Khama Worthy’s years of gaining ‘sweat equity’ paid off at UFC 241

Khama Worthy took a fight against a dangerous opponent — a rising star in the sport — on five days notice and shocked the MMA world on Saturday night.

Worthy finished Devonte Smith in the first round at UFC 241 to pick up the biggest win of his career, and earn a $50,000 “Performance of the Night” bonus to boot. The lightweight battle was the headliner during the ESPN preliminary card at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Less than 72 hours later, it still hasn’t fully sunk in for Worthy. As much as the MMA community was shocked by the upset, Worthy was not.

“It feels good,” Worthy told The Scrap. “Everyone’s telling me ‘it’s so crazy, it’s so shocking’ and I’m like, I’m not that shocked. I anticipated it, I knew what was going to happen. I knew what was about to happen. It’s a fight! It’s not like I went up two weight classes or something. It would be different if I was fighting this guy at 185. That’s different, I’m fighting at 155 and I know what I’m doing. It was fun to shock people, and I guess people get into the betting odds and that stuff, social media and all that, the hype. I like just proving to people that sweat equity, that hard work and dedication.”

The biggest storyline heading into Worthy’s UFC debut had to do with the long standing relationship he had with Smith. As friends, and former training partners, it was only natural for that to be the tale heading in. Getting to the UFC was an over 10 year journey for the 32-year-old, a journey that had its shares of ups and downs.

Just a few years prior, Worthy had lost four out of six fights, getting finished in all of his losses. Worthy suffered losses to Billy Quarantillo — who just earned a UFC contract on the Contender Series — and former UFC fighter Matt Bessette along the way, and that six-fight stretch taught Worthy a lot. He knew he had to make some changes.

“I definitely went up to 155 and that helped, because making weight at 145, even those two fights that I had won, those were extremely difficult to make weight for,” Worthy explained.

“I missed weight once by one pound for one of the fights against Antonio Castillo and I almost died trying to make weight for that fight. The big thing for me was just constantly fixing little things, fixing something here, fixing something there and just staying the course. That’s fighting. It seems like I always take the hard road to get to these destinations, forcing me to decide whether I really want to do this. This isn’t just some walk-in-the-park type job. You have to do it, and there are guys that think they want to do this sh*t until you lose… then you lose again.”

“Then the people who thought you were the man aren’t calling you anymore, they’re not talking to you. Right now, I have my steady fan base that have been running with me for years, and now I have a whole bunch of new fans and I love it, but that can all disappear. In MMA, you’re only as good as your last fight. If you depend on that to win and keep moving forward, it can be easily taken away from you, that self-doubt is cancerous. I try to stay away from that as much as possible.”

“When I lost to Billy Q, I had no problems going into that camp,” Worthy continued. “When I lost to Matt Bessette, I should’ve maybe taken a little bit of time, and they were both experiences. Both of those fights I did some things I shouldn’t have done and I knew what I did and paid the price for it. The two fights after that, the weight cut was just too much. I wanted to get right back in there and get back to where I was and then I lost two more fights. I think a big thing was, not really competing, but trying to keep up with everybody and everything going on around me.”

“I wanted to hurry up and get to the UFC, hurry up and get to the big show, but once I settled in and let things just happen, they happened the way they were supposed to.”

Those changes lead to the beginning of Worthy’s, now, six-fight winning streak.

The streak began with a unanimous decision win in February 2018, and continued with four finishes along the way.

While it’s certainly great for a 10-0 prospect to make it to the UFC and have success, Worthy feels that those important lessons he had to learn may not be instilled in those rising prospects and that sweat equity may not be as prevalent within those fighters. Worthy is certainly appreciating the long road, and the road less traveled in the fighting world.

“I tell people, it’s trial by fire,” Worthy said. “I look at a lot of these fighters and I’m like, ‘y’all motherf****s ain’t been tested yet.’ You don’t understand, this is the pain business. Everyone likes to win. Who doesn’t like to kick people’s ass and win? I’m the man I’m the man’, but can you pull yourself off the canvas when you’ve been knocked out? Can you get back to the gym and see people looking away? Can you shake that out of your brain? Can you get that physical confidence back and spar after you get knocked out? It’s a lot! It’s some Ricky Bobby sh*t, can you get back in the car? In fighting, that’s really big. That’s why I’ve always admired Alistair Overeem, he’s been put down a lot but the way he keeps moving forward, I appreciate that.”

