First-time Octagon jitters are tough to deal with. Imagine going into your first UFC fight after fasting during the day, every day over the last month.
Belal Muhammad has a lot on his plate over the next few days. Not literally, though. He hasn't eaten or taken a drink of water between sun up and sun down since early June. The UFC newcomer is a practicing Muslim and Ramadan this year fell between June 5 and July 5 -- essentially the duration of his training camp for Alan Jouban.
"It's one of those where you have to be really mentally strong to do it," Muhammad told MMA Fighting. "I train with a lot of Muslim guys that do it and a lot of guys have to sit out the whole month because they can't train at all during it. So it's just one of those where you gotta just tough it out. I know if I can get through this month, the fight is going to be super easy for me because I'm going through training with no water, no food or anything like that and I'm still pushing hard. My body got used to it by now. I became acclimated after like the first week. You never know how strong your body is until you push it to the limit."
Muhammad (9-0) meets Jouban at UFC Fight Night: dos Anjos vs. Alvarez on July 7 in Las Vegas. That's something of a stroke of luck. Muhammad will be able to weigh-in July 6 and rehydrate immediately after stepping on the scale in the morning, because Ramadan will be over by then.
Contrary to what some would believe, Muhammad said fasting during the day doesn't necessarily help a weight cut. He said in the past he had a tendency to gain weight during Ramadan, because he felt like he needed to eat as much as possible at night before bed to make up for the many hours he couldn't bring in nutrients.
"Now I'm eating a lot cleaner and I've been able to maintain my weight," Muhammad said.
The Chicago native comes into the Jouban fight off a very impressive fourth-round TKO win over Steve Carl in a welterweight title fight at Titan FC 38 in April. Muhammad obviously caught the UFC's eye since Carl was a former World Series of Fighting champion and alum of The Ultimate Fighter. He was signed last month when Jouban's initial opponent Nordine Taleb withdrew due to injury.
Muhammad, 27, will try to duplicate that exciting performance -- he outstruck Carl and looked excellent on the feet -- on a major stage: the UFC's Internatinal Fight Week. He knows there will be lots of eyes on him.
"I think it's gonna be an exciting fight," Muhammad said. "Like I said, I think we can steal the show with this one, because we're both guys that are gonna come in there and bang and put on a show. He's been in a couple of Fight of the Nights and if I get a bonus like that I won't be mad about it. I think the styles match up right. I didn't want my first fight to be, 'Oh, you want to fight this wrestler that's gonna make it a boring fight.'"
Muhammad's background is actually wrestling. He wrestled in high school under coach Louis Taylor, a Strikeforce veteran who now competes for WSOF. One day about five years ago Muhammad saw a newspaper story about Taylor competing for Strikeforce and it got him thinking.
"I messaged him on Facebook like, 'Oh, you're fighting?'" Muhammad said. "He was like, 'Yeah, come by my gym, man. Come check it out.'"
He hasn't left. Muhammad still trains with Taylor with the Chicago Fight Team and also commutes to Milwaukee to train at Roufusport. That's where he honed his smooth, fluid striking skills. It's also where he learned to love the stand-up art.
"I'm a fight fan first, so I want to put on exciting fights," Muhammad said. "I don't want to be the guy that lays and prays and holds the guy down, because I know fans don't like that type of thing. In this sport, if you don't have any fans, there's no point. You're not gonna get any money, because that's where the money comes from: the fans. The fans wanting to watch you fight."
That's a good philosophy to have and it doesn't end there. Muhammad said he agreed to make his UFC debut after a training camp in Ramadan, because, well, it wasn't like he was going to be out of the gym anyway.
"I'm one of them guys, I don't like to sit out," Muhammad said. "I can't sit out a week or a month. I have to keep training. So I was training no matter what. That's why I said, I'm not gonna pass up this opportunity, because I'm training no matter what. I might as well get something at the end of it."