CHICAGO — Sometimes a simple observation can change the course of an entire life. That was certainly the case for a Chicago Mixed Martial Arts fighter who will once again be on the biggest stage of the sport on Saturday night.

“My high school wrestling coach was there for a year and he left and I was at the University of Illinois in Champaign going for law,” said Belal Muhammad, a south side native who went to Bogan High School. “I ended up seeing him in the newspaper, fighting on TV and I was like ‘Oh crap, that’s my old wrestling coach.'”

That led to a Facebook message, a visit to his old coach’s gym, and the start of a journey in MMA for Muhammad that’s put him among the best in his division in the sport.

The UFC welterweight fighter has a 22-3 professional record and has worked his way up to the No. 4 ranking in the division in 2023. He’s in the co-main event on Saturday’s UFC 288 on Saturday night at the Prudential Center in Newark as he’ll face fifth-ranked Gilbert Burns.

Muhammad comes into the fight having not lost since early in 2019, registering eight wins in UFC during that time with just one bout ending in a no contest. In his last outing in UFC 280 on October 22, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, he defeated Sean Brady by TKO.

“This is the most important fight of my career, because I win this fight, I’m fighting for the belt next,” said Muhammad to WGN News Now this week. “Your next fight is always your biggest fight, but this one for sure is my biggest fight because I know that I’m knocking on the championship door – and all I have to do is open it this Saturday.”

So how has Muhammad built himself into a championship-caliber fighter? He pointed to his mindset often and how that’s allowed him to deal with the ups and downs of the sport.

“It’s not really about body type, it’s about who’s stronger mentally, who’s stronger mentally, physically, who’s strong spiritually,” said Muhammad. “I think that’s where my toughness comes in.”

Some of that toughness, according to the fighter, comes from his upbringing in Chicago, where his MMA career started. He began fighting as an amateur in 2010 before stepping in the octagon professionally for the first time in Hoosier Fight Club. That was followed by stints in Bellator MMA and Titan FC.

In 2016, he fought in the UFC for the first time, with Saturday being his 18th with that company.

“I just think being from Chicago, you have to be tough. You can’t be soft,” said Muhammad. “It comes a lot from that and it comes a lot from having four brothers, being a wrestler in high school, being at a south side school in high school. You can’t get walked on.

“I was just raised that way.”

Want to learn more about Muhammad’s journey in the sport? Larry Hawley spoke with the welterweight fighter ahead of his bout on Saturday night with Burns for WGN News Now, which you can watch in the video above.