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Belal Muhammad to Leon Edwards: Now you’ll fight hardest guy on roster, and it’s definitely not worth it

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Belal Muhammad’s coach had told him to take a few days off.

It was a reasonable request. After all, the UFC welterweight had just fought, outpointing Dhiego Lima in a fight rescheduled to UFC 258 when he tested positive for COVID-19 and convalesced in his Chicago home. The thing was he didn’t feel like he’d just gone five rounds. So why sit around at home?

When his phone rang early this past week, Muhammad was deciding whether he wanted to try out The Walking Dead. There were 10 seasons to catch up on, so that would burn some serious time. But there was his manager, offering a fight with Leon Edwards at UFC Vegas 21.

“Heck yeah – give me a reason to do something,” Muhammad replied.

If you’d asked him about the U.K. fighter before that call, he might have compared their careers: Two standout welterweights who are well-rounded threats and have perpetually struggled to break through the crowded pack at 170 pounds.

Now, Edwards is the target Muhammad has been studying and the opponent that could make that happen.

“I knew that during these times, anything could happen,” Muhammad told MMA Fighting. “So I was like, stay ready so when you do get that call, you’ll be able to say, yeah. I hoped that it would happen like this. Nowadays, these high-ranked guys, none of these guys want to take fights.”

Were it not for COVID-19, the opportunity might not have arrived when it did. With one month to UFC Vegas 21, the UFC had few options when breakout star Khamzat Chimaev was forced to withdraw due to lingering symptoms of the virus. Edwards had already been out for more than one year, and the matchup had already been postponed twice. Jorge Masvidal reportedly turned it down. Stephen Thompson was still injured. Edwards wasn’t keen on going further down the rankings, but he also wasn’t about to sit out longer.

Muhammad found that rich, because Edwards had turned down four separate opponents after his fight against ex-champ Tyron Woodley was cancelled due to the pandemic.

“It wasn’t like he was forced to say yeah, but he said no to all these other guys thinking that they weren’t worth it,” Muhammad said. “But now, you’re going to fight the hardest guy on the roster, and it’s for sure not worth it for you.

“This is the only way it would have happened. The higher guys, they all know how good I am, so they can use that excuse that the number’s not too high against the name. It’s like these guys forget why we’re in this game. We’re in it to fight, we’re not in it to sit back and play the business role. This is the fight. What’s in your contract. Are you here to fight?”

That attitude is consistently rewarded in today’s UFC, when fights and fight cards get dinged by withdrawals up to the curtain-jerker and even when combatant has already entered the octagon. Muhammad has won his past four bouts and has never fought on a pay-per-view main card.

But on March 13, just under one month from Ramadan, he’ll be the main event on a Fight Night event. Couple that with a win, and it’s a prelude to bigger things.

“This is that moment where, I asked for it,” Muhammad said. “You’re always seeing it in your head happening a certain way. I thought it was going to be a longer road, but the fact that it came so quick, beautiful. I don’t have to go through 13 other guys to get to No. 3, I can just go straight to No. 3, win this fight, and get a title fight.”

Things probably won’t happen that soon, barring a one-punch knockout in the style of Chimaev. He might even find the Chechen fighter standing across from him next. But he’ll be in the game.

With almost no down time, Muhammad said another bonus of this booking is it cuts down on training expenses. His previous fight camp was wasted when COVID-19 took him out of his first scheduled booking with Lima. The fight with Edwards allows him to just extend the one he started for the Brazilian.

“Now, it’s about being smarter and not overdoing it,” Muhammad said. “I feel like I’m going to be in great shape already.”

He’ll need that conditioning for an extra two rounds, his first championship-length fight in the UFC. It might not be the one originally planned, but he plans to give fans a worthy substitute.

“This is a guy that won eight of his last nine fights, and a guy who won eight fights,” Muhammad said. “In the old UFC days, this is the frickin’ main event.”