“I don’t want to be like Ronda Rousey in the fight game. If you mentally break once somebody beats you, ‘I’m not winning, I’m done’… I scream at my students all the time about that. ‘You’re not even trying, you’re OK with losing because someone is challenging you.’ In fighting, in life, you can’t be like that. If you get challenged, if you meet obstacles and you constantly suppress every time that happens, you’ll never be able to get anywhere at all. In fighting, if you’re not getting anywhere at all, you’re probably just getting your ass kicked. Then you hear those people say, ‘I used to fight. It was cool.’ Then why’d you stop then? Because it got hard? It’s a friggin fight, of course it’s gonna be hard. Don’t try and go to law school, sh*t! Everything is f****n hard. Sh*t don’t come easy. Like I said, sweat motherf****n equity, you gotta put that sh*t in to get it out.”

With taking the fight on five days notice, Worthy’s introduction to the UFC and their fight week machine was a blur.

Between medicals, media obligations, a hard weight cut and other factors, Worthy was hoping that everything on Saturday night would be a little less blurry. “The Deathstar” even had his mind set on a particular walkout song, but found out shortly before the fight that he had to choose something else — a song that would end up alleviating most of the nerves attached with making your UFC debut.

“It was nuts because I wanted to come out to Jay Rock’s ‘Win’ because that’s my mentality,” Worthy said. “The whole time getting ready to fight, that was my walkout song. I get there and they tell me somebody already picked that song and I’m like, ‘What the hell?’, so I ended up coming out to ‘God’s Plan’ by Drake and it was perfect! As I walked out, it was just destiny. This is where I was supposed to be and I was ultra relaxed.”

“I wanted to get there early and see the cage and everything, but I didn’t get a chance too. Walking out, it was the first time I had seen anything, in the arena, anything. It just felt basic and I was worried that I was way too relaxed and when I got inside, it felt right. The ground didn’t feel foreign, the cage didn’t feel foreign, it didn’t seem extremely big, and the whole crowd was blacked out in my head. I couldn’t see anything. It was like, ‘Oh, shit!’, I thought I would see the audience and see people freaking out, but it was all blocked out. It was just the cage and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah! This is perfect!'”

With the experience Worthy has built throughout his 10+ year career, it’s not uncommon for him to have in-fight thoughts and visualizations. For a UFC debut with millions of eyes upon him, Worthy began to have those those thoughts and visions in his head. While most fighter may be nervous, or even cautious about having a mind wander in a fight, it’s something Worthy has been used to, which lead to his comfort levels in the Octagon remaining very high.

“During the fight, I was thinking about my daughter for some reason and he threw two punches — I caught one, I slipped the other — and I remember thinking, you’re doing this stuff naturally in the UFC! Now focus, focus,” Worthy explained. “It was only like a half a second, but I remember thinking that you just slipped those punches on command, it was how your brain did it and you’re still here. I knew with Devonte, he’s dangerous, he has dynamite in his hands and people were telling me you can’t get touched, it will be a problem. I sat there thinking, get through the first 30 seconds. Make sure you’re relaxed and smooth and don’t do anything stupid. It all just worked out perfectly.”

Devonte Smith was in the middle of a six-fight finishing streak heading into Saturday night and his relationship with Worthy was highly discussed heading into the Honda Center. Worthy and Smith both understood that it was strictly business, as Worthy was slotted in as the third scheduled opponent for the fight after John Makdessi and Clay Collard were forced to withdraw due to health reasons.

The strictly business approach to the fight is a natural one, but once Worthy was locked in the cage with Smith, admittedly, it was a little bit stranger than he anticipated.

