It was less than 10 years ago, though today it seems like a lifetime, that 19-year-old Khalil Rountree would crawl into bed at night and not be certain he’d wake up.
He was 6-foot-1 and weighed 305 pounds. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. He was a fast-food and junk-food addict.
“I was a complete mess,” Rountree says now in a matter-of-fact manner. “I didn’t eat vegetables at all. I would smoke two packs of cigarettes a day on top of gorging on fast food. Every day, I’d drink a liter or two of Dr. Pepper. I was doing nothing good for myself health-wise.
“I felt I was going to die in my sleep. It’s really strange when you have a 19-year-old who believes he may never wake up once he goes to sleep, but that’s where I was.”
Nine years later, the 28-year-old Rountree cuts an impressive physical specimen, and he’s in Argentina preparing for his seventh UFC fight, and his first since his massive upset victory on July 6 over kickboxing legend Gokhan Saki at UFC 226.
Few gave Rountree a chance to get past Saki, which puzzled Rountree. Four months later, he calls the win a relief. He was highly touted when he entered the promotion, but he has been inconsistent since coming off “The Ultimate Fighter.”
He lost his first two official UFC bouts, to Andrew Sanchez and Tyson Pedro, and were it not for Michal Oleksiejczuk failing his post-fight drug test, Rountree would be 3-3 in the promotion.
The win over Saki opened eyes and showed what a dynamic striker Rountree could be with some experience. But there was plenty of pressure on him heading into that fight, and after it was over, he could exhale and relax a bit.
Beating Saki, though, hardly qualifies as the biggest victory in his life, though it is his biggest win in MMA.
The fact that Rountree is alive and healthy today and preparing to fight UFC newcomer Johnny Walker at UFC Fight Night 140 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Saturday is an upset far bigger than his knockout of Saki.
Rountree’s father, Roderick Rountree, was the road manager for the Grammy Award winning group, Boyz II Men. On May 25, 1992, in Chicago, Roderick was murdered, dead of multiple shots to the head.
Khalil knows of his father, but has scant memories of him. His only real memory is of being with his father in Los Angeles and his dad throwing him in the air and catching him.
“I’ve learned about my father through stories and things people have told me, but I don’t really remember him,” Rountree said.
The tragic and sudden loss of one so close is bound to have an impact on a person, and Rountree is certain his father’s murder led him to the point where he was a 305-pound loner.
His mother has told him his father would be so proud of the young man he’s become, and that Roderick would be pushing Khalil to be the best version of himself he could be.
Without his father in his life, though, there was a void that wasn’t, and could never have been, filled.
“Yeah, from losing my father, and from just being an introverted guy — I’ve always been an introverted guy, but I’ve grown to love people more and open up a little more — but I really keep to myself and I always have,” he said. “Growing up, I was kind of a weird kid. I listened to a lot of metal and I was the only black kid that was Gothic. All my friends were Gothic. Crazy, they wore makeup and all this stuff, but I liked them because they were quiet and kept to themselves.
“They didn’t harm anybody, but all that stuff was like a mask, a kind of a shield to keep people away. I connected to that. I was this big, black kid. I was a Gothic and of course people made fun of me. The anxiety, the stress that came from not having my dad in high school, in middle school, man, I don’t even know how to say it. Teenagers, kids, they’re just brutal. But it all just resulted in me self-destructing.”
As he was at his low point, luck intervened. His brother, Donovan Frelow, is a flyweight mixed martial artist. He encouraged Khalil to train with him.
After high school, Rountree had followed in his father’s footsteps and went on the road with bands, helping them. His brother said something that sparked an interest, and he began to train just in an attempt to feel better.
Little did he know it, but history was being written and his life was about to change.
“All throughout high school and even after, I was so into music,” he said. “I played in bands and after, I would travel to help out with my friends’ bands, selling their merchandise and just doing the tour life. … When I came home from tour, my brother had started training MMA and he introduced me to it. And I had a new purpose in life.
“He and I started training together. I just found a different purpose. I went to this Muay Thai class and the first time I ever kicked a pad I was, ‘Oh my God! This feels good!’ It started from there. I never had a goal in mind.”
Rountree’s success could be a blueprint for others. He didn’t aspire to fight in the UFC. He wasn’t looking to lose a certain amount of weight.
He just began to move after having been inactive for so long, and found it felt good. The more he moved, the better it felt and so he kept doing it.
“I joined the gym but the farthest thing from my mind at that point was working my way to the UFC and trying to be a fighter,” he said. “I just was trying to get into shape. I was trying what [the people in the gym] were trying. I wanted to get some exercise in and kicking and punching seemed a fun way to do it.
“Then, the more I went, the more I saw myself losing weight and then I went to a fight. I watched some heavyweights fight and that was it. I said to myself, ‘Oh my God. I have to try this,’ and that brought me eventually to where I am today.”
Losing the weight shed him of many, though not all, of the issues that had dogged him before. He became more confident and he suddenly had something in his life that made him want to wake up in the morning and get out of bed.
He wasn’t always chugging Dr. Pepper and looking for a bag of candy.
“It’s almost like I became a new person,” he said. “I still have the same insecurities and all of that stuff from when I was overweight. I’m the same person inside. But I started to feel a lot different. I could wear clothes I never thought I could wear before. People reacted to me differently.
“People around me started to change and they thought I was an athlete my whole life. It’s hilarious, because I was the furthest thing from an athlete there was, but everything changes in your life. I’ve never felt more alive. Getting into this, people might say things about fighting and MMA, but I’m here to tell you, man, what this did for me. It literally changed my life so much. It’s hard to express it properly, but it changed me so dramatically it’s not even funny.”
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