Belal Muhammad: Lifting the belt in Abu Dhabi would be one for the story books

No 3-ranked welterweight contender tells The National why he deserves to fight champion Leon Edwards at UFC 294 at Etihad Arena in October

Belal Muhammad, right, knees Brazil's Gilbert Burns during the first round of a welterweight bout at the UFC 288 mixed martial arts event Saturday, May 6, 2023, in Newark, N. J.  Muhammad won the fight.  (AP Photo / Frank Franklin II)
Powered by automated translation

A week after the biggest win of his career to date, Belal Muhammad is still basking in the afterglow. To be fair, he’s earned it.

Then the UFC’s No 4-ranked welterweight contender, Muhammad dominated No 5 Gilbert Burns in their short-notice bout at UFC 288, taking the fight on three weeks' notice and earning a unanimous decision win to increase his unbeaten streak to 10.

More importantly, it guaranteed Muhammad a first shot at UFC gold.

“Feels amazing,” the American tells The National from his base in Chicago. “I literally got a call yesterday from one of my friends and he's like, ‘Hey, dude, if I was you, I'll just go to the grocery store and be like, 'Yeah, I'm fighting for the title next'. Just yell it out.’”

Probably for the best, Muhammad decided not to take his friend’s advice. But it doesn’t mean he appreciates any less his present position in the sport.

Now the No 3 challenger at 170 lbs, he has for some time called for a championship bout, for his talent and recent track record to be allowed to speak for itself.

Within that run of nine wins and one no contest (his curtailed 2021 clash with now-champion Leon Edwards), Muhammad has seen off five top-10 fighters. Three were top five.

Clearly, he deserves where he finds himself today.

“It feels good because it was a long road,” Muhammad says. “I had a lot of ups and downs. Nothing was given to me; nothing was handed to me.

“I had to grind and claw myself for every opportunity I was given. And to take a fight like that on three weeks’ notice and to beat the No 5 guy in the world and beat him dominantly, it just shows that God's plan is the best plan.

“All the work I put in, all the stresses, the crying, the thinking, the overthinking … you're like, ‘What's going to happen? What's next?’ And it finally all paid off.”

It certainly did. What made the win all the more impressive, even more than accepting on such short notice, was that Muhammad, a practising Muslim, had just observed Ramadan. In contrast, Burns was coming off victory last month against Jorge Masvidal at UFC 287.

Muhammad, 34, says the holy month only fortified the mind, deepening his conviction that he would not be prevented from winning – and thus denied that title bout.

Yet he concedes doubts had crept in during the abbreviated build-up.

"Because I'm a guy that gets hyped up,” Muhammad says. “I'm like, ‘Oh, this is a huge opportunity. Let's go. I want to do it.’ And then it was the final week of Ramadan and you're training while fasting and not drinking any water. You have those days where it's not a good practice.

“You're thinking, ‘Dude, why did I take this fight? I deserve the full camp. I deserve the eight-week camp. This guy just fought. He's in shape. He's healthy.’

“And it gets you a little bit angry, and you're like, ‘But they don't want to give me nothing. They don't want to give me an eight-week camp’. It just gave me more of a chip on my shoulder.

“They think they could beat me now. They think they caught me slacking and then I was like, ‘They didn't catch me. I'm going to win this fight. I'm going to work twice as hard. No matter what, I'm going to get through it.’

“So just having that mentality, training with the chip on my shoulder, it made me push through every little obstacle that I had to go through.”

Ultimately, Muhammad came through the obstacle. Burns was considered his greatest challenge so far, a bruising and battle-ready Brazilian who Muhammad says people expected “would walk straight through me”. He recognised the perils of the fight and what it meant for his future.

Then, he overcame them.

“To win like that against a tough guy like that, it just gives me and my team the confidence we're doing the right things,” Muhammad says. “It was the right decision to take this fight on three weeks’ notice, because if I did go in there and lose this fight, I'm probably never going to get a title fight.

