Jacoby. “I’m happy that I was able to be a source of inspiration for a great number of people, but there was also a time where it became pretty overwhelming because people were reaching out to me as if I were going to be the one to help.
“I had to realize, ‘I’m only one man; I can’t save the world.’ It caused me to start thinking, ‘If I want to make a difference, it’s not going to happen overnight and I’ll need to have some support when it comes to helping people and helping myself.’
“Overall, it’s been really nice,” he added. “I’m grateful that now people have more of an understanding of who I am, where I come from, and what I’m about, and I’m excited to continue this journey, being a part of something big with new people, new fans, and new supporters.”
Earlier this week, the UFC released an episode of its Origin series featuring Rountree Jr. where the Las Vegas native shares more of his story, with his mother, Taryn Moret, mixing in throughout.
He speaks about his father being killed in a robbery when he was just two years old, the gravitational pull he’s always felt with music, and his struggles with bullying, depression, and addiction; the whole segment laced with photographs from his younger, darker, more challenging days.
He explains the night it felt like his heart had stopped and he knew that it was time to make a change, and how mixed martial arts became both the vehicle that helped him transform physically and his latest passion.
“I’m glad,” he said hesitantly, searching for the right words when asked what it’s like to see his willingness to be vulnerable and share a story that’s touching so many people and allowing them to know more of who he is beyond the Octagon. “It’s nice to know that when people see things like the Origins piece — I’m really grateful to the UFC team for putting that together because it does give people a little more of an understanding of where I come from and the things that I’ve been through.
“I think that’s cool, and the fans deserve to know these things about me, and about us.”
It’s not that knowing him exclusively for his exploits inside the Octagon is a bad thing — after all, he’s on the brink of breaking into the Top 15 in the UFC light heavyweight division, entering Saturday’s fight with Jacoby off a ferocious second-round finish of Roberson, with a back catalogue of impressive stoppages — but it does overlook the backstory he and a countless number of his contemporaries have.
It skips over that he’s played in and fronted bands, done modelling and acting, and has a keen eye for fashion, having most recently launched his own label, such.limited, earlier this year.
That being said, the two pieces are intertwined — his exploits in the Octagon serve as an introduction to a wider audience, which creates opportunities for people to learn more about him — and lately, his exploits have been explosive.
“Man… it’s been crazy,” he said, chasing his words with a sharp chuckle, reflecting on his recent successes. “I haven’t been able to really settle into this feeling of being comfortable. I don’t have this mentality or feeling like, ‘I’ve got it all figured out.’ I’m still grinding.
“I’m still doing my best every day to be better than I was even in the last two fights, and that’s hard, man. To be able to top those two training camps — they were really tough, and trying to top those has been even more tough, but I believe that it’s all going to pay off.
“The harder that I work and the more effort that I give, I think it’s just going to continue to pay off for me,” Rountree added. “It doesn’t get any easier. As much as sometimes I wish that it would, it doesn’t, but when I put my best effort into things, it seems like good things come out of it, and that’s always the intention.”
Since moving back to his hometown of Las Vegas following a couple years living in Thailand, Rountree has put together consecutive second-round stoppage wins, showcasing a menacing, aggressive style that amplifies his quick, powerful striking and makes him look like someone capable of making an expedited run towards the top of the division.
He’s shown flashes this dangerous combination of talent and demeanor in the past, like his punishing victory over Eryk Anders or his knockout win over kickboxing legend Gokhan Saki, but the consistency to replicate those efforts each time out has been missing.
But in each of his last two outings, a focused, determined fighter has marched into the Octagon and ended the night standing in the center of the arena, hand raised triumphantly in victory, and he’s working hard to reach the point where he’s able to replicate that each and every time he makes the walk to the cage.
“I can feel the satisfaction approaching,” he laughed, trying to articulate that combination of being happy with how things are going, but not yet completely content with where he’s at in terms of his preparedness and performance. “I feel like I’m approaching the satisfaction, if that makes sense, but it’s not all the way there yet.
“I feel like I’m getting closer and closer and closer; that’s the best way I can answer that — I feel like I’m getting closer to something, and I hope it’s there; I hope it’s not a mirage.”
As we hash out the “getting closer to satisfaction” piece, I explain that in talking about him and his upcoming fight, I’ve taken to reflecting on “the duality of Khalil Rountree Jr.,” a merciless, dangerous powerhouse in the Octagon who is also one of the more thoughtful, open, and earnest people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with throughout my career.
I ask about flipping that switch — shifting from the guy I could talk to for hours about music and fashion and design into the guy that stormed through Roberson in March, putting him away with a thudding kick to the midsection while he was down on the canvas — and his answer is perfect.
“Dude, it just comes out,” he said, before I was even through with my question. “I don’t know, and sometimes I wish I had control over it. Sometimes I wish I knew how to just snap into it, but I don’t have the remote control to switch over to the other guy. That other side just comes out when it comes out.
“But all in all, you guys get to experience all of me,” he added. “It’s not that I’m one or the other — it’s the fact that everything you guys see is me.”
His honest, thoughtful assessment reminds me of something we discussed previously, and a quote he gave me about what he’s chasing and what he’ll be content with when the time comes that his career ends.
His focus was on learning, experiences, and growth, and while reaching the greatest heights possible was certainly an aim, it was only a piece of the larger overall picture.
I remind him of those thoughts, and ask him if allowing people to know more of him, all of him, is the greater goal of all of this, more than winning titles or rising to the top of the rankings.
“I think it’s both,” he said. “I’m on a quest to be my best and reach the top, but in doing all of that, I would love for people to be able to really know the stuff that they don’t know. I would love for people to see me for everything that I am — for the musician and the artist and all the other stuff; the creative side of me.
“The goal is that as I’m fighting and climbing this ladder, people get to find out a little bit more and more each time.”
UFC Fight Night: Kattar vs Allen, took place live from the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 29, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!