Every once in a while something is said that rings so true, it almost seems transcendent. Like poetry or music, it is difficult to put a finger on why it is good. And yes, there is such thing as good music or poetry. We are here in a context of Martial Arts, so let us take care to be dismissive of Art and say it is all in the eye or ear of the beholder. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. UFC fighter Khalil Rountree in an interview (as posted on MMA Junkie) preceding his fight at UFC Fight Night 191 said something quite simple that somehow rings very true and profound. What could a six-year vet, who admittedly has been on a rollercoaster of wins and losses, say that could be so deep? He said, “It's hard to please the MMA community.”
When Khalil said this, it was in a context of speaking to a very simple and personal point. Part of his journey has been to just be satisfied in his self. Our thesis here is not to wax philosophical about what that might mean or to discuss one’s journey to understanding (whatever that is). No, it is broader. That the man had to say those words out loud and that they are truer than he even knew. And they are broader than he may ever know. Like many other moments in culture in the past, they might be missed or ignored in their immediate setting. And it may be that there is not much to see here. But could it be Khalil is inadvertently holding a mirror up to the community?
Just a quick note about the fighter himself. If you have not followed his career, you may have missed something pretty significant. Seeing that our context here at Black Belt is coverage of the widest spectrum of Martial Arts – from Judo to Sport Karate – Rountree did something of real intrigue. And an attempt will be made to tie this shift in his life to the thesis of the writing here. Rountree was not like so many MMA fighters who were raised in some sort of combat sport environment. His father was murdered when he was just a toddler, he himself was in a touring band when at 20 he was unhealthy and decided to start training for health reasons. Eventually, that would have him on season twenty-three of The Ultimate Fighter. His record is not the operative thing here. Nor is his standing even now or his place in the sport. What is significant is a pretty diametric change of styles somewhere around 2019 when he began training in Thailand.
In his fight (and subsequent win) with Eryk Anders at UFC 236 in April of 2019, Rountree looked like a completely different fighter than he was before that night. Not different as in the way that is normally used colloquially i.e. better, hungrier, stronger, etc. Literally, like a different fighter with totally different skills. Yes, he was better. Yes, he won. But it was that style change and fluidity in a completely different base (Muay Thai) that was the shock. He did not just add a tool here or there, he looked proficient. His striking was so dialed in. Now the attempt will be made to tie some things together.
What kind of thing would it take to please the MMA community? It might be suggested that a full immersion and adoption to the point of excellence in a new art would garner the respect of all. It is granted that Khalil’s following two fights were losses, but it still has to be appreciated what he was able to do. We know for sure it is not mere wins that pleases the MMA community (... ahem... Conor). Though Khalil has had a rough go, it does seem strange that a fighter can do the real work of reinventing themselves, overcome tragedy, compete on the highest stage, and still have to say they need to do away with the pressure of pleasing a community they are very much part of.
The old saying we all know is, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. It would be a shift in the right direction if a fighter like Rountree - who has really worked hard to overcome the odds, adapt and grow as a Martial Artist - would not have to show it is more likely thought of as, you can’t please the people who should probably be pleased most of the time.
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