Exclusive: Belal Muhammad 'excited' for Demian Maia challenge at UFC 263 as focus remains on historic title bid

American fighter of Palestinian origin is determined to become the UFC's first ever Arab champion

Belal Muhammad is aiming to take another significant step closer to fulfilling his dreams of becoming the UFC's first Arab champion when he faces Demian Maia on June 12.

Born in Chicago to Palestinian parents, Muhammad (18-3-1NC) enters his UFC 263 bout against the veteran Brazilian having lost just once in his past 10 fights. His most recent outing, in March, ended in a No Contest against Leon Edwards after he suffered an accidental eye poke during the second round.

Had Muhammad emerged victorious against the third-ranked welterweight, he would likely have thrust himself into title contention. Instead, he will have to keep plugging away for the time being.

The immediate task in his continued quest for the title comes against ninth-ranked Maia on the undercard of Israel Adesanya's middleweight title defence against Marvin Vettori at the Gila River Arena in Arizona.

Incidentally, Edwards also features on the card where he faces popular American Nate Diaz. Flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo puts his title on the line against Brandon Moreno in the co-main event.

Maia (28-10) may be 11 years Muhammad's senior but he sits three places above the 32-year-old American in the welterweight standings, and Muhammad has prepared for the biggest challenge of his career so far.

“I’m excited. It’s one of those big opportunities for me in one of the biggest cards of the year,” he told The National. “I’m ready to go out there and stand out as the performer of the show.

"I have met him once before out of the cage and he’s such a nice guy. He’s one of those guys respected by all. He’s a legend of the game and been around for so long.”

Experience certainly favours Maia. The Brazilian made his UFC debut nearly 14 years ago, at UFC 77, and has twice fought for the title, once at middleweight and more recently at welterweight. Maia came up short in both bouts but went the distance with Anderson Silva and Tyron Woodley respectively.

However, Maia has not competed in 15 months since his first round TKO defeat to compatriot Gilbert Burns.

While Maia has Muhammad's full respect, the veteran Brazilian is viewed as another obstacle on the American's path to ultimate glory.

“I just don’t want to be in the sport but want to be the best in the sport," Muhammad said. "I want to be the first Arab champion and show that Arabs can be champions and the best in the world.”

Compared to Maia, Muhammad is a relatively latecomer to MMA and had previously envisioned a career in the courtroom instead of the cage.

“I started slowly and then started to love the sport,” he said. “I use to watch boxing and other combat sports, and then started to learn about it. I always loved competitions.

“I tried my hands at wrestling and when I started winning, I wanted to see how far I could go. It eventually led me to MMA and here I am.

“During my schooldays, I wanted to be a lawyer. That was my initial plan. When I got the break in fighting, I thought I can always go back to my studies if I wasn’t successful. I was successful and am still in the game.”

While Muhammad's focus is squarely on the present and his title ambitions, he is planning to use all of his combat sports experience to assist the next generation when the time comes to hang up his gloves.

“I have four brothers and they are all entrepreneurs and I myself can start a business, hopefully,” he said.

“For me, it would be opening businesses like a gym and then start to broaden the horizons. I want to build businesses for my kids, their kids and so on. You can only do that when you are your own boss.”

Belal is also a champion of the Palestine cause and he carries the nation’s flag to every contest and proudly displays it in the cage.

“I do that for those who don’t have a voice,” he said. “The flag represents a group of people fighting for their rights.”

Middle East fans can catch UFC 263 live on the UFC Arabia app, UFC's first Arabic language streaming subscription service. UFC Arabia is available for download from the App Store and Google Play Store. Subscribers can also access it through smart TVs

Updated: June 7, 2021 03:08 PM

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