Welterweight UFC contender Belal Muhammad (15-3) last fought and won in April, and was intent on getting back into action fast. That is until his manager came to him with a unique proposition — wait to fight until September, but get to do it in a majority Muslim nation.
The Chicagoan and devout Muslim loved the idea and immediately thought it was worth the wait.
“After my last fight I didn’t have any injuries and so I wanted a quick turnaround fight,” Muhammad tells Yahoo Sports. “Then my manager Ali [Abelaziz] asked if I’d wait to fight if it were in Abu Dhabi and I said, ‘For sure!’ This is huge. A lot of people see it as a Russian card, or a Russia vs. America card because Khabib Nurmagomedov is fighting Dustin Poirier in the main event. But I see it more as a predominantly Muslim country hosting a card with predominantly Muslim fighters on it.”
So, the Rufousport member waited and trained, and on Saturday fights Takashi Sato (15-2) on the undercard of UFC 242, an event sponsored by the government of the United Arab Emirates, hosted in an arena located in Abu Dhabi. The 31-year-old certainly believes fighting on this card will help the world “Remember the name” Belal Muhammad, as his nickname instructs us to.
“The sport has its first Muslim world champion in Khabib, and he’s well-respected and people look up to him. Now I’ve started to have a few experiences where parents come up to me and tell me, ‘my kids look up to you as a role model,’” he continues.
“I never thought about that happening with me. I want to become the second Muslim world champion and I believe in myself. This fight will give me a lot more exposure. Going to Abu Dhabi, fighting there, being able to speak English and Arabic is going to be huge.”
Being treated like an outsider by racist fans in his own nation has also understandably made the American eager to be in front of a crowd who he hopes won’t degrade him for his religion.
“I feel like it’s huge for me fighting in a predominantly Muslim country,” he adds.
“Usually I have drunk fans and racist fans yelling horrible things out at me as I’m walking to the cage. Islamophobia is huge now, and a lot of people don’t understand the religion, what it means, how its real concepts are peace, humility, and respect. Those same concepts, those same values are literally the values of the martial arts. But many of these fans look at it like it’s a cock fight. I like discipline and respect, that’s what martial arts is for me and that’s what my religion is about. So many other fighters are taking another route. They’re doing Colby [Covington] type dumb stuff, or racial things. I want it to be about hard work and humility. People thought you couldn’t build up a fighter without talking trash but GSP (Georges St-Pierre) became the biggest star in the world without talking a lot of trash. Khabib Nurmagomedov is the next GSP.”
Muhammad also has hopes that the U.A.E. crowds will appreciate grappling-based fighting. “Some of the other times they’ve gone out there, there were barely any Muslims on the cards,” he reasons.
“Now, there are so many on it, and so many successful Muslim fighters in the UFC, many of them grappling-based, that I think grappling is going to be embraced on this card. I expect the crowd to understand grappling positions and appreciate ground and pound.”
It would seem to be a strange position for Muslim fighters like Muhammad to be in, this weekend and indeed all year-long. Though the opportunity to finally compete in a place where one isn’t a religious and ethnic minority must be a welcome one, being a member of an organization whose chief executive and promoter — Dana White — is close friends with and actively campaigned for President Donald Trump must be conflicting.
Not so, Muhammad tells us. “No, I don’t put them in the same box,” he explains.
“Like, when you see a person who does a terrorist attack — you can’t put them and the religion or race they claim to represent in the same box. That person is not a part of the religion. Those terrorists who say they are, aren’t actually Muslims. They’re crazy people. When a person who says they’re Christian commits terrorism, they’re not Christian. Dana White could be friends with Donald Trump, but I’ve never seem him disrespect a religion.”
Muhammad is perhaps most enthused to be competing in an Arab nation this weekend not because of the welcome and comfort he’ll receive, but instead for the potential he sees in being able to help speak out on behalf of others, including those currently being killed in occupied Palestine. The ability to carry his Palestinian flag to the ring as he usually does Saturday in front of an international crowd who understand the significance of it, and to grow his reach so that he can one day speak out even more loudly against injustice in Palestine make it worth fighting in a place like the U.A.E.
“I’m Palestinian-American,” Muhammad explains. “I love the United States so also being proud of being a Palestinian is never about being anything other than standing up for Palestinians who are suffering.
“I just want to bring attention to what’s going on in Palestine. I want people to see me, then look it up. I want people to pay attention to war, to pay attention to what’s happening. There will be chants sometimes of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ when I’m fighting at home against another American. My family is in the audience and people will say the dumbest stuff to them. I’m not one of those guys that say ‘down with America,’ but I’m still going to bring attention to Palestine. People are dying every day out there and no one is paying attention.”
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