UFC Fight Night: Moroccan Youssef Zalal going from strength to strength in his rookie year

Featherweight fighter takes on undefeated Ilia Topuria on Saturday

The global pandemic has restricted many international athletes from participating in competitions but that hasn’t been the case for the mixed martial art professional Youssef Zalal.

The Moroccan is back for his fourth UFC appearance in nine months when he takes on Ilia Topuria in the third of the five Fight Island events in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.

Topuria, 23, steps in to fight Zalal after Choi Seung-woo was forced to pull out of the featherweight contest.

The Georgian arrives at short notice but undefeated in eight appearances. He is also returning to the octagon since his knockout win over Steven Goncalves at Brace CF 29 in Bahrain last November.

Zalal, who turned 24 last month, is undefeated in three UFC appearances since joining them in February and has a 10-2 career record.

Zalal has had a remarkable run so far as a UFC rookie. He has won his last three fights by unanimous points decisions and is seeking a fourth success.

"It's my third fight in over three months and fourth in nine months. It's been a crazy year but I'm excited and ready," Zalal told The National in a zoom interview on Tuesday.

“It’s a big show and you got to be ready. It’s not just the fighting but holding your nerves, deal with it and the camp, and all that stuff.

“This kid is coming off a knockout from his last fight but for me it doesn’t really matter who I fight. I go out there and do my job while my coach does the game plan.”

Zalal’s journey in the MMA began in kickboxing. He was 12 when his parents moved to Colorado in the United States.

“When I was growing up a lot of people who watched me fight and my coaches encouraged me by saying I was good, this and that,” Zalal said.

“Then I started practicing other martial arts, got a few opportunities and here I am. It’s been a good journey so far. I’m not thinking too far on what is around the corner for me but glad to look forward to my next fight.”

He arrived in Abu Dhabi on Sunday and completed a 48-hour quarantine. Zalal is impressed with the capital city’s arrangements.

“Going through the safety and precautionary protocol is a new norm under the prevailing pandemic situation but we are surrounded by helpful people to get on with our work,” Zalal said of Abu Dhabi’s hospitality.

“The next few days will be work as usual. I’m relaxed and happy, and looking forward to the fight night.”