Belal Muhammad was one of the only fighters on the entire UFC roster who was calling out undefeated prospect Khamzat Chimaev — and it turns out he nearly got his wish.
After scoring a dominant win over Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson to move his unbeaten streak to seven fights, Muhammad got the call he wanted with a chance to headline the upcoming UFC London card.
“It’s crazy because it was maybe three or four weeks after my fight, [my manager] Ali [Abdelaziz] called me and said, ‘They’re offering Khamzat in London as the main event,’ and I was like, ‘Let’s go, book it,’” Muhammad revealed to MMA Fighting. “He’s like, ‘You sure you’re down? He’s [ranked] No. 11,’ and I [said] I want that fight, let’s go. He said, ‘OK, but don’t say nothing yet.’
“Three or four days later, I’m sitting there messaging my family, they’re looking up tickets to London and getting ready to book, and [I said] don’t do nothing yet until we get a contract because you never know.”
It turned out that Muhammad’s family was smart to avoid booking any air travel or hotel rooms in London, because that’s when Muhammad got another call that put the Chimaev fight in jeopardy.
“All of a sudden they call me back and said, ‘We have a couple issues,’” Muhammad said. “‘Gilbert [Burns] and Vicente [Luque] are really good friends and they’ll never fight each other, so then we have an issue, so it’s going to be something between you three. It’s you, Gilbert, Luque and Khamzat,’ they want to match us with those three somehow.
“So he’s like, ‘Out of those three, which one do you want the most?’ I want Khamzat. That’s who I want the most. You get the most hype from beating a guy like that even though he’s not the highest ranked, and especially getting the chance to headline The O2 arena, I think that would have been huge.”
As strongly as Muhammad felt about fighting Chimaev, the UFC had to look at the bigger picture in the welterweight division with Gilbert Burns and Vicente Luque being close friends who have repeatedly stated that they would not face each other.
Because there were many potential options available, Muhammad soon realized that he probably wasn’t going to get the Chimaev fight no matter how badly he wanted it. Instead, Muhammad is now slated to fight Luque in the main event of an upcoming UFC APEX event in Las Vegas on April 16.
“All of a sudden it was like [I’m] going to fight Gilbert, Luque is going to fight Khamzat,” Muhammad said. “It was like alright, whatever, Gilbert is [ranked] No. 2. Then two days later it was, ‘Alright, it’s you against Luque,’ and I was like, ‘Just send me a contract, I don’t care.’
“Obviously, I gain a lot from fighting any one of them out of the three guys. They’re all tough tests anyways, so I don’t care which one of the three it is. Let’s just go. He said, ‘Alright, it’s going to be Luque,’ so I said sure.”
Muhammad certainly has motivation to face Luque after suffering a knockout loss to him at UFC 205 back in 2016, but that didn’t satisfy Muhammad’s thirst when it came to the possible showdown with Chimaev. Because of the sheer amount of attention being paid to Chimaev since he first arrived in the UFC, Muhammad knows the Chechen-born welterweight is on the fast track to title contention and he may only need one more win to secure a shot at reigning champion Kamaru Usman.
“If I beat Luque and [Chimaev] goes out there and beats Gilbert, they’re going to give him the title shot,” Muhammad said. “If I go out there and beat Gilbert and he beats Luque, they’re going to give [Chimaev] a title shot.
“I don’t want to be skipped over by him in any way, so let me go directly to him. Fight the guy they all want to see fight [Kamaru] Usman next and they’re all hyping up. I’m like, I’d rather just fight that guy next.”
While he didn’t end up with Chimaev as an opponent, Muhammad is still more than happy to headline a UFC card for the second time in his career while hopefully avenging a loss on his résumé at the same time.
A win over Luque will still be huge, but Muhammad can’t deny that beating Chimaev would have been satisfying as well.
“Khamzat is the guy who talks trash — Luque is just so nice,” Muhammad said with a laugh. “Luque even helped me a couple times for my ‘Wonderboy’ fight. We sparred.
“It would have been a [more fun] build-up with Khamzat, but of course, I’m super happy to fight a guy like Luque, who’s No. 4, who’s on a huge streak, who’s coming off a huge win against [Michael] Chiesa, and a guy that weighed in to be the alternate for the title fight when Colby [Covington] and Usman fought. So the UFC obviously thinks highly of him.”
With Chimaev out of sight and out of mind, Muhammad is eager to make a statement against Luque as he seeks to build even more momentum towards an eventual title shot of his own.
He’ll also get the chance to finally silence doubters who are still questioning if he’s the real deal at the top of the welterweight division.
“I don’t even really consider it a rematch,” Muhammad said. “I consider it a whole new fight because I’m a whole new fighter. That’s why I wanted this fight, to prove that I’m a whole new fighter and a different fighter. It’s going to be a whole different fight. So obviously I gain something from this fight.
“If I go out there and finish [Luque], beat him, there’s nothing that can deny me as well. Even when I beat [Demian] Maia, they said he’s old. When I beat ‘Wonderboy,’ everybody was saying he was old. Now I’m fighting a guy that knocked me out, a guy that’s young, a guy that’s knocking everybody out, finishing everybody, I go out and finish him — what excuse can you give now?”