RIYADH: In the early hours of Sunday morning, June 13, Belal Muhammad will step into the famous UFC Octagon to take on the world’s 10th-ranked welterweight Demian Maia of Brazil. And two things will be on his mind.
First, considering the global platform of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) 263 and caliber of his opponent, the Chicago-born and based fighter will have the biggest opportunity yet to showcase his skills to the world.
And second, it is likely he will raise the flag of Palestine at the end of the fight.
Muhammad, as similar displays in previous fights have shown, is very proud of his family’s Palestinian roots.
The 32-year-old said: “For me now, I have a voice for the voiceless. There aren’t a lot of Palestinian athletes that have a stage or platform where they can carry the flag. And now, especially during these times, I need to carry that flag higher than ever. To show the world that we do exist, that we are a country, and there are real people there.
“For me it means a lot now, you’re fighting for more, now I have a voice for people that don’t have a voice, for people that the world wants you to forget about. So, if I keep shining a light on that, raising their morale, raising their hearts, I’m going to do whatever I can.”
He goes into the fight on the back of a five-win streak, and for the first time this year will be fighting in front of a live audience.
“I had a long training camp, I’m feeling good. It’s going to be my third fight of the year. I love being active so that will help me a lot and I just can’t wait to fight in front of fans again.
“The energy’s going to be different there, I’m excited, I’m ready to go. It’s a big fight, a big name, and I’m ready to make my name off him,” Muhammad added.
Despite the disruptions of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Muhammad has maintained a steady training regime and, with life slowly returning to normal, he sees more exciting days ahead.
“The training at first was a little bit difficult, because Chicago locked down. Chicago, or the police, wouldn’t let us work out in the gym so my training had to be in the garage, or we would train with the power off in the gym whenever I had fights. But now it’s starting to open up.
“Fighting without fans was a lot different. It’s a different kind of energy, you get so much from the fans, and hearing the crowd cheer or boo, it means so much and I feel like it does so much for me. Three fights without the fans was kind of weird but I got used to it by the end of it,” he said.
The last time Muhammad fought in front of fans was at UFC 242, which took place on Sept. 7, 2019, in Abu Dhabi.
“That was the last time I fought with fans, and honestly that was literally the best time. The cheering I got over there was amazing. Because when I fight here in the US, I get a lot more boos. But over there, there was not one boo, everybody was cheering me, I was the home team and that felt good,” he added.
The support from Arab mixed martial arts audiences is something that he is grateful for and feels that UFC’s rising popularity in the Middle East can only encourage more local fighters to take it up.
Muhammad said: “Honestly, it’s amazing, when you see Irish fans supporting (Conor) McGregor or Mexican fans supporting their people, we’re having Arab fans now that are starting to watch UFC and starting to pay attention to the sport.
“We’re starting to have a lot more Arab athletes in the sport, because like I tell people all the time, Arabs, we might not be the most athletic, but we have the most heart, and the will, more than anyone else. So, we’re the best fighters. I think now the world is starting to realize that, and UFC is starting to realize it.
“There’s really a lot of talent in the Middle East, and it’s about (showing) those younger kids out there that it’s possible to make it to UFC or be an athlete,” he added.
“In the old days, that was never the case, everybody maybe would play soccer or something like that, but nobody thought of being on ESPN, being a fighter, being one of those guys that kids look up to. So now I represent a bigger cause, I want kids to look at me and say I have to be like that one day.”
A win against Maia will get him further up the welterweight rankings and Muhammad is happy to bide his time in the coming months and years to get to the top.
He said: “(My ambition) is staying on an upward trajectory. I don’t need to rush, I don’t need to jump to a title shot or anything like that, I just want to keep levelling up.
“I won eight of my last nine fights and this is going to be the first ranked opponent they’ve given me. Now, I’m showing them that I belong in the top 10, showing them that I’m one of these top guys that should be fighting for a title one day, or could be fighting for a title one day.
“I had to prove it fight by fight, I had to show the world that here’s another one who’s going to be a challenge for (Kamaru) Usman (Nigerian-US fighter), that there’s another name out there that you’re going to be talking about,” he added.
Middle East fans can catch UFC 263 live on the UFC Arabia app, available for download from the App Store and Google Play Store