This time two weeks ago, Khama Worthy was “just” a regional MMA fighter in the Pittsburgh area. The guy was juggling a lot, having recently come off his fifth win in a row while also taking care of an eleven-month-old baby and running his own martial arts academy. But when he got the call he’d been dreaming of for years, he knew he had to take the opportunity that was offered to him — even if it meant making his UFC debut on four days’ notice.
As if that weren’t enough, Worthy learned that he’d be fighting his longtime friend, Devonte Smith (who was 10-1 at the time, having won nine of his fights via KO/TKO and one via submission). The fight would be the main event of the prelims, getting spectators pumped up before a main card that would finish with an exciting clash between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier. Worthy walked into the fight as a +650 underdog, knowing that he had everything stacked against him. What the bettors didn’t take into account, however, was what the Pittsburgh MMA scene has known for years: Worthy gets sh*t done.
As the day of his UFC 241 fight rapidly approached, Worthy was surprised at how relaxed he felt. His fights at home in front of all his friends and family had stressed him out far more than his big UFC debut. As he walked into the Octagon and worked his striking against Smith, he was calm, even having fun.
As the clock hit the final minute of the first round, Worthy and Smith had a striking exchange that ended with Worthy’s fist connecting with his opponent’s head just right to drop him to the ground. In the moment, though, it didn’t occur to Worthy that the punch had been the reason that Smith was suddenly all the way down there.
“I thought he tripped,” Worthy told the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “The whole setup was to hit him with the uppercut, but the uppercut missed because he was on his way out. I thought he tripped, and I jumped on top of him to finish him. As the referee jumped on him, I was already jumping on the cage. I wanted to jump into the audience and crowd surf. Then I noticed the Black Beast [UFC fighter Derrick Lewis] in the audience and snapped back to reality.”
As he talks about his big win, Worthy reiterates how the whole experience felt like the plot of an inspirational MMA movie. “You talk about things and try to envision it — everyone wants their first UFC fight to be a first-round, destructive KO. It worked exactly how I dreamt about it for years. I didn’t want it to be against one of my good friends, but everything else about it was perfect.”
Worthy’s tenacity has been tested in the cage for nearly a decade now, but the past year has pushed him past his limits in new ways. Shortly after becoming the proud owner of his own gym, The Academy, heavy rain left the gym completely flooded. Suddenly, Worthy’s already busy life was thrown into chaos. “I had a pregnant girlfriend at home, we’d just embarked on this journey, and it was just anarchy,” he says. “I was getting ready for a fight and the gym was shut down.”
Worthy soon found out, though, that he wouldn’t be facing this fight alone. Dozens of members of the Academy came out to help clean up the gym, and their efforts gave Worthy a whole new source of motivation. “Everyone at the gym stuck together and rebuilt the gym — it was just a bunch of hard, hard work,” he says. “I was told by a lot of people, ‘You have the gym, you have a family now, maybe ease up on fighting. But this gym is a necessity to me. [The gym members] were willing to put an effort, so who am I to say I can’t put forth the effort? If they can do it — donate money and time, come in, moms using the shop vac to clean up — I have no excuse.”
Worthy’s drive was pushed to the next level when he welcomed his baby into the world with his partner, BJJ blue belt Nicole Daley, just a few months later. “I thought when I had Marley, it would make me not want to fight, but it did the opposite,” he says. “It was all so much to overcome, but it wasn’t a bad thing to overcome. It pushed me. It made it worth it.”
The way the Academy members came together to help bring the gym back from the brink of destruction wasn’t a product of duty or obligation — it was a direct result of the kind of environment Worthy and his staff work to build within the gym. He and the Academy’s coaches live, teach, and train by ideals that push their students to reach their potential not only as martial artists, but also as human beings.
“[Head jiu-jitsu coach Marshal Carper] has his thing that’s ‘Be excellent to each other,’ [from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure]… I have a thing that’s like, ‘be more human.’ If someone needs help, give them help,” he says. “If you beat people up for a living and being good to other people isn’t a thing, next thing you know, you’re a monster. Especially in an MMA or BJJ gym, if you have a bunch of jerks — people trying to rip arms off and break ankles — what we do is dangerous, and people will get hurt and not come back. It doesn’t benefit anyone. Even when we spar, we’re pushing each other, but we’re not trying to injure each other.”
The world got a glimmer of Worthy’s “human” side in the middle of his fight over the weekend when he laughed and high-fived Smith. The crowd booed the display of friendly sportsmanship, but Worthy stands by his good-natured gesture. “Especially in a fight, I can transform and want to hurt you. I have to keep my ego in check. I’m human,” he says. “If you have a whole bunch of yes-men telling you you can be an a*shole, you’ll think you can be an a*shole. I want to be more human and be the right person.”
While it’s a nice thought that the universe has perhaps paid out a bit of “Khama karma” to reward Worthy for being a genuinely good person, the undeniable fact is that this fighter has earned every accomplishment he’s achieved. In fact, a few weeks ago, he was promoted to purple belt in jiu-jitsu: a great honor for anyone, but especially for a guy who considers himself a “natural-born striker.”
“Grappling is something I don’t feel comfortable with,” he says. “It makes me comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s the feeling that if it goes there, I can handle myself.”
Worthy’s willingness to admit his weaknesses and be humble is a large part of why he’s found so much success both in martial arts and the Academy. He keeps his circle small and his mind open, working with coaches who he respects as people as well as athletes. “I’ve been working with Marshal forever,” he says of his BJJ coach, who he’s known since high school. “I was cool with him when we first met, but now, I just like having him around. He’s the type of person I want to be, the type of fighter I want to be.”
The fighter also refuses to play into the politics that often plague the martial arts community. “It’s so counterproductive for small gyms to have beef among each other. It’s like how rich people keep the poor people fighting amongst each other. Stick together, small gyms,” he advises.
Worthy’s words of wisdom are spoken from experience. The Academy itself doesn’t belong to any of the big-name affiliations that dominate the major MMA promotions, calling itself home to only 120 members or so. But Worthy knows that a gym doesn’t need to be “famous” in order to produce successful athletes. “All the big gyms out there started off as regular gyms. If you go to a big gym just to train with famous people, you’ll be getting the same stuff as you would at a smaller gym, just paying more. There’s phenomenal trainers at any gym. You don’t have to go to bigger places to make it big. People still look at me funny when they find out my head coach is Master Whitefang, this little old white guy engineer, but he’s brought me to where I am now.”
Worthy may be in shock over his overnight success, but he still has his feet planted firmly on the ground where he’s been growing. He’s a true UFC fighter now, having signed a four-fight contract when he agreed to take his fight against Smith, but he encourages local martial artists and MMA fans to support their hometown heroes before they get their big shot. “Everyone started off as a nobody before they became a somebody,” he says. “It’s the same thing as with musical artists — did you go to their concerts before they made it big because you liked their music, or did you only go when you were famous? I want people to come to my gym because they want to be martial artists, not because a UFC fighter trains there.”
With at least a few more fights left in the UFC, Worthy has a whole new fanbase backing him up and ensuring that his days of being an underdog are numbered, if not over entirely. No matter what the future holds for this fighter, though, he knows he’ll always have the support of the people who have been cheering him on from day one.