More than an interested observer of Sunday’s Fight of the Year contender between Khamzat Chimaev and Gilbert Burns, Belal Muhammad recognises what he needs to do to secure that UFC welterweight title shot next.
Basically, an even greater display this weekend against Vicente Luque in the main event at UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas.
“It depends on my type of performance,” Muhammad tells The National from Vegas. “I have got to go out there and outperform the guys last week. I have got to make them want to give me the title fight.
“This is going to be my fourth top-10 ranked opponent in a year. This is going to be my third top-five opponent in a year. None of the other guys are doing that. I am the only one stepping up and fighting the best of the best in the division, and I am here to show I belong at the top of the division. So have to keep going out there and proving myself.”
Muhammad, who slipped a spot in the rankings because of the undefeated Chimaev’s ascent into the top five this week, has been riding a hugely impressive win streak of his own: he is unbeaten in his past seven fights, with six victories and one no contest. His professional MMA record stands at 20-3.
Currently the welterweight division's No 6-ranked challenger, on Sunday morning UAE time, Muhammad takes on the man directly above him in the standings. It represents a rematch of their 2016 encounter, when Muhammad lost to Luque (21-7-1) via first-round knockout in New York.
Clearly, with only one defeat in 12 UFC appearances since, and that more than three years ago, the Chicago-born competitor is much improved since then. Add in the extra motivation of avenging the Luque loss, and it makes Muhammad a dangerous proposition.
“I am a very bad loser,” he says. “I am very motivated for this fight and it has pushed me. That fight changed my career, made me the person I have become. I feel like I had to go through that to become the person I am today.
“It made me that much stronger, and push that much harder, and it only made me better in general, so sometimes you have to go through the downs to get the ups. There are some guys who come into the UFC and win five fights in a row and are fighting for the title right away, then there are guys who have to go through the trenches, the doubting yourself, the doubts from the fans.
"And then you just keep winning and winning and winning. And that makes a title that much better once you actually get there.”
Inspiration can be extracted, too, from Chimaev-Burns just past.
“That was an amazing fight – and a motivating fight,” Muhammad says. “If you watch that fight and you are not motivated to push even harder you have a problem, because both of those guys left it all there in the cage.
“It was one of those things where people are saying the hype isn't real and Khamzat isn't this boogeyman. People overthink things, but he is a human being. Some people get tired, some people get rocked, people underestimated Gilbert way too much in that fight.
“Both showed great things: Khamzat showed he had a chin and heart; Gilbert showed he belongs at the top of the division. So respect to both guys after that fight.”
In defeating Burns by a hard-fought unanimous decision, Chimaev lifted his UFC record to 5-0 (11-0 as a professional), yet for the first time in the promotion he was made to work for the victory. The Chechen-born Swede, now the No 3 contender at welterweight, had previously looked unstoppable.
However, such was Burns’ performance that perhaps his rivals, some of whom were previously reluctant to fight Chimaev, could now view him differently. Muhammad, though, doesn’t necessarily agree.
“The fact he is No 3 now, people aren't really going to be calling him out, but some will be saying, 'Ah I would have fought him',” he says. “Everyone is going to come with that same attitude now: 'Dude, I would have fought him, but they just never called me.'
“But for me he is still very good, undefeated, and still showed a lot of great things in that fight. And I want to test myself with him. I still want that fight and want to fight the best guys in the division.
“People are saying he's not what we thought it was, but guys put him on this huge pedestal like a Marvel character. People put so much pressure on him, and expectations can ruin things. But I still think he is a monster, so I don't know why people are doubting him now.”
Although aware he cannot look past Luque – the Brazilian rides a four-fight winning streak – Muhammad says he has already made it known that he wants to compete at the UFC’s return to Abu Dhabi in October, at UFC 281.
Chimaev defeats Burns in all-time UFC classic
Muhammad has experience of fighting in the capital, having defeated Takashi Sato at UFC 242 in September 2019. A practising Muslim born in the US to Palestinian parents, he knows a clash with Chimaev at Etihad Arena would sell.
“That would be amazing right there,” Muhammad says. “To have two Muslims headlining a card in Abu Dhabi would be huge. You hear it all the time with people coming at me saying, 'He's a Muslim, why are you calling him out?'
“But this is sport and we are all fighting for the same thing. As a brother, I love the guy. As a competitor, I want to test myself against him and beat the guy. This is not life or death; this is a sport, and it is about winning the gold. And we both want that gold and both have to go through each other to get there.”
Go through Luque this weekend, and Muhammad can enjoy the remainder of Ramadan looking forward to what the future holds professionally. Training for such a huge fight during the Holy Month has its obvious challenges but the secret, he says, is understanding what to eat, especially when breaking fast.
Even if it can, at times, be difficult.
“I am going to have two weeks after the fight where I can enjoy all those desserts my mom makes,” Muhammad says. “Every night she is making cheesecake and kunafa, and maqluba. And right now I am like, 'What are you doing? Stop!'”