Very seldom will you hear a fighter that has spent nearly the majority of their career competing on the biggest stage in the sport and heading into battle on a three-fight winning streak characterize their current situation as the beginning of a journey.
Of course, very few fighters are as philosophical and reflective about all the elements that go into one’s career as Khalil Rountree Jr.
“As weird as it seems, it feels like the beginning,” Rountree Jr. offered on Wednesday morning, flashing a big smile as we settled in to chat ahead of his bout with Chris Daukaus this weekend in Las Vegas. “Even on a three-fight win streak, I feel like, ‘Okay, now I’m finally starting to realize what it takes to make my dreams come true.’
Some may view what he said as fighter-speak or athlete-talk — saying the thing you’re supposed to say in order to sound humble, committed, focused, even when you’re well-established in your given sport — but if you know the path the 33-year-old has taken to reach this point, then you know he’s being genuine and truthful, as always.
An impressive amateur career featuring a number of rapid stoppage wins made Rountree Jr. a hot prospect as soon as he turned pro, with four straight victories ratcheting up the expectation and attention on the dangerous powerhouse as he joined the cast on Season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter.
He reached the finals of the light heavyweight competition, losing to the more experienced Andrew Sanchez, and then spent the next several years walking a path of personal and professional discovery.
Inside the Octagon, his results were mixed, with highlight reel finishes of Paul Craig and Gokhan Saki having parallel defeats against the likes of Tyson Pedro and Johnny Walker. He moved to Thailand and immersed himself in Muay Thai, returning at UFC 236 and battering Erik Anders with a style and approach that had many wondering if he was set to take the next step forward in his career.
Consecutive losses to Ion Cutelaba and Marcin Prachnio followed, but in between the two, Rountree Jr. returned home and started building a foundation. He settled in at Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas, working with head coach John Wood and the team there, growing increasingly comfortable in his personal and professional skins.
In September 2021, he stopped Modestas Bukauskas. Six months later, he did the same to Karl Roberson, the two victories again highlighting the violent potential Rountree Jr. carries each time he makes the walk to the Octagon. Last fall, he edged out Dustin Jacoby, halting the veteran’s seven-fight unbeaten streak, picking up a third straight win of his own in the process.
“I think this is the first time in my career that I actually feel fully dedicated to being in the UFC and treating my life as ‘I’m a professional athlete,’” admitted the Las Vegas native. “Everything that I do on a daily basis is to reflect that, and I think that’s why I’ve been able to have the results that have come so far.
“I owe a lot of it to my support system — my coaches and my fiancée,” he said, reflecting on the things that have helped him get to this place in his career. “I have a good, close circle that just encourages me and allows me to be in this fully.
KO of the Week: Khalil Rountree vs Gokhan Saki
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KO of the Week: Khalil Rountree vs Gokhan Saki
“I just train — I take care of my body, I eat healthy, and I don’t go out. I don’t hang out with a lot of people. I don’t necessarily do things that I used to do even two years ago.
“I feel like my life has changed,” he added. “Everything now revolves around my training and my well-being, as opposed to ‘okay, I’ve got some off time’ and then they call me for a training camp. It’s been more like my life is training camp, and I like it.”
But it’s never just about fighting with Rountree Jr., which is perhaps why the assessments of where he’s at are often vastly different than those offered up by his contemporaries.
He’s multi-faceted — an artist that dabbles in many arenas — and the various pieces that make up the whole are interwoven, all moving with the ebb and flow of life.
Professional development is tethered to personal development, growth in one area directly correlating to growth in others and, at this moment, Rountree Jr. is happy with the results he’s seeing.
“I like the person and the man that I’m becoming,” he said, nodding his head and smiling as the words left his mouth. “I realize the solution to a lot of life’s obstacles and challenges is just hard work and effort.
“It really just is ‘I gotta get my hands dirty for a while, gotta put my head down for a while’ in order to get to where I wanna go. Living by that has helped me a lot.”
Having spoken many times in the past, I mention that he seems, from my perspective, like he’s finally starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
“The puzzle is starting to make sense now,” he responded. “I’ve organized by colors and now it’s just taking time to figure out which pieces are going to complete this corner, and we’ll worry about that other corner later.”
While he’s always been thoughtful, there was an ease to Rountree Jr. when we spoke that underscored all of what he said, and highlighted what a good place he’s in personally, professionally and mentally at the moment.
After finally breaking into the rankings — he currently sits at No. 12 in the light heavyweight Top 15 — welcoming the former heavyweight Daukaus to the division wasn’t exactly the matchup Rountree Jr. was looking for as his return to action.
At the same time, the streaking finisher also didn’t want to spend any more time on the sidelines, waiting for something else to come together.
Besides, this weekend isn’t about Daukaus or anyone else; it’s about Rountree Jr. taking the first step in this latest journey, and showing people who he is now.
“My main focus is to put on great, skillful performances,” he said when asked about Saturday’s contest. “All this training, all the things that we’ve built, I think it begins with people seeing the skills that I have.
“I think we can all expect to see a better version of myself than we’ve ever seen. I think that’s a good way to start this journey, for sure.”