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Belal Muhammad aiming for breakthrough 2021: ‘I belong fighting these top-tier guys’

Belal Muhammad | Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC welterweight Belal Muhammad will return to the cage on Feb. 13 against Dhiego Lima, and he hopes to fight in a five-round headliner by the end of the year.

After losing a UFC Vegas 17 meeting with Lima due to a positive COVID-19 test, Muhammad said he’s recovered from the virus after two weeks of rest. Now, the goal is to rebound after a difficult 2020.

“I belong in the rankings, and I belong fighting these top-tier guys,” he told MMA Fighting. “If I get two [wins], I want to get me a five-rounder.”

Muhammad’s desire to stay active is not only driven by competition. Earlier this year, his father’s cell phone store in his native Chicago was vandalized during the Black Lives Matter protests. Needing $20,000 to reopen the store, he said the family decided to move on, a decision that proved sound after business closures due to the pandemic.

In the meantime, he and his four siblings are supporting his parents. Other family members who owned businesses have also been affected by the shutdowns.

“Now it’s on us to try and figure something out,” Muhammad said. “I’m thankful that the UFC has given us the opportunity to fight and make money.”

One bright spot of this past year was Muhammad’s most recent octagon appearance. A decision over Lyman Good at UFC Vegas 3 put him among the promotion’s top-15 welterweights; he currently sits at No. 13.

“Now I can get those big-name fights because I am in the rankings,” Muhammad said. “Before, I won seven of my last eight, but I couldn’t get a ranked guy, because they don’t want to put their position on the line. But now, I’m on the ladder, so it’s just climbing those rungs.”

Muhammad believes his spot in the rankings encouraged Lima to sign on to a February bout. If he can follow the path of others who’ve gotten more exposure by staying active, he figures he’ll reap the rewards.

“Now with COVID, this is the time where guys can make a name from themselves,” Muhammad said. “Kevin Holland fought five times, and his first four fights weren’t against some of the biggest names, but when he fought a big name like [Ronaldo] ‘Jacare’ [Souza], he performed, and now he’s one of the breakthrough stars.”

One week away from his first scheduled bout against Lima, Muhammad had no choice but to slow down. He had kept away from social gatherings, taken vitamins and limited his contact to a few training partners during the pandemic. But on the Sunday prior to UFC Vegas 17, he woke up at 4 a.m., shaking and shivering. He put a jacket on and sat near a heater, but the shaking wouldn’t stop. So he called a doctor friend, who advised him to get a COVID-19 test.

Muhammad had already taken one four days earlier as part of the UFC’s pre-fight testing protocol, and it had turned up negative. He opted to go to a rapid testing facility, not wanting to fly to Las Vegas only to be potentially turned away; fighters and corners who test positive are required to quarantine or drive home.

The positive test made Muhammad’s immediate future clear. For the next two weeks, he grappled with several symptoms of the virus – and boredom – as he sat idle.

“The biggest thing was waking up, and my fever would get to 103, 104 [degrees],” he said. “I just had a whole lot of body aches, and the shivering for three days. … After fights, you earned your meals and your desserts. But for this, it was like, I was eating sloppy, and I didn’t have my prize. It was really a bad couple of weeks mentally, but I got through it.”

Aside from a small cough, Muhammad said he hasn’t suffered any of the breathing problems that have been found in many athletes who suffered from COVID-19. He hopes to get three or four fights this year and seize on the work available to fighters who’ve been able to stay in shape.

Newer fighters like Holland are an inspiration, but so are veterans like Jorge Masvidal. In a crowded division where it’s hard to stand out, Muhammad sees a path to stardom by just staying in the game.

“You’ve seen with some guys, something will just click,” he said. “Masvidal has always been the same guy. It just takes that one fight. To me, it’s all about momentum, and riding that wave at the right time. Just being yourself.

“You don’t have to fake it. You can be a Colby Covington and be fake and try to get attention from being ignorant and dumb like that, or you can be real and be yourself, and it’s going to come at the right time. Masvidal is one of the biggest stars, and he just stuck to his guns.”

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