LAS VEGAS — Belal Muhammad was already getting antsy a few days after his impressive victory last month over Dhiego Lima. He’s one of those fortunate guys whose job is also his passion.
When he’s not fighting, he’s training. And when he’s not training, he’s thinking about mixed martial arts.
The worst time for Muhammad is that period after a fight before he’s ready to begin his next camp.
“I don’t have any hobbies,” Muhammad said. “It’s all about fighting for me.”
This is one of those cases where another man’s misfortune turned out to be his good break, in more ways than one. Leon Edwards, the UFC’s third-ranked welterweight, was supposed to fight Khamzat Chimaev on Saturday in the main event of UFC Vegas 21 at Apex.
But Chimaev got COVID-19, and its aftereffects prevented him from training. Reluctantly, he pulled out. Immediately, Muhammad wanted the fight, even though he was coming off a grueling battle with Lima at UFC 258 on Feb. 13.
Muhammad felt he’s been overlooked for a while, and hasn’t been able to get the big fights he’s wanted to prove himself in a crowded welterweight landscape. Chimaev’s inability to make it to the post opened the door for Muhammad, who never thought of saying no.
So Saturday’s main event, which will be Muhammad’s first, pits him against Edwards, who is a -270 favorite at BetMGM. Muhammad is +220, but he’s eager for the showdown. Edwards hasn’t fought since the summer of 2019, which Muhammad almost can’t imagine.
“If I had to sit out that long, I’m not sure I’d be able to handle it,” he said.
He is optimistic that he’ll defeat Edwards and move up considerably from No. 13, where he is ranked now. He’s long believed he could compete on more than even terms with the best in the division, but hasn’t gotten that opportunity since joining the UFC nearly five years ago.
Edwards represents the type of opponent he’s looked for: successful, highly regarded and on the verge of big things. UFC president Dana White said Edwards would get the next shot at champion Kamaru Usman if he defeats Muhammad.
Muhammad isn’t about to be a steppingstone, and among the other reasons he’s so confident, his activity has allowed him to get better.
“That’s a huge part of why I’m so confident I’ll win,” Muhammad said. “Being active is so important in this sport. The more active you are, the more comfortable you are in there and the more reactive you are. I’ve been fighting and working, and I feel like this fight couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Muhammad’s coach, Louis Taylor, tested positive for COVID-19 and won’t be in his corner on Saturday. Taylor’s positive test is why the UFC abruptly pulled Edwards and Muhammad from a news conference last week during the UFC 259 pre-fight festivities.
Taylor has been with Muhammad since the beginning and his loss can’t be overstated. But Muhammad said Taylor has trained him to be independent and ready, and he feels Taylor’s absence won’t have the impact many believe.
He spent Tuesday watching another, much more famous, coach run his fighters through drills. Because they share the same manager, Ali Abdelaziz, Muhammad spent time with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov on Tuesday in Las Vegas as Nurmagomedov coached members of his team in practice.
Seeing arguably the greatest fighter in his sport’s history up close and how he approached the game had a big impact upon Muhammad.
“I got that chance to spend some time with Khabib, the GOAT, and he gave me some advice on what he thinks I should do,” Muhammad said. “He told me he watched my Lima fight and said, ‘I thought you did this good, this good and this good.’ I’m like, damn, the best to ever do it is watching my fights?
“Talking with him and watching how he ran practice gave me a whole different attitude. He’s the top of the top, the best of the best of the best, and he doesn’t let many people into his camp. To be in there and have a conversation with him and hear how he approaches MMA and for him to give me specific advice on my game, to me, that’s invaluable. It’s priceless information and it’s one more tool in the belt for this big fight I have.”
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