The unbelievable grind behind UFC 241 star Khama Worthy's star-making debut

Elias Cepeda
Yahoo Sports Contributor
Khama Worthy (L) throws a punch at Devonte Smith in the first round of their lightweight bout during UFC 241 at Honda Center on Aug. 17, 2019, in Anaheim, California. (Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

There’s an almost desperate grit beneath the sheen of major league MMA cards like this past weekend’s UFC 241 pay-per-view event in Anaheim, California. There are lots of different manners in which to put on a fight card, with tweaks in lighting, in-house audio, television production, etc.

The only indispensable component of a fight card is, of course, the fighters. Without their labor, there is no event, period.

The work we all watch them put in during their contests on fight night — impressive and exhausting as it is — is just one small piece of the determined work MMA athletes need to put in, one end-note of stress of an almost always taxing lifestyle. To begin to understand that, one need only pull back the curtain on just one of UFC 241’s most exciting bouts.

Pittsburgh regional fighter, coach and martial arts academy owner Khama Worthy (15-6) relaxed with friends at a Common concert thousands of miles from Southern California six days before UFC 241 was scheduled to take place. “I was actually out, Sunday night,” he told Yahoo Sports on Monday morning, less than 48 hours after his improbable and impressive UFC debut victory over his friend, Devonte Smith.

“I went to see Common, who is one of my favorite artists. So, I was out that night having fun, soaking in the positive vibes. I even had two drinks [laughs]. They were stiff-ass drinks.”

Worthy had good reason to celebrate. A couple of weeks earlier, on July 27, he won his fifth-straight fight, a knockout over Adam Ward at 247 FC.

The unfortunate reality for many top MMA prospects is that if they get a call up to the big leagues by the UFC, many of them receive it under relative duress — as last-minute replacements. Sometimes they receive such short-notice calls while injured.

“I knew for sure that with my age and my record, being 14-6 at the time and 32, that I was not going to get a planned-out UFC fight,” he said. “I was looking for anything — UFC, Bellator, Professional Fighter’s League, One Championship. I just wanted to get a chance to make serious money for my family.

“So, I was pretty sure if I got the call it would be on short notice. They like to sign people for the long haul, and I’ve realistically got five, six years left. Unless I’m making six-figures, I don’t want to fight when I’m 40. I knew for sure if they called me it would be on short notice, I just didn’t know it would be on four days’ notice [laughs].”

After fighting several rounds just a couple weeks prior, Worthy certainly had his bumps and bruises. He says he was also 19 pounds over the contracted weight four days before he’d need to fight at UFC 241.

He says he would not have undergone such a drastic weight cut in such a short period of time if it weren’t for the chance to fight for an international promotion. “Hell no,” he laughed again.

(R-L) Khama Worthy celebrates his TKO victory over Devonte Smith in their lightweight bout during UFC 241 at Honda Center on Aug. 17, 2019, in Anaheim, California. (Getty Images)

“I don’t do that. I don’t play that, big cuts. If it would have been a call from a regional promotion I would have told them it’s not happening — I wouldn’t have cut 19 pounds in four days.

“... Luckily for me, the UFC’s Performance Institute planned out meals for me. They asked me what I usually eat, how much I usually cut, what I weighed, and gave me meal plans, laid it out for me. So, I had a decent amount of water every day and the hotel had a nice sauna so I could work in there with my coaches. I was so excited, I didn’t even really think about eating [laughs].”

Worthy says he dropped six pounds the first day of cutting. As soon as he landed in California, he found himself with a packed schedule.

“My flight landed in California at like 6 a.m., then I had eight hours of medicals. All I did was that and cut weight,” he details.

Worthy put aside thoughts of eating normal amounts of food, he put aside his aching body that had just recently battled. He put aside that he wouldn’t have time to prepare specifically for this opponent, and he also put out of his mind — for the time being — that the man he was tasked with fighting was a friend and former training partner, Devonte Smith.

“It’s a lot. It’s do or die,” he said.

“It’s sweat equity. I will put in sweat equity to get to where I need to be. Floyd Mayweather said it best when he said, if you’re telling me all I have to do is sacrifice my body to be great, to go down in history, then I’ll do it. Most will not be OK with doing that. I am.”

With a chance to fight even for a small guaranteed amount of money ($12,000) in the UFC, neither the timing, his own health, nor his opponent much mattered for Worthy.

