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Short-notice opportunities a way of life for UFC debutant Youssef Zalal

Youssef Zalal
Youssef Zalal (pictured) fights Austin Lingo in a featherweight bout Saturday at UFC 247 in Houston
Sean F. Boggs, Legacy Fighting Alliance

Youssef Zalal had less than two weeks to prepare for his UFC debut. Talk to him for five minutes, and you’ll realize he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The Moroccan Devil” makes his first walk to the Octagon on Saturday, when he fights fellow Legacy Fighting Alliance veteran Austin Lingo on the early prelims of UFC 247 at Toyota Center in Houston.

Zalal and Lingo were a late addition to the card, which is nothing new for Zalal given how his career started. Two years ago, in just his second pro bout and his first for the LFA, Zalal found himself taking on Maurice Salazar when a teammate was forced to withdraw from the bout.

“I’d fought two weeks before that,” Zalal told MMA Fighting. “I fought my pro debut, won that one in the third round. I thought I broke my hand, and I did not. My hand was swollen, I iced it, kind of still trained, but kind of took it easy.

“My second week I was going back to training, and then my teammate had some problems cutting weight and fell in the sauna and hit his head. So my coach was like there’s no way he’s fighting, no way. And then our manager looked at me and he was like, ‘Do you want to fight?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh…’ This is the same day they’re going to weigh in.

“So I’m like, ‘Uh, sure, let’s do it.’”

After negotiating and bumping the fight from 145 pounds to 155 pounds, Zalal and his team drove to the gym, hit the sauna, cut weight, and made weight. The next day he defeated Salazar by second-round TKO.

His next opportunity was another short-notice bout, a month later at a show in Glendale, Colo. There, he picked up a second-round submission win over Clay Wilmer. And then in his fourth pro bout, Zalal had to deal with an opponent change one week-and-a-half away from fight night. He again won by submission.

Zalal’s hand was raised in his first six fights, and he credits his open-minded approach to fight bookings as playing a role in his development.

“I love shining in opportunities,” Zalal said. “My coach told me one of the best things: this is where champions are built. This is where greatness is built. So I love short-notice opportunities, I love that because it pushes me to shine more.”

If Yousef sounds wise beyond his years (he turned 23 this past September), it’s because he’s been fighting since he was 10 years old. Born in Casablanca, Zalal followed the path of many Moroccans looking to become the next Badr Hari and became involved in kickboxing at a young age. It wasn’t until he followed his father and older brother to the U.S. that he had any interest in MMA.

“Never heard of the UFC until I got older,” Zalal said. “Like, I’d seen some crazy highlights when I was young on YouTube and stuff like that, but all I’d seen was a lot of kickboxing, that’s it. I grew up with kickboxing, and I had my first fight when I was 10 years old in kickboxing. (I had my ) second one when I was 11, and then came down here and then we waited a whole year and saw an MMA gym, (and) that’s when I got involved with mixed martial arts.”

The history of Moroccan fighters in the UFC is a short one, with only brothers Abu and Ottman Azaitar currently representing that country in the promotion (former UFC fighter Lee Murray is also of Moroccan descent). Zalal plans to fly that flag proudly on Saturday.

Describing himself as “hyper,” even Zalal couldn’t have predicted he’d make it to the UFC this quickly. His exposure boomed after his previous fight, which ended in a viral knee knockout of Jaime Hernandez. The win not only snapped a two-fight skid, but landed him some face time on national television.

“I didn’t know I was on Sportscenter and all that until my friends texted me a video—friends that I hadn’t talked to for years!—they send me a video out of nowhere, ‘Oh my gosh, we saw you on Sportscenter and all this,’” Zalal said. “I’m like, ‘What? Sportscenter? What are you talking about?’ And that’s when I put out some noise from there.”

After that KO, his team expected to get a call from the Contender Series or receive a short-notice opportunity, either of which would have suited the eager Zalal. The UFC 247 booking couldn’t have worked out better, especially given that it’s against Lingo, a like-minded featherweight finisher that Zalal expected to cross paths with eventually in the LFA.

Zalal actually cornered teammate Phil Gonzalez against Lingo when Lingo defeated Gonzalez by decision in 2018. So in a sense, he’ll be fighting not just for himself and Morocco, but also his team at Factory X in Englewood, Calif. It’s an opportunity that Zalal relishes, even if it wasn’t one he went out of his way to chase.

“Don’t wait for opportunities,” Zalal said. “Do your things you need to do before every fight, your diet, your recovery, your training, and all that stuff, and opportunity will come to you. Don’t focus so much on, ‘Oh, I did this, I did this, I deserve this opportunity and this and that.’ Just focus on the process and all that and the opportunities will come to you.

“That’s what I would say people will see ahead of my UFC debut.”