Belal Muhammad ran into Leon Edwards at the UFC’s host hotel after UFC Vegas 21. His eyesight had just come back after he’d been poked in the eye so severely the fight had been declared a no-contest. It had taken him 30 minutes to be able to see again after getting jabbed in the eyeball.
Considering the circumstances, Muhammad might have had a few words for Edwards. He said he’d warned referee Herb Dean that the British vet had a habit of extending his fingers. Sure enough, Edwards did just that in the first round. It was Edwards’ foul that dashed his huge opportunity.
Fights have been started for much less in the sport. The important thing for Muhammad, though, was to find out whether he’d get an immediate rematch. He had taken the fight on short notice. Edwards was a marquee opponent, and a win could be the break he needed.
I was like, ‘Bro, we’ve got to do the rematch,’” Muhammad told MMA Fighting in a recent interview. “He was like, ‘If they don’t give me Colby [Covington], I’ll do the rematch.’”
That wasn’t the answer Muhammad wanted to hear, obviously. But he could respect the honestly. Edwards had been through his own ringer with a series of cancelled and rescheduled fights due to the pandemic. He’d taken the fight with Muhammad because he couldn’t stand to wait any longer to get his career restarted. He needed his own break, and one-time title challenger Covington was one.
Muhammad wasn’t about to follow in the footsteps of “Chaos.”
“I’m not going to sit there and make one of those fake videos of me trying to start a fight with him at a hotel,” he said. “I’m like, ‘OK, that makes sense.’”
The understanding Muhammed left with quickly vanished. First, Edwards did an interview afterward saying he wanted a title shot next, citing his performance in the first round as evidence a rematch was unnecessary.
“I’m looking at this guy like he’s a moron,” Muhammad said. “If that makes sense, then Masvidal beating the crap out of you in the back room, there’s no reason for you to do the fight, because he already hit you with a three-piece and a soda. Your logic doesn’t make sense.”
Then, Edwards was booked opposite Nate Diaz. Despite being one of the biggest stars in the sport, Diaz was unranked.
“Honestly, it doesn’t make any sense to me, even for me,” Muhammad said. “Me watching it and being a fan and understanding the game, I understand why Leon wouldn’t accept the fight. It’s going to help him build his fan base. But from the UFC, I would expect more if it’s not me, give him somebody higher-ranked than me, because there’s other guys in the division willing to fight.”
To top it all off, Muhammad was booked to fight Demian Maia.
“To me, the immediate rematch made the most sense in the world, because I literally took the fight on three weeks’ notice when nobody wanted to fight,” he said. “I was coming off an injury with my cast and I still stepped up and took the fight. I was expecting Leon to be a man and be like, ‘This guy stepped up. I’m the one who created the foul. I’m the one who the fight ended because of me, because of my foul that I did twice.’
“Just being a man, I would expect him to be like, alright, this narrative wasn’t supposed to be ran like this, but I’ll give you the fight back.”
Instead, the narrative has taken a different turn. After another delay, Edwards will face Diaz at UFC 263, while Muhammad will face Maia one fight earlier on the pay-per-view card Saturday at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.
You might think Muhammad is a little salty about the switch. He’s now facing the promotion’s No. 9 ranked welterweight instead of the No. 3 guy. Maia is at the tail end of his career rather than his prime. But Muhammad sees a silver lining.
“Demian Maia’s one of those fights I’ve always wanted,” he said. “I called for that fight as I was calling for Leon. He’s one of the legends of the sport, one I’ve always watched and studied. I always want to test myself against the best guys, and the last few guys that beat him all fought for the title. ... He has big name value, and he’s one of those guys where he’s a great test for the champion. If I can get through Demian, that’s going to be a good test to fight [Kamaru] Usman.”
Muhammad points to Maia’s reputation as the one of the best grapplers to ever walk into the octagon as another plus. He’ll be able to show the world he’s at that level, or maybe just prove he’s a better striker if they decide to stand and trade.
If Edwards plays it smart, Muhammad expects the British standout to steamroll Diaz. He believes the UFC is trying to build Edwards as a contender, and a win over a big star is an easy way to do that.
That means a little longer road on the way to the top. It’s up to him to make the best of the situation.
“I’m not cool with it,” Muhammad said. “Honestly, I really wanted the Leon fight, and I feel like I earned it just by stepping up. ... You’ve seen guys do that like Tony Ferguson against Justin Gaethje, and it affected them terribly. It’s not easy to do something like that. So to be doing that, I feel like I deserved it, but this is the next biggest name that I like. I’m glad the UFC gave it to me.”