CHICAGO – Remember the name Belal Muhammad. He’ll never forget where he came from.

His parents emigrated from Palestine at a young age and found a new home on the city’s Southwest side. That’s where Muhammad learned the grit he’d need to eventually rise through the ranks to the top of the UFC.

“It toughens you up. You love the people. You love to interact with all the people. I was one of the kids who was always out at the park. Always wanted to play basketball. Always wanted to have fun. You, obviously, get into your fights here and there, but I think that’s where you get character from.”

Muhammad’s journey to the octagon is improbable. After wrestling his freshman and junior year at Bogan High School, he attended the University of Illinois to become a lawyer. But those plans were derailed when Muhammad reconnected with his old coach, Louis Taylor.

“I looked up to him. I loved the sport because I had him there. Then, all of a sudden, my senior year came and he was gone. I was like, ‘Where the heck did he go?’ I couldn’t find him anywhere.

“I just saw in the newspaper one day, “Louis Taylor fighting for Showtime.” I messaged him. I was like, ‘This is my old wrestling coach.'”

“He just reached out to me on Facebook. He was like, ‘Yo! You’re a fighter? I want to come through,'” explained Taylor.

“Whenever I would come home and visit the family, over the weekends, I found that the gym was 20 minutes away from my house. I would go there and connected with him again, right away.”

“I remember who he was, but he wasn’t like an exceptionally talented wrestler,” Taylor joked. “But, hard work pays off.”

“Every guy in Chicago thinks they know how to fight until you get in there with a real fighter that shows you technique and tells you you’re doing this wrong and doing that wrong. I just fell in love with the sport. I was like, ‘Bro! Teach me more! Teach me more!'”

“You see some of these kids – they walk right off the street. They’re strong as an ox. They hit like a semi-truck. They’re slick off their back. Belal didn’t have any, necessarily, strong attributes. But, he always had a mind for fighting,” added Taylor. “He was a student of the game. He studied more fights than I had and I was already a pro fighter.”

“I started coming every single night. He was just like, ‘Hey. I think you may want to fight. Do you want to try to fight?’ I was like, ‘I’m down. I’m ready to go. Let’s go.’

“Took my first amateur fight. There was no other feeling like it. To get your hand raised. To go in there and know all your hard work paid off because I got my hand raised at the end, I need more of this. It was like a drug that I wanted more of.”

“Now, we’re here. We’re number three in the world. There was a lot of people that didn’t think I could make it to the UFC, let alone be the number three fighter in the world. Now, we’re next in line for the title fight. So, we’re about to be the best in the world.”

Muhammad already faced current champ Leon Edwards in March of 2021, but the fight ended in a no-contest when Belal was poked in the eye. The current top-ranked contender already lost to Edwards twice. However, instead of a logical rematch with Muhammad, Dana White set up Edwards’ next match with Colby Covington, who hasn’t fought since March of 2022. It initially infuriated Belal, but now he is using it as fuel as he waits for Edwards and Covington to finally schedule their bout and fight it out.

“Growing up on the Southwest Side of Chicago, nothing was ever given to me. Nothing was ever handed to me. I had to work for everything I had. My dad had to build his own business up. My brothers all built their own businesses up. From the start of my life, nothing was ever given to us. There is no silver spoon. I knew that being in the UFC, they weren’t going to hand me anything. I knew I would have to go through all the ranked fighters to get to the top. When you get that close to the belt, that’s when it’s the hardest part because you have to just be patient. When the belt is your next fight, that’s when it’s going to be the longest before you get it because those guys don’t want to fight you. Knowing that’s it guaranteed – Leon doesn’t want to fight me. Colby doesn’t want to fight me. Both of them are probably like texting each other, ‘Hey! Let’s just drag this out a little bit longer. Maybe he’ll fight somebody else.'”

Despite his success, Muhammad has stayed true to his Southwest Side roots, where his rise has emanated the past 15 years at the Chicago Fight Team headquarters, tucked into a small industrial park in the shadow of Midway Airport.

“It’s not about the glitz and the glamor. I think that those type of gyms make fighters a little bit softer. When they have physical therapists in the back. ‘Hey! I need a massage today. Can I get this done? Or ‘I didn’t get my nails done today’ or weirder stuff. Every single gym nowadays is trying to be that newer version of itself. The millennial version gym where it’s like, ‘Wait. Heavy bag? What’s a heavy bag? You have a heavy bag? We have this electronic bag that punches the bag for you or these things that you put around your abs to give you abs.’

“No. We’re doing sit-ups here. We’re doing push-ups here. We’re doing stuff that the older guys used to do. Muhammad Ali used to do.”

“He’s not a drinker. He’s not a smoker. He’s not a curser. He is that family guy. He is that guy that kids should aspire to be and long up to. The thing is – most grown men even look up to this guy. His peers look up to him. Everybody wants to be around somebody who’s going to help them be better,” remarked Taylor. “As Chicago, as a city, what more do we need? We need better people. You know? Each one, teach one.”

“It’s a hard sport. I’ve seen it up close. I’ve seen guys try to make it and they can’t make it. At the beginning, I was like we’ll see if I can just get there. Now that I’m here. Now that I’ve beaten guys that I’ve always looked up to – when idols become your rivals – now I know I can be the best in the world. Now I know I can be the champion.”

When he first started out, he told his concerned mother he was making $1,000-$2,000 a fight when he was actually taking home just 50 bucks. He’s come clean with mom – who still won’t watch him fight, but will proudly post pictures and brag after he wins.

She’ll have a lot to brag about if her son fights for the title, whenever that may be, and brings a championship belt back to Chicago.

Watch the full interview below: