At just 23 years old, you have to wonder if Youssef Zalal is ready for the glare of the spotlight that will greet him when he makes his UFC debut against Austin Lingo on Saturday. Then you hear his story, and it’s clear that he’s seen a lot more than most people his age. So yeah, he’s ready.
“I’m in,” he laughs. “I’m ready for whatever it is. I’m well experienced in this fight game and I’ve still got more and more to go. I’m just getting started.”
At 7-2 as a pro, Zalal is as young in mixed martial arts as he is in years, but he’s no stranger to fighting, whether as a child in Morocco or as an adult in Colorado.
“I grew up hating bullying so much,” he said. “If I see someone getting bullied in the street, I’m jumping in. And back then I was hanging out with my twin cousins and they always started fights, and then I’m the only one fighting, not them. (Laughs) I was that guy. But I grew up hating bullies and getting bullied, and in Morocco, my mom put me in kickboxing because she wanted me out of trouble. She put the fuel in the motor and it got going from there.”
Zalal started training at 10, and he continued when he came to the United States at 15. He had a direction and a goal, but everything came to a stop when his brother, Hamza, was killed in an automobile accident.
“I almost committed suicide because my brother passed away,” said Zalal, who lost his direction after the tragic loss. “It was a rough depression moment and hard to deal with. I was young.”
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Zalal would eventually find himself again thanks to a young lady who would become his wife.
“I met my wife, Kat, a couple months after that and she’s the one that helped a lot to smile more,” he said. “And that’s me.”
Today, it may be impossible to take the smile off Zalal’s face, especially after he saw his mother for the first time in over ten years when he returned to Morocco in 2019.
“I was emotional all over the place, but it was the greatest feeling,” he said. “I needed that. My mom doesn’t care about me fighting, she just cared about seeing me, and as long as I’m healthy and happy, that’s all that matters. We went there and had a blast. I enjoyed my family, enjoyed my country, then came back here and I had three weeks to get ready for a fight and I had the best fight of my life.”
That flying knee knockout of Jaime Hernandez in November made highlight reels and also snapped a two-fight losing streak. More importantly, it may have put him on the radar of the UFC, and when they wanted to add another fight to this weekend’s UFC 247 card, he got the call.
“I was preparing for any fight,” he said. “I didn’t care what it was. I was doing all the things I need to do for a regular fight camp. But I knew I had the chance to get on one of these cards for the UFC, so if it happened, it happened, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. In my own head, I was preparing for any fight. I did not care.”
This isn’t any fight, though, and Zalal knows it. And likes it.
“I’m grateful and I’m very blessed and I’m gonna make the best out of this opportunity,” he said. “And I want people to know that no matter what, if you stay on the grind, your opportunity will come. I did everything I need to do, and I’m super ready. So make your opportunity come to you.”
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