Khama Worthy trying to move up UFC rankings despite late start

LAS VEGAS — Khama Worthy was walking through the mall one day when a chance meeting dramatically changed his life. At the time, he was in his early 20s not certain what he wanted to do with his life and didn’t have a clear plan.

He was still years away from what turned out to be his true calling when a woman approached him in a shopping mall and handed him her business card.

She represented a modeling agency, and thought Worthy might make a good model. Before long, he packed up his few belongings, left his family in Pittsburgh and headed to New York, where he modeled underwear and the latest men’s fashion.

If Worthy had dreams of getting rich walking down a runaway wearing sharp clothing, he was quickly disabused of that notion. A 2019 GQ article noted that while the top 10 female models earned a combined total of $83 million in 2018, the top 10 males earned a combined $8 million.

For those like Worthy just starting out, it was even worse.

Asked what the highest salary he earned as a model was, Worthy laughed.

“I wasn’t making any money at all,” Worthy said. “I learned that most models don’t make s—. I was working at a restaurant when I was up there to be able to pay my bills.”

He looked good in the suits he was asked to wear, though at just under 6 feet tall, the clothes didn’t fit him the way the designers wanted. He was too short.

“I did some underwear modeling because I was a bit smaller [than needed to do runway modeling],” he said. “I wasn’t quite tall enough. To do runway, you have to be 6-feet, 6-feet-1. I was 5-11 and a half. I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the clothes are pre-measured for a certain height. If you’re not tall enough, the clothes don’t fit you right. So it becomes a big deal.”

So a half-inch in height cost Worthy whatever dream he had of making it big as a model.

Khama Worthy celebrates after his submission victory over Luis Pena in their lightweight fight during UFC Fight Night at Apex on June 27, 2020 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

His parents had trained as martial artists, and Worthy went to a gym in New York to workout. Someone asked him if he ever considered fighting, and he bought some DVDs to learn about it.

But at first, he was wary.

“I never thought you could make any money doing this,” said Worthy, who is now 2-0 in the UFC and preparing to fight unbeaten Ottman Azaitar in a lightweight bout on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at Apex.

“I always liked to fight, but I never realized you could make real money doing it, so it wasn’t anything I pursued seriously. Then I learned about the UFC and I learned that you could make decent money, so I decided to do it. I didn’t understand at the time though how long of a journey it would be.”

His hometown, Pittsburgh, was long ago a boxing hotbed. Some of the greatest boxers in history hailed from Pittsburgh, including the legendary Harry Greb, Billy “The Pittsburgh Kid Conn and Fritzie Zivic.

But Pittsburgh has become a Steelers and Penguins’ town these days and the passion for the fight game isn’t what it used to be.

Worthy, who won his UFC debut on just four days’ notice by knocking out the estimable Devonte Smith with a left hook in the first-round at UFC 241, hopes to be the vessel to ignite interest in MMA at home.

Worthy owns his own gym and said there are a lot of talented fighters in Pittsburgh he believes will soon break into the big-time. But, he believes he knows what it’s going to take to gain Pittsburghers’ attention.

“Pittsburgh is a town of winners,” he said. “They love winners and if you win, you’re going to see that support come up. I know what I have to do. If I keep it rolling and keep doing what I have to do, that [support] is going to come.”

Time, though, is a little bit of an enemy. He didn’t get to the UFC until six weeks before his 33rd birthday, so he’s trying to rise at a time when his peak years may already be behind him.

But Worthy, a bright and personable type, isn’t daunted by the challenge.

“I basically have to work twice as hard as the rest of them,” he said. “I’ve got these guys by almost 10 years. [Luis] Pena was 27. Devonte Smith was [26]. I’m giving away seven, eight years to those guys. That may mean my body has that much more wear and tear and they’re faster and younger, but I also have something that is very important. I have that experience of eight years in the MMA game that is so important.

“That experience counts for everything. Look at [Alistair] Overeem last week. He’s way up there and it was his experience that carried him over that young buck he fought [Augusto Sakai]. A couple of weeks ago, no one was talking about Derek Brunson before his fight with that kid [Edmen Shahbazyan]. Brunson’s experience won that fight for him.

“Glover Teixeira is fighting a lot of those younger and faster guys, but he’s breaking them down and beating them because he understands what it takes. It’s not all about physical skills. It’s about knowing yourself, knowing your opponents and knowing how to break a human being. It doesn’t always happen in that one big snap, and I’ve learned that in this journey I’ve been on.”

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