“If they would have told me I had to fight [UFC heavyweight contender] Francis Ngannou, then I’m just gonna fight him. I’d say, ‘OK, I’m going to f--- up Francis Ngannou’s big ass [laughs]. I’m not saying I would actually beat Francis, but I ain’t no punk.”

Worthy says that he didn’t speak with Smith prior to the fight to discuss their awkward predicament. He still hasn’t spoken with his friend after knocking him out Saturday night, but he hopes they will get things back to normal between them.

“When we got out there we talked and both told each other that we had nothing but respect for one another,” he explained.

“We didn’t really talk afterwards, yet, but I’m pretty sure we will. We’ve got the same manager. I’ve never gone through the experience of fighting a friend.”

Now that he passed the test of admittance to fight in the UFC, Worthy says he doesn’t want to fight a friend ever again. “It wasn’t a good feeling” hurting a friend in the cage, he said quietly.

“I don’t want to,” he trailed off for a moment. “After the fight I thought, ‘Aw, s---.’ After jumping on the cage [to celebrate his win] I realize I didn’t even think about him. It’s not a feeling I want to go through again. Now that I’m in the UFC I don’t want to fight a friend, again. I don’t really have a lot of super close friends, but I don’t want to do that again. It was just weird. I have people I train with now, I would never fight them.”

(L-R) Khama Worthy punches Devonte Smith in their lightweight bout during UFC 241 at Honda Center on Aug. 17, 2019, in Anaheim, California. (Getty Images)

Every high comes with a low in the fight world. Often, they’re equally extreme.

The high of finally getting the call to the major leagues of your sport, after fighting for nearly a decade, measured with it coming on short notice, without time to properly prepare, and having to fight a friend for the privilege. The high of making your professional dream come true and scoring an incredible stoppage win in the first round, brought lower moments later by remembering who it had to come against, your friend, lying there on the canvas.

Worthy received one more deserved reward, post-fight, when he learned that he’d been awarded a Performance of the Night bonus by the UFC. He was guaranteed $12,000 to fight and earned another $12,000 by winning.

Then, while heading back to his hotel, that amount was doubled at the discretion of the UFC. “I was on the bus ride home from the event and I was sitting in the back,” he said, a smile coming back into his voice.

“The text came in that I got it and I just shouted, ‘Yeah, buddy!’ People in the bus congratulated me. That’s sweat equity paying off right there. You’ve got to want it as bad as you want to breathe. I tell that to people all the time. How bad do you want it? You have to want it as bad as you want to breath.”

In his mind, all the risk of accepting a short-notice fight with an extreme weight cut to make the lightweight limit has paid off. The upside of not having a training camp for a fight, after all, is that one doesn’t have all the expenses of a training camp.

“It’s crazy because usually I spend so much money on camps. In three weeks it could be $600 just for the diet, massages, all sorts of things. For this camp I spent absolutely nothing because it was a four-day camp [laughs], and yet I made the most money from this fight out of any fight I’ve ever had.”

Worthy was back in Pittsburgh on Monday morning and driving to his gym, The Academy Martial Arts & Fitness, to teach. The dynamo isn’t taking a vacation, not even after fighting twice in three weeks.

He’s got people he’s responsible for and is excited for the future. He doesn’t yet know who he’ll fight next or when his team will target another date for him, but clearly some ideas are percolating.

“I haven’t spoken with my manager yet, but I’ve kind of looked at a couple of guys. I’ll talk with my manager and coaches, first, but there are a couple guys I’d like to fight,” he said.

“I definitely want to put together fan-friendly fights, and fights with people I’ve been watching for a while that now I get to fight.”

Given how outsized a performance bonus of $50,000 is for most UFC fighters in comparison to what they make in contracted purses, it’s tempting to ask Worthy what he’ll do with all his new money, as though he’d just won a mega-millions lottery. Stupidly, I do ask him just that, in largely that way.

“I’ll probably let it chill awhile in the bank and put a lot of it back into the gym,” he said.

“The gym will probably get a lot more students now, so I’ll want to put money back into it. I’m sure my girl has stuff she wants to do, but for now I’m going to let it chill. I could break my leg tomorrow. You don’t know what will happen. It’s not all that much. People hit me up saying, ‘You’re getting paid, now, you’re getting paid!’ But it’s not that much. It can all go away fast.”

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