“If I can't get one on a nine-fight winning streak, what makes me think I'm going to get one on a one-fight losing streak? So, to go out there and win like that on a big stage, it felt great.”

So Burns negotiated, what next? Muhammad wants welterweight belt-holder Edwards in Abu Dhabi in October, as part of UFC 294 at Etihad Arena. UFC president Dana White, meanwhile, has been adamant No 2 contender Colby Covington will face Edwards first, although that bout is yet to be confirmed.

Edwards says he wants his next title defence to fall in Abu Dhabi; Covington, however, isn't keen.

For Muhammad, born to Palestinian parents, the emirate appeals greatly. He has competed there twice before, most recently last October, when he outclassed the previously unbeaten Sean Brady at UFC 280.

Still, the title situation remains unclear. “A lot of the unknown,” Muhammad says. “I know Leon said he wants to fight in Abu Dhabi. And if you're Dana White and UFC, you're looking at it like the only person that should be fighting in Abu Dhabi would be Belal Muhammad.

“Because that would be the biggest fight they could make there, over any fighter in the UFC. If the champion wants to fight there, I’d think they would've just put me against him next, seeing as I think I'm the rightful owner of the No 1 contender spot.

“Colby hasn't beaten anybody in over a year [Masvidal, March 2022]. He has one win in his last three fights. So I'm hoping Dana White's sitting there thinking to himself, ‘Bro, this guy deserved it. This guy earned it. He did us a favour in fighting on three weeks’ notice. Let's let him fight first. Colby could sit out another three or four months and then fight the winner of that fight.’

“I've earned it. I deserve it. So I'm hoping and praying Dana looks at it and says, ‘Bro, this opportunity's too big, to have him fight in Abu Dhabi for the title in October. Leon wants to fight in October. Both of these guys have history. There's a storyline there’.

“I think it makes all the sense in the world. I just need Dana to see that sense. I'm hoping that's the case, but it never works out like that for me.”

Muhammad says that, should the UFC still go with Edwards-Covington, he is prepared to wait until December or early next year for the winner. But missing out on the opportunity to realise a long-held ambition in Abu Dhabi would sting.

“Honestly, it would hurt a little bit just because it's so great fighting there, and both times I fought there have been amazing,” Muhammad says. “It's a dream to fight in front of my people with a title on the line.

“And to get the flag, the belt raised in front of them, it would literally be something they write in story books, in that you wouldn't think that would happen. For me, it would be a great, not ending, but part of the story where you're like, "Dang, he did it. He finally did it.’”

As he says, Muhammed, 23-3 as a professional, has previous with Edwards. The pair fought in 2021, but the bout was called off after Edwards caught Muhammad accidentally with an eye poke in the second round.

“Mostly I’d want Leon just because the history we have and the way that he accepted the no contest like it was a win," Muhammad says. “I would want to dominate him and show the world what would've happened in that fight had it gone past the first round.

"I would want that one back because I still have that, in the back of my head, there's a lot of unfinished business with that fight. I can't go out of a fight with a no contest. I don't know how a man like that, any fighter, would want something like that on their record.

"I would've wanted that fight right away if I was him, because I wanted it right away.”

Until now, no fighters have been confirmed for Abu Dhabi, however, Islam Makhachev has long been mooted as a potential headliner. The Dagestan native, a regular visitor to the UAE, claimed the lightweight title there last October, on the same card as Muhammad-Brady.

In preparation for UFC 280, Muhammad spent a lengthy camp in Dubai with Makhachev and team. Therefore, Makhachev defending at UFC 294 and Muhammad capturing his first title there – how does that whet the appetite?

“Honestly? Sounds like a movie. It sounds like a dream,” Muhammad says. “I think that would be the biggest event of the year for the UFC and for the Abu Dhabi people and the fans over there.

“I don't think they would want anything else besides that.”

Updated: May 19, 2023, 6:43 AM