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21st Jul 2018

Khalil Rountree never knew his father, but he helped him learn how to be a man

When the UFC star was a toddler, his father was shot and killed while on tour with Boyz II Men

Ben Kiely

A couple of hours before my scheduled interview with Khalil Rountree, some news broke

After a busted up nose ruled Volkan Oezdemir out of his potential title eliminator against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 227, unranked Khalil Rountree declared his interest in facing the number one light heavyweight contender on three weeks’ notice.

Rountree was in Sao Paulo when he heard the news. Although he’s only a relative newcomer to the sport, there was no hesitation offering to step in to fight the man who went the distance with Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier. He saw it as a golden opportunity to build on the momentum he gathered from that brutal first round knock out of kickboxing legend Gokhan Saki at UFC 226.

“Volkan (Oezdemir) pulled out of the fight, so my manager asked me if that was something that I’d be willing to step in and take and I said, ‘Absolutely!’ So, it’s not an offer, it’s more of a bid.”

“It’s a great opportunity for me. I said it after my fight, I’m here. I’m ready to fight. It doesn’t really matter who. I’m here and it’s an opportunity that I believe that I can capitalise on. It’s my job (laughs).”

Khalil Rountree

Khalil Rountree Sr.

Rountree was introduced to a wider audience as a finalist of season 23 of the Ultimate Fighter. Six weeks of enclosed captivity with no means of communication to the outside world can be a very revealing experience. The cameras constantly rolling makes concealment a near-impossible feat.

Easily the most moving part of the season was when Rountree bore his soul on his father’s birthday. Khalil Rountree Sr. was shot and killed in an armed robbery while working as a road manager for multi-platinum selling R&B group Boyz II Men.

Khalil Jr. was just two years old.

“I think I was around 11 or maybe 13 when my Mom told me. Up until then, the story was that he had passed away from sickness. It didn’t really affect me too much. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy’ and then I did more research on the whole day and the guys involved and stuff like.”

“It wasn’t too much of a shock. It took a bit of time for me to process it. As soon as I heard it, I don’t think that I was shocked. After a few weeks of actually thinking about it and once I started to look more into it, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is pretty heavy. This was actually a planned thing. These guys actually set him up to be robbed.’ So my perspective changed and it just made me want to be a better person and a better man.”

After some researching and ruminating, the rage, understandably, set in.

“I’ve always felt anger from that, but it wasn’t something that happened immediately. Over time and processing it, that’s when the anger really started to build. Even to this day, there’s still anger.”

How to be a man

Growing up without a father came with its issues. Khalil and his brothers were left to figure out how to be men on their own. Even though Khalil never knew his Dad, his legacy still managed to help him on this journey of self-discovery.

“My father lived a great life. He was a very respectable man and he did a lot for the people around him. It’s always tragic when somebody’s taken away, but he made an impact on a lot of people, so it was definitely felt everywhere.”

The more conversations Khalil had with people who were close to his father, the more insight he gained. The anecdotes he heard helped shape his character.

“A lot of things I learned about my father were from stories people told about him – what he did for people, how many people he helped out and, some people would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, your father did this for me.’ I was just like, ‘Wow, he was a great guy.'”

“Although I never knew him, I know he was a great guy.”

“I just always had that in the back of my mind when looking for inspiration to be a man because the way that we were raised, we didn’t have that. So I had to teach myself what it takes to be a man in this world. I also looked to my older brothers for inspiration.”

Khalil Rountree

Khalil’s positivity is infectious. When Helen Harper broke down during The Ultimate Fighter, he was there to pick her up. The English strawweight fell to the ground in the TUF House, her hands shaking, Khalil calmed her down and made sure she saw a doctor. When Harper lost it over being unable to train on the shwo because of injury, Khalil showed up again to provide positive reinforcement. While Saki talked endless shit about his stand-up, he kept a level head and told everyone to just wait. He traces the origins of this mindset back to his childhood.

“I think it just comes from my upbringing. After my father was murdered, my Mom ended up raising my siblings and I by herself. Not saying that we had it really, really, really bad, but they were the circumstances we had to face that caused me to be grateful. Even to this day, everything’s not glitter and gold back home for me.”

“It’s still a struggle. I try to provide for my mother, my sister who’s going to college on a scholarship. I have to stay within myself and realise that this process that I’ve gone through with my family is still happening and so, I have to be grateful for everything that I come across and also just have the belief that I’m capable of more – to do more, bring more and be more.”

