Belal Muhammad is a UFC welterweight currently ranked the No 4 challenger in his division. Born and raised in Chicago, to Palestinian parents, Muhammad is well known for his Muslim faith and is a hugely popular figure in the Middle East. He has twice fought in Abu Dhabi, most recently last October, and has often spoken about his dream of winning a UFC title in the UAE capital. He is unbeaten in his past nine bouts.
Here Muhammad tells The National about the current holy month, experiences of training as a professional athlete during this time, and what Ramadan means to him.
What makes Ramadan so special?
“Ramadan is my favourite time of the year. It is the time of the year that is dedicated to one thing: it’s about bettering yourself for God, making the sacrifices you wouldn’t normally make. You are always telling yourself you want to be a better person, and a better Muslim, and this is the time of year to do it.
“Fasting is something a lot of people focus on, but it is not just about going without food and water. This is a time to recognise the negative things in life and stop them. Ramadan feels like a detox from the yearly stresses in life.
“At this time of year, I feel like I am showing that anything He needs; I can do for Him. It helps me out a lot. I am still working out twice a day and training. In between practices I normally just binge watch TV, but now I want to get closer to the Quran.
“I am reading it more and getting more knowledgeable. It is kind of like practice for MMA – every day you want to learn a little bit more. I want to read or listen a little more to the Quran every day. It gives you peace in your mind."
Belal Muhammad prepares for fight in Abu Dhabi
The principal reflections of this holy month
“This year I have really focused on understanding that life is so short. We put so much pressure on ourselves wanting to be the biggest and the best and it is such a small snippet of what life is all about.
“We are not successful because we have all the money in the world. We are not successful because we are the richest person. So many rich people are unhappy. Your happiness comes from knowing you are doing all the right things for God.
“I get stressed out so much throughout the course of the year, wanting to know why I’m not getting a title shot, or not getting this or that. But, at the end of the day, God has it all written for me and that it’s going to be OK – and I just need to enjoy being on that journey.
“We just need to be grateful. During Ramadan we go without food and water during the day, but there are people having to do that every day. They are suffering so much, and yet we are crying about the stupidest things, and it makes no sense.”
Experiencing Ramadan as a professional athlete
“As a professional athlete I still have to do my job and train. The life of an MMA fighter is incredibly hard on the body, so during Ramadan I have to listen to it even more than normal. If I need to take a round off, then I will.
“I have to make sure at night I am eating the right things to be able to push myself. Refuelling is critical. I have to have at least a gallon of water, the right carbs for energy in the morning practice, and the right vitamins to stay healthy – I have to be smart with how I treat my body.
“I tell myself all the time my opponents are not pushing how I am pushing. I know that when it comes time to show up for a fight and prepare for a fight I am going to be on a whole different level. Physically my body has been through the stresses of fasting and is stronger, but also mentally I am inspired and re-energised.
“My teammates already tell me during Ramadan that I feel stronger, and it is like my body is naturally adjusting, and mentally I am that much tougher. Ramadan makes me want to push myself even harder and show I am the same athlete with the same determination to give my all no matter the circumstances.”
Giving back and strengthening relationships
“Outside the gym, it is even more important for me to be able to give back to those less fortunate. I work with a company in Chicago called Pious Projects. They work in places that are war stricken, or the people don’t have access to food, water, clothes – all those things we take for granted. It is big for me to try and donate to them every day.
“Ramadan has a wonderful ability to bring people together, and one of the highlights for me is going to my mom’s house for dinner. She makes a great dinner and being able to go there every single night with my brothers and sister … the whole family is there together and there’s not a lot of time we can do that. So to have that for a whole month is incredibly special.
“Ramadan truly is the most beautiful time of the year, especially the tranquility it brings. This is a time to be better and then focus on being better during the rest of the year, too. I see this not only in myself, but the people around me too. It is a beautiful thing.”