Inspired by Kobe's competitiveness, ex-NBAer Royce White chases dream to be UFC heavyweight champ

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Royce White (L) left the NBA and plans to compete as an MMA fighter. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Royce White (L) left the NBA and plans to compete as an MMA fighter. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Royce White not only dreams of becoming the UFC heavyweight champion some day, he’s putting in the gym time necessary to make it a reality. There are no guarantees in sports, but White makes the only guarantee an athlete can make: He’ll put every ounce of effort into becoming the finest fighter he can be.

The one constant among those who win far more than they lose is the effort they expend in search of greatness.

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The 6-foot-8 White was a first-round NBA draft pick of the Houston Rockets in 2012 after a strong career at Iowa State, where he was a guy who could pass, shoot and handle the ball despite the kind of size that in years gone by would have labeled him purely a post player.

His NBA career didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, but a message he learned at a youth basketball camp from the late Lakers’ legend Kobe Bryant may help him to one day sit atop the UFC’s heavyweight division.

“Kobe was a guy who embodied hard work, competitiveness and attention to detail,” White told Yahoo Sports. “If I looked at people who shaped my view of hard work and competitiveness, Kobe Bryant is at the top of that list. When I think about competition, competitiveness, not only do I think it’s important, but it’s a dying virtue. People out there miss out on the importance of being a competitor. Kobe had a different world view of competition and it’s part of the deeper reason why I respect him so much.

“It’s humorous to say this, but it’s a very real thing: We’re in the participation medal era. I said on Twitter the other day that I’m grateful that I grew up in an era where we threw away all our second-place trophies and medals. Kobe was of that same cloth and I was shaped by that, the way he approached it. There is no second place.”

White, who does not like to fly, played only three NBA games. He believes it was his advocacy for the NBA to enact a mental health policy that effectively curtailed his career. But at 28 years old, he made the decision to switch from basketball to MMA and wasn’t about to accept that he couldn’t do it.

It was, as he says, “that Kobe mentality” that he learned at a young age.

“One of the benefits of starting later is that you get to have a sense of calling,” White said. “I hope to be able to bridge the world between basketball and MMA. I don’t mean basketball players, but I mean the neighborhoods around the country where I came from where guys choose to play basketball at an early age. If I can help to inject that kind of enthusiasm about mixed martial arts into those communities and we start to get a lot of those NBA-level athletes, NBA-level talents, to venture into mixed martial arts, I think that will eventually expand mixed martial arts greatly.

“I do think that the Kobe Bryants of the world would select MMA at least some of the time if they had a proper understanding of it and an approach to the purity of the competition.”

That, White said, would lead to fighter compensation increasing because the talent level in the sport will get better and would, at least theoretically, bring more eyeballs to it.

White made the turn to MMA full-time last year and isn’t ready yet for his first fight. Tim Singer of Paradigm Sports Management said the goal is to raise his skill level and not “just coast by on his athleticism and power. We are in no rush at this stage.”

He knows there are those who doubt he’ll be able to make the transition and when he hears that, he thinks of Bryant.

“He was a naysayer silencer,” White said. “He was driven by silencing the naysayers, and he did it in a way where he’d say, ‘It’s not that I’m giving you that much credit as naysayers, but I am getting a bit of satisfaction knowing you were out there naysaying when I broke through. That’s the Mamba mentality and that’s what I think you need to bring to your job as a high-level professional athlete if you’re serious about succeeding.

“I believe in what I’m doing. I believe in my coaches and I’m not going to be deterred by someone whose never met me saying what I can or can’t do.”

The late Lakers' Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)
The late Lakers' Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

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