“It felt a little bit weird, because even when I spar my teammates here, we never try to hurt each other,” Worthy said. “Maybe my little brother, we try to kill each other, but I would never try to knock any of my training partners out. I’m trying to beat them up, but I’m not trying to split their head open. That was the weird part of the situation. But when you’re in there, everything is all pent up, it’s like kill or be killed, that’s just the way it is.”

To the victor goes the spoils, while the defeated has to go back to the drawing board. It was a banner night for the career of Khama Worthy, but he had to experience the thrill of victory while his friend and former teammate has to deal with the agony of defeat.

Fighters handle losses in different ways and Worthy understands that when it comes to his friend. After time passes and the pain of a tough loss starts to fade away, Worthy hopes to hear from his friend and, hopefully, get some work in together like the old days.

“We haven’t really talked since the fight,” Worthy said. “I told him ‘thank you, it’s nothing but respect’, and he was kind of still not 100 percent there, but we haven’t talked since. We have the same manager, and he told me to give him some time, let things blow over and then I’ll hit him up. Everyone deals with it differently. If it was me, I would’ve already talked to him, that’s just how I deal with things. I’m also not considering the position he was in, he was a definitely rising star, he was a big time prospect and to have that snatched away from you — by someone that you’re cool with — it’s kind of weird, right?”

“If I had lost, it would’ve been different, that was expected with the odds and everything. But with me winning, and the way that I won, it maybe kind of weird. When you’re a fighter, the loss only sticks with you, it creeps up on you. Everyone else, they are already moving on after a week. Right now, I’m the man, I’m like Optimus Prime. But in a week, I’ll be back being regular, old Khama. But I’d love to have him here at the gym to get some work in when he comes back to visit Ohio. He’s a phenomenal fighter.”

At 32 years of age, Khama Worthy is well aware that he is approaching the latter part of his career. The fighting window is a small one and, with that being said, he has no plans to stop fighting anytime soon. However, at the age and experience level Worthy is at in his career, he is taking a realistic, yet ironic approach to his UFC career. Most fighters put pen to paper to compete in the biggest organization in the world to make a dream of becoming a UFC world champion a reality.

For Worthy, if it comes, all the better, but he is looking at his Octagon tenure as a way to entertain the fans and continue to add sweat equity to his account.

“Let me be realistic with you, a fighter’s approach to the belt usually takes four years,” Worthy said. “It took Conor McGregor three, three and a half years and he had a fast track. Him and Cody Garbrandt had the fastest tracks and it still took them three and a half years. I turn 33 in October, by the time I start getting to the belt, I’ll be 35. I know, realistically, the UFC isn’t trying to push 35 year old world champions. It’s a young man’s sport, and to become the champion, you need to be marketed properly so you can hold the championship.”

“Then they’re like, ‘This motherfu**** is 38!’, I would love for that to happen, but Romero and ‘DC’, those dudes are freaks, man. That sh*t is not easy being 40 and fighting guys who are 27 that are trying to kill you, so you have to work twice as hard because you’re damn near twice their age.”

“Of course, if I keep winning and I get close, I can push for some old guy type s**t, ‘Give me a challenge, I bet you I’ll eat the champion up,’ but at the same token, I want fights, man. I just want entertaining fights. I’m like a gladiator, I want fights that I can look back on. I don’t want to think, ‘that fight was boring as hell’, because a lot of guys just fight to win. I fight to entertain, I’m trying to win, but fight to entertain.”

“Winning is not my objective, entertaining is my objective. MMA is the ultimate spectator sport. People were booing me and Devonte, that’s how much of a spectator sport it is. I don’t think we stopped at all in that damn fight. There was always movement or somebody trying to set something up, but they were booing. Of course, I want to get a belt, but I just care about making as much money and building a foundation for my fighting style, building my gym and stuff like that.”

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The Scrap’s Mike Heck is an interviewer and features writer for FloCombat, The Body Lock, MyMMANews and BJPenn.com. Happily married and a proud father, Mike also hosts a weekly podcast called Between the Links on the Loudmouth MMA Podcast Network and YouTube page. Follow all of Mike’s exclusive video interviews at Mike Heck MMA on YouTube and follow him on Twitter (@MikeHeck_JR).