“Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.”
When Khalil Rountree Jr. heard that quote from his strength and conditioning coach and all-around right hand man Lorenzo Pavlica, it instantly resonated with him because it pairs perfectly with his “Better Than Yesterday” ethos.
“No matter what I did yesterday, I’m alive today and it’s just another day for me to just be better,” said Rountree Jr., explaining his approach to things as he readies for Saturday’s co-main event clash with Anthony Smith. “I can’t get hung up on what I did yesterday or last week or last month —it’s gone; it’s in the past.”
Quotes like the one Pavlica mentioned and phrases like “Better Than Yesterday” could easily end up as a phrase crocheted on a throw pillow or painted in script on a piece of shiplap hung in the kitchen if you’re not careful; cute mantras sold at weekend markets alongside “Live, Laugh, Love” and “Dance Like Nobody is Watching.”
But they hit a little differently when they’re truly consumed and put into action the way that Rountree Jr. committed them to being core tenets in his professional life, especially over the previous year.
“This year has been a big year of growth for me,” began the 33-year-old light heavyweight, who pushed his winning streak to four with a first-round knockout win over Chris Daukaus in August. “I changed my lifestyle. I moved back to Vegas, I made this a full-time thing, and with that adjustment and embracing this new lifestyle and mindset, I started to realize s*** happens and a lot of s*** happens that is out of my control.
“Nothing is ever going to be perfect and lined up how I want it to look, and the only thing I can do is work hard,” he continued, laughing at the simple truth that is often difficult to accept. “Going through points where it’s like, ‘All right, I’m working hard’ only to get humbled by my coach where he’s like, ‘Sure, you worked hard yesterday, but today is still a brand new day.’
“I haven’t been able to sit down and be comfortable at all. This whole year has been non-stop work.”
That work is clearly paying off.
After entering the year on a three-fight winning streak, his first-round finish of Daukaus in August vaulted Rountree Jr. into the Top 15 in the light heavyweight rankings, with the ascending former Ultimate Fighter finalist using his time on the mic afterwards to lobby for a main event opportunity so that he can test himself over five rounds.
While that didn’t come to pass, the fates have ultimately delivered him to the biggest opportunity of his career.
Initially slated to face Azamat Murzakanov last weekend in Austin — the second time the duo were aligned opposite one another, only for the bout to be scuttled when the Russian was forced to withdraw — the missed opportunity in the Texas capital opened the door to a clash with Smith, the former title challenger looking to build back into contention.
It’s not quite the headlining assignment that he was seeking, but it’s a step in the right direction and a sign that his efforts and performances are paying dividends, even if they don’t bring any real lasting satisfaction.
KO of the Week: Khalil Rountree vs Gokhan Saki
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KO of the Week: Khalil Rountree vs Gokhan Saki
“Dude, I think that was a mirage because I don’t see satisfaction anywhere,” said Rountree Jr. when asked about a previous quote about “seeing satisfaction approaching” a couple fights back. “Even when I search for it or try to be happy, take away the good in everything that is happening, for some reason, it’s not sinking in.
“My coaches and my wife have got to remind me, ‘Dude, you’re f****** working hard!’ and I’m like ‘Thanks, but then when does it end?’
“It doesn’t end,” he said, laughing after taking a beat to let his question sit in the air. “At this point, I’m in it and I’m not even really looking for any type of satisfaction at any point.”
What he is looking for is further improvement and more tangible signs that the changes he’s made and the effort he’s committed to being the absolute best version of himself in every way possible is producing results.
And although he doesn’t feel satisfaction, the thoughtful light heavyweight finisher does recognize that things are coming together.
“I think that I’m seeing signs and feeling things just during my training,” offered Rountree Jr., who showed flashes of this form with stoppage wins over Paul Craig and Gokhan Saki earlier in his career. “Every day is about training, about being better, so when I see improvements in my overall health, my strength, my technique or being able to handle things under pressure — when I see things like that, that's the confirmation that everything is working.
“I’m not feeling as lost. I don’t have as many questions that I feel can’t be answered,” he added, those two shifts clearly carrying big value for him. I’ve been here before, I know what it takes, and then I put in the effort, and afterward, I feel so much better about myself and get that confirmation that ‘here it is — everything you want is there; you’ve just got to work.’
“And if it’s hard, hard work for a year straight, you just keep working.”
That’s how this past year has gone and it’s a big part of why he’s seamlessly rolled with the transition from facing Murzakanov in Texas and having that fight fall apart for a second time — they were initially scheduled to fight in Vancouver at UFC 289 — to getting bumped up the card and paired off with Smith.
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While there are definite benefits to the shift like facing someone stationed ahead of him in the rankings and fighting at home in Las Vegas, it’s still just a fight, and the approach and outlook doesn’t change even though the opponent has.
“Waking up to the news didn’t shock me; it really didn’t,” Rountree Jr. said of the message that alerted him to the change in opponent and location. “I got the text and I was so unaffected.
“(The people in my circle) say things to put it into perspective — ‘you’re fighting up, co-main, you don’t have to travel’ — and I’m like, ‘yeah, it’s all good,’ but it’s just another week of training and I know what that looks like — it’s f****** hard.
"I’m gonna do the same thing — show up, do my best, put on my best performance — but after that, there is still no break because I know something is going to come right after that, because that’s how things have been.”
Ultimately, that’s a positive sign, one that continues to reinforce that the major changes and massive investment in himself that Rountree Jr. has made this year are paying dividends and that things are continuing to trend in the right direction.
Prior to his last fight, I expressed to Rountree Jr. that it seemed, from my perspective, like the pieces of the puzzle were all starting to come together for him.
His response was that he felt like he’d finally reached a point where all the pieces that looked like they might go together were all collected in their own little bundles, and it was time to start working on connecting those pieces.
After three months and another dynamic performance, I asked where things stood with the puzzle.
“Right now, there are no edges,” he said. “The puzzle is starting from the inside and just expanding, and I don’t know where the end is.
“There are no corner pieces. There are no edges. The center of the puzzle is expanding outward, I can see the picture it’s creating, but I don’t know what the edge of the puzzle looks like.”
And that’s precisely how he wants to keep it.
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