Top five in his division having come off the most impressive win of his career, Belal Muhammad has UFC gold in his sights.
Yet, for the moment, it’s not welterweight champion Kamaru Usman that occupies his mind. Instead, the in-form American is focused on halting the hottest prospect in the sport.
“For me, honestly, you have to look down the rankings at Khamzat [Chimaev], who everybody thinks is going to be the champion; everybody thinks he’s going to be Kamaru’s toughest test,” Muhammad tells The National from his base in Chicago, a month removed from his hugely dominant decision victory against Stephen Thompson in Las Vegas.
“And even if I do fight any of those guys above me, I don’t want it being, ‘Oh well, Khamzat should get the title shot next because he has all this hype.
“Let me go straight to Khamzat if that’s the guy they all think should be fighting Kamaru in 2022. Let me go derail the hype train and get the title shot next. Because I’m one win away from the title shot."
Taking down Chimaev, even though he sits currently as the No 11-ranked challenger at welterweight, would almost certainly cement a bout for the belt. The Chechen-born star has taken the UFC by storm since debuting in Abu Dhabi in 2020, racking up three blink-of-the-eye wins before marking his recovery from Covid-19 in October by blitzing through Li Jingliang at UFC 267 at Etihad Arena.
Before choking out Li, himself ranked 11th at the time, Chimaev carried his Chinese opponent across the octagon to the side where UFC president Dana White was watching on from. Chimaev soon submitted Li, hoisting his pro record to 10-0. In four UFC appearances, he has landed 254 blows, receiving only two. When it comes to significant strikes, he is 112 for 1.
Muhammed isn’t too concerned, though. He’s riding an impressive six-fight win streak (his clash last March against Leon Edwards was a "No Contest"). When it comes to Chimaev, he relishes the prospect.
“I have the style to beat anybody,” he says, reeling off the different threats quelled in recent bouts against Lyman Good, Dhiego Lima, Demian Maia and Thompson. “Stylistically I can adapt to anybody I fight and compete with these guys.
“They underestimate how good I am, because I don’t have the Division 1 [wrestling] accolades, or a karate blackbelt or jiu-jitsu blackbelt. But I’m good everywhere. I understand martial arts and I understand MMA, and I do it the best where I put everything together.
“So when Khamzat goes in there and he can’t take me down, and can’t knock me out, then we’re going to see how tough he really is. If you’re going to pick me up and walk to talk to Dana, I’m going to hit you with a freaking elbow to the eye. When you have somebody in there who’s standing right in front of you and taking what you got, then you start mentally breaking. And I want to see if he has that mental break-ness in him.”
Muhammad, whose pro record reads 20-3 (1 NC), takes pride rightfully in his climb into the top five. It’s been built, he reminds, on hard work and the grind. For him, he’s more than earned his slot among the division’s best.
Therefore, Chimaev’s meteoric rise and the calls since for a championship bout could rankle. Not necessarily.
“I understand it, I understand business, I understand hype,” Muhammad says. “It’s just the unknown. The fans see him dominate a guy like Li Jingliang, who’s probably a white-belt and has no jiu-jitsu at all. But the fans don’t understand that.
"But every fighter you talked to knew Khamzat was going to go in there and dominate Li. But to fans it’s, ‘Oh my god, this guy’s untouchable, he’s got hit one time in four fights’.
“I understand the hype machine. And obviously, for the UFC, you have this new Russian - Khabib [Nurmagomedov’s] out of the picture now - so let’s build this new guy up into their market, maybe he’ll be a pay-per-view star.
“He’s undefeated, he’s gotten hit only one time, so obviously he has something. And he’s doing his little trash-talk thing, he’s not just staying quiet, so he understands it.
“For me, I had to sit there and claw and scratch my way to the top to get even a ranking, to get a ranked fight. But I understand timing, too. Some guys can go quick, some guys take the long road. To me it doesn’t matter: my time will be my time and, regardless, I’m having the belt in the end.”
This month, Chimaev made public an apparent message exchange with No 2-ranked contender Gilbert Burns, in which the two seemingly agreed to square off in April. Chimaev has been pretty active overall on social media, calling out numerous potential rivals, even outside the welterweight division.
“Khamzat’s one of those guys where he does all this talking, ‘I want to fight you and this and this’,” says Muhammad, who possesses a must-follow social-media game of his own. “But he’s just calling out everybody and trying to get interactions with everybody.
"He obviously believes his own hype. I think he loves the attention. But why doesn’t he have anything in the books, why isn’t anything booked yet? I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but he’s acting really tough in front.”
Muhammad, a practising Muslim born in Chicago to Palestinian parents, is sure a clash with Chimaev sells, not merely because of their fast-rising reputations inside the octagon, but given the pair’s shared inclination to go back and forth outside it.
“Doesn’t have to be hate, just having fun with it,” Muhammad says. “It’d make for a fun fight and fun build-up. And the two of us should be a main event. To have two Muslims being a main event in the UFC is a huge moment for the religion and the culture too.”
Abu Dhabi, then, would make for a rather suitable location, but considering Muhammad wants to fight before Ramadan, in March or April – “I’m already hitting up my manager, I want to start off the New Year hot" – and with no confirmation on the UFC’s return to the capital, that would probably have to wait until that title fight later in the year. Muhammad fought in Abu Dhabi in 2019, at UFC 242, when he defeated Takashi Sato by third-round submission.
“Honestly, it’ll be a dream come true,” he says. “It’s one of those things you’re always thinking about: 'I’m going to win the title, I’m going to be champion, but how can I be champion and where can I be champion?' And if it was over there in Abu Dhabi it’d be amazing.
“The first time I fought there it was huge, to see the fans, to see the crowd. I can’t wait to go back. When I went to the mall there was a line of people wanting to take a picture with me.
“We were walking down the street and some guy stopped his car and ran out to take a picture with me. I was, ‘Really? Alright’. It’s humbling because you don't experience that in the US. In Abu Dhabi it was cool because I was the home team; there was not one person in there booing me or wanting to watch me lose.
“You see the Middle East has so many great fighters and they’re starting to come to the UFC. And it’s showing the kids out there that they aren’t training for nothing, you could make it too. It’s amazing that the sport’s growing so much out there.
"And now the UFC is going there, it’s giving these kids another avenue: ‘I don’t have to be doctor, I don’t have to be a lawyer. I can be a fighter; I can be an athlete. I can make it coming from the Middle East, if I grind really hard and believe in myself.”
Having grinded hard to finally break the top five, and with belief in his ability recognised more widely than ever, Muhammad has one major professional goal to achieve come the end of 2022.
“The ideal scenario is I have the belt around my waist and you’re like, ‘You told me you’re going to be champion and you are champion’,” he says. “I’m going to fight one more fight and then get the title shot. So I’m one win away. I go out there and I’m going to be the champion by the end of this year.”