Belal Muhammad is in the business of breaking people’s spirits and eliminating excuses, and for the last four years, business has been booming.
Saturday night at UFC 288, the Chicagoland native takes on Gilbert Burns in a short notice clash between welterweight contenders. It’s a matchup neither was initially seeking out, but when the original co-main event between Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush was forced to be rescheduled, both title hopefuls raised their hand to fill the opening in Newark this weekend.
And a couple days from now, Muhammad will go back to work.
“I knew it would be a long road and a hard road, but we’re getting close to the end of the road; I see the finish line, so it’s starting to pay off,” began Muhammad, reflecting on the journey that carries him into this weekend’s five-round clash with Burns on a four-fight winning streak, a nine-fight unbeaten streak, and one win away from challenging for championship gold. “Winning this fight, I know that my next fight is going to be for the title, and that’s all I needed to hear to take this fight; that’s all I needed to know.”
Muhammad has been the odd man out in the welterweight title picture as Leon Edwards ascended to the throne and solidified his place as champion with consecutive victories over Kamaru Usman, and was in attendance in Miami last month when Colby Covington was announced as the next to challenge the Brit for his title.
The streaking 33-year-old had been calling for a bout with “Chaos,” who hasn’t fought since defeating Jorge Masvidal last March, and was at a loss for words as he sat in the audience listening to Burns demand a second title shot after sending Masvidal into retirement at UFC 287.
“I wanted the Khamzat (Chimaev) fight,” began Muhammad, who has likened his feelings about Burns’ opportunities to those of Nathan Diaz when he called out Conor McGregor on FOX all those years ago in Orlando. “They give him that fight, they gave him the Masvidal fight.
“He goes out there and beats (Neil) Magny and Masvidal and is screaming for a title fight, and I’m looking at it like, ‘You just beat two guys that aren’t in the Top 10 and you’re acting like you deserve something; you need to be handed something.’”
Muhammad shakes his head and laughs before continuing.
“I’m looking at the guys I beat and wondering if they all suck or something. But once I got called for this opportunity and heard, ‘If you beat him, you’re next,’ that’s all I needed to know.”
The Rise Of Belal Muhammad
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The Rise Of Belal Muhammad
While he felt like he might have missed something, Muhammad is not mistaken in thinking that the string of opponents he’s faced and victories he’s amassed since his ill-fated short notice pairing with the current champion is more than enough to merit a championship opportunity.
After an accidental eye poke resulted in his bout with Edwards being ruled a no contest, the proud Palestinian and devout Muslim posted one-sided decision wins over Damian Maia, Stephen Thompson, and Vicente Luque to force his way into the title conversation.
Last October, he was tabbed to face surging unbeaten prospect Sean Brady at UFC 280, and despite his run of success, Muhammad entered as the underdog.
He exited on a four-fight winning streak, having registered a second-round technical knockout victory while handing Brady his first professional defeat.
“I see it in their eyes — I see them looking at their corner and their corner has no idea what to tell them,” began Muhammad when asked about feeling and watching his opponents break inside the Octagon. “They’re yelling out all these random instructions and this guy is not listening because I’m throwing 10 punches at his face.
“Most guys will assume (they can beat me) and say, ‘I’ve fought way tougher guys; this guy is nothing’ yada yada yada, but when they’re in the cage and they feel how strong I am, they’re throwing their best shots at me and I’m walking through them – there aren’t a lot of guys that won’t break in there.
“(It’s especially satisfying) when it’s a guy that was talking trash or was overhyped — those are the best ones when you see them breaking in there,” he added, referring to Brady. “He was 15-0 and he had all the hype in the world, all the confidence in the world, and he was saying, ‘What is this guy going to do? He’s not going to hurt me; he’s never hurt anybody.’
“So, to go out there and beat him like that was the most satisfying feeling in the world.”
Many pundits felt as though that victory over Brady was the kind of undeniable performance that Muhammad needed in order to secure his first chance to compete for championship gold, especially given his history with Edwards and the potential fresh matchup with Kamaru Usman, should the former champion have regained the title in the rematch.
Although there are some that aren’t fond of his grimy, blue-collar style, which is predicated on unrelenting pressure and weaponized conditioning more than anything else, Muhammad has always stood by the body of work he’s put together, trusting that if he stayed true to himself and his approach, the result would ultimately make him undeniable.
“That was my thought process always — stay the course, trust the process,” he said. “Whether you hate me or love me, you have to respect what I’ve done, who I’ve beaten in order to get to that title.”
And now all that stands between Muhammad and that long sought after championship opportunity is the 36-year-old Burns, and he is ready to finally solidify his standing as the No. 1 contender in the welterweight division this weekend.
“When I go out there and finish him, there is no denying me,” he said emphatically. “There are no excuses you can make. There is nothing else you can say. Beating Gilbert Burns on a two-week notice fight, coming off Ramadan — what’s your excuse going to be? Please tell me what it’s going to be.
“May 6, Gilbert Burns will break in there.”
UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo took place live from the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on May 6, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass