“This is the worst experience I've ever had in my life,” said Youssef Zalal. “The worst.”
Considering Zalal moved from Morocco to the United States as a teenager, had to learn a new way of life, and then became a professional prizefighter, “this” has to be pretty bad. Of course, the assumption is that he’s referring to his current two-fight losing streak, but nah, Zalal and his wife, Kat, are just going through the house buying process.
“I'm talking to my accountant every day, I'm talking to the lender, this, that, it's insane,” said Zalal, who, at the time of this interview, was ready to close and then head to Las Vegas, where he will look to snap that losing streak against Sean Woodson this Saturday.
“It's been a helluva crazy start to the year,” said the 24-year-old, who has come a long way in a short time, not just in MMA, but in life. “I'm closing on my house and I see all these dreams I had as a kid. And I told this to my wife: I want to get a house at a young age, and all this and that, and to see it happening, it takes a lot of stress off, but it's been hectic.”
At least there’s the 15 minutes or less in the Octagon, where Zalal has peace and a singular purpose without having to worry about mowing the lawn in his new house, mortgage payments or any of that fun stuff. That purpose includes a renewed focus on the fight itself, something he admits he lost track of in losses to Ilia Topuria and SeungWoo Choi that followed a 3-0 start to his UFC career.
“To be honest, I got comfortable in the last two fights,” he said. “Very comfortable. Too comfortable. Which is very bad. But it's not an excuse or anything. For me to get all this hype and hearing my family go, ‘Oh, you're the UFC guy, the hot shot,’ I kind of fell into that and stopped focusing on what really matters, which is me and what I do, not what everybody else's opinion is.”
The losses put Zalal’s pro record at 10-4, and while he wasn’t stopped or blown out by his opponents, he didn’t fight with the same fire that placed him among the top prospects in the featherweight division. And Kat noticed it first.
“After the last fight, my wife was like, 'Hey, can you try this sports psychologist for me?'” Zalal recalled. “I was like, ‘I'm from Africa, what the hell's a sports psychologist?’”
Zalal laughs, but Kat asked him again to try it out. Zalal agreed. And the verdict?
“I love it,” he said. “For me, it’s to really not give a f**k about what people think about me and not fall into trying to impress anybody but myself. I have to show my dad that I'm this, I have to show my family that I'm this, I have to show the Moroccan people, which is crazy. The pressure they put on you is ridiculous and I can't be that guy. Let's just focus on me, let's go back to what I do best and let's go fight. What I learned from this is I'm being too nice to these guys in fighting. I have to go in there and really be the guy I want to be. I want to provide for my family, I want to provide for my new house, I want to do all this stuff, but I have to work my ass off for that and I can't be complacent.”
On Saturday night, he gets his chance to right the ship and return to where he was last summer, when he was 3-0 in the Octagon and riding high. He lost his way briefly, but he’s back now.
“I know I can keep up with these guys, I know where my level is at,” said Zalal. “My strength and conditioning coach said, 'You gotta be the temperature of the room, not match the temperature.' I am that guy, I am the temperature of that room; you have to come to my pace and the pace, they can't keep up with that. I'm at the point where I've got nothing to lose. I lost twice in a row, and you want to test my water? Let me take you to deep waters.”
That doesn’t sound like a complacent fighter. It sounds like someone who is in a statement-making mood and looking to start a new winning streak.
“It's almost like a new chapter,” said Zalal. “It's a whole different mentality going into a fight when your back is on the wall. I'm fighting for my job. And that's what happens when you've been complacent; you really have to fight for your thing. I could have made my job a lot easier and did what I needed to do the last fight, and I could have changed everything. But all I can do is control today. The past is the past. That wasn't me the last fight; I'm a new me, and that's all that matters.”