Finding fighting

Eight years ago, Khalil didn’t look like someone who would end up in the prizefighting business. He was overweight and earning a crust by selling merchandise on tour with metal bands such as Impending Doom, The Acacia Strain and August Burns Red.

At his heaviest, he was 305 lbs. When he told his music industry associates that he wanted to become an MMA fighter, they joked that he would end up looking like Bob Sapp. They didn’t believe that he would get into fighting shape. However, with the help of his older brother, Donavon Freelow, he achieved his goal.

“I was 19 years old. I have an older brother who found MMA. When I came back from tour, he kind of introduced me to it. We were watching the Ultimate Fighter and things like that. I wanted to lose weight and get in shape and my brother introduced me to MMA. So we both just started together.”

“I trained for about 11 months and I lost 100 lbs. And then after that one of my coaches was able to find me my first amateur fight and that’s just kind of when it first started.”

Khalil Rountree

Total transformation

As a child, Khalil ‘dabbled in a little bit of baseball’. That was about the extent of his involvement in athletic activity before he started training full time. MMA was the first sport he took seriously. At first, he didn’t find it easy, but again, his brother provided the encouragement to stay on course.

“The conditioning training was a struggle at first becuase I had carried so much weight, but I had my brother who encouraged me a lot. He started to point out like, ‘Hey look, you’re starting to lose a bit of weight. You’re getting stronger.’ He showed me some photo differences and that was enough motivation to get through the pain and the struggle of it all.”

Interestingly, he claims that Muay Thai drills were the most effective part of training for losing weight.

“That was something that I did every day. Once I found out that I loved to hit pads and kick is when I just made sure that I showed up to the class every day. The trainer that we had introduced some conditioning to the class as well. It was the first time in my life that I had to do push-ups and things like that before training. That mixed with the striking (laughs) was enough! Then to add MMA and boxing conditioning. that all elevated it, but the Muay Thai’s what helped the most.”

Khalil Rountree

Going all in

MMA suited Khalil down to the ground. At that point in his life, he needed to give his entire being over to something that would result in a complete metamorphosis. In the purest form of combat sports, there are no half measures.

“It was an entire change of lifestyle for me. To lose that much weight in that amount of time required me to separate myself from my friends, I changed my phone number and MMA became my life. It wasn’t just a hobby that I wanted to use to lose weight, I realised that there was an opportunity for a whole new lifestyle, a whole new body and everything. If you want to change your life, MMA can definitely be an outlet for that.”

“My addiction was just comfort, eating and drinking massive amounts of alcohol. Just a whole different lifestyle. In order for me to get better, I had to isolate myself from the people that I knew because that’s the life that they were living as well. That was just a personal choice. I’m not saying everybody has to do that. But in order for me to  change my life, I had to isolate myself and become a new person, create a new person for myself.”

Khalil Rountree

Conquering the bully

Another stand-out line from his TUF run was on the subject of bullying. When he stated that he had everything he needed to beat any bully in the world now, that proclamation had a double meaning.

“Growing up, because of my musical interests, the way I dressed, being overweight, all these things, I actually dealt with a lot of bullying. I wasn’t really a confrontational or aggressive guy growing up, so I experienced bullying all the way up until a little bit before I started fighting.”

“What I meant by that is, now with the courage and the belief I feel withing myself, I know how to overcome that feeling of being bullied. Bullying happens everywhere and it still triggers me to a sense of when I was a kid. I’ve had fights of my own and now I have everything it takes to overcome that. I know longer have that feeling of being defeated by bullying.”

‘Life can sometimes feel like it’s beating us up, but you’ve got to rise up and realise who we are.’

Khalil Rountree

Even after traveling all that distance, Khalil has yet to reach his destination.

“It’s still an ongoing process. Through life experiences and choosing not to do things the same way, putting myself out there, trying new experiences, meeting new people, discovering myself a little bit more, understanding myself a little bit more – Why do I do things, why am I afraid, why am I angry? – and really doing a lot of internal work to better myself. So, it’s an ongoing process and something I still deal with to this day. But as time goes by, it’s easier to see the change. It just takes time.”

He’s already come a long way, but he knows there are no shortcuts along the road that lies ahead.