As he prepares for his fourth fight of 2020, the question most people want Youssef Zalal to answer is whether he plans on taking a break after facing Ilia Topuria this Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
“I'm hoping one more, but we'll see,” laughed Zalal, who came out of nowhere in February to begin a UFC run that has seen him defeat Austin Lingo, Jordan Griffin and Peter Barrett in succession, taking a year that many would like to toss in the trash bin and making it the best year of his life. He’s not slowing down, either, taking every step with a smile.
“After the third one I thought a little bit about it,” he said of taking a break following a three-rounder with Barrett in August. “But after I got back to training, I realized I'm young and this is what I really love to do. It's gonna take a lot to stop me from what I'm doing.”
Ah, the joy of being 24 and a rising star in the biggest promotion in the MMA world.
“I'm having a blast,” Zalal said. “It's been a blessing in disguise. I've been really enjoying this ride and I'm all about the experience right now. Now I get to go to Abu Dhabi. We're still under the pandemic but I'm still gonna enjoy what I'm here for and it's what the fight business is all about.”
It would likely be the reaction from any up and comer getting to the place he’s always wanted to be in his chosen field, but Zalal came a lot further than most to get here, namely, Casablanca, Morocco, his home until he and his family came to the United States when he was 12.
“I came here and it was the first time I had seen snow in my life,” Zalal laughed, marveling at something he has clearly gotten used to living in Colorado. But back then, everything was new, and while his mother put him in kickboxing back home in Morocco, he didn’t know that fighting would be his path in the States, and certainly not a sport that was new to him in mixed martial arts.
But here he is. Zalal hasn’t forgotten those lean years, though, times when he took a bus or bike to the gym because he couldn’t drive. Staying all day at the gym, eating one meal a day. And those were all easy times compared to losing his brother Hamza, who died in an automobile accident.
Zalal pushed on, though, determined to live a life oddsmakers wouldn’t have exactly predicted for him. I ask him if he would be here today if he was still living in Morocco.
“To be honest, probably not,” he said. “I'd probably be doing some kickboxing, maybe Glory, but that would be pushing it.”
That doesn’t mean he’s let go of his roots or that his nation is ignoring his success. It’s quite the opposite, as he’s been getting regular reports from his mom about the reaction at home to the UFC’s Moroccan star.
“They're losing their mind over there,” he said. “They're like, 'This is the best Moroccan fighter we ever had, your son is making a name in Morocco and changing how Moroccan MMA is.' I was very excited when I heard that and saw that I was getting the love and support from back home.”
“It's mind blowing,” Zalal continues. “You always joke around with your friends in high school and say, ‘One day I'm gonna be the best fighter,’ but when reality hits, it's pretty cool to see all these years you put in and still have more to go. But I'm not the best fighter and I still have so many things to prove to myself to become the best fighter.”
That humility is appreciated, but it really doesn’t matter whether Zalal is the best or not right now. To his fans in Morocco and the kids he teaches here in his adopted home, he is the pound-for-pound king, even if does get a little advice every now and then.
“After I came home (from a recent fight), one of the kids I teach told me to keep my hands up,” laughed Zalal, who wants those kids to do this sport for the right reason, and the reason why he does it. Because he loves it.
“I really want to make sure this is the thing they want to do,” he said. “This is not a joke; this is a real sport. You're not just gonna do it because you think you can be cool or this and that. It's not that. As long as you're having fun and this is what you want to do, you'll be an amazing fighter.”
Sounds like Mr. Zalal has it all figured out.
“It's what you do with an opportunity,” he said. “That's all that matters.”
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