It turns out Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad had the exact same idea after hearing that UFC 288 needed a new co-main event.
Following news that ex-UFC lightweight champion Charles Oliveira would be unable to compete on May 6, and his fight with Beneil Dariush was being pushed back to UFC 289, the welterweights immediately made the call to attempt to jump onto the card happening in Newark, N.J. At the start, neither Burns or Muhammad called to fight each other but instead they each targeted a showdown with Colby Covington, who had previously been declared the No. 1 contender at 170 pounds despite being out of action for over a year.
“Last week, I was in Canada and I was doing charity work out there, working with an organization, and I just saw that the Beneil Dariush fight got cancelled,” Muhammad explained when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I said, oh crap. I hit up my manager and asked where’s Colby [Covington] at? Let’s try to get Colby on the card.
“He hit me back the next day, ‘Colby’s not going to do it but Gilbert will.’ I was like OK, let’s go.”
Burns had almost the same exact experience, except he heard directly from UFC chief business officer Hunter Campbell, who reiterated the promotion’s plans to book Covington against reigning welterweight champion Leon Edwards later this year.
While the original plan was to book the fight in July, Edwards later stated that he didn’t expect to return until at least October, but it appears Covington will still wait in the wings as his next title defense.
“We were trying to get the Colby fight but then I talked to Hunter [Campbell] and they said, ‘No, Colby’s fighting for the title, but I have Belal Muhammad,’” Burns said. “‘He’s another one that wants to fight.’
“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll fight him, I don’t care.’ That’s how the negotiating started.”
According to Burns, he was fresh off a short vacation with his wife in Mexico following a win over Jorge Masvidal at UFC 287 when he got the idea about fighting again in May.
Initially, Burns expected to serve as the backup fighter for Edwards vs. Covington, but once he realized that bout wouldn’t happen in July, he started thinking about other options because sitting and waiting for too long was never in his plans.
“No way [I was waiting],” Burns said. “If it was July, if these guys were fighting July 22, I would wait. But October, no way. I’m going to fight my way in, and like I said at the beginning of the year after my fight in Rio, I’m not asking, I’m not complaining, I’m not [begging], ‘Please give me a title shot.’ No, I want to earn it. I want to earn it by hard work. I’m going to outwork all these guys.
“They might give [the title shot] to Colby, it is what it is, I’m not going to complain. I’m going to keep working. Three fights, three and a half months, these guys don’t fight for so long. All these guys, I’m lapping. I remember Kamaru [Usman] saying he’s lapping everybody. Now it’s my turn. I’m lapping everybody. The whole welterweight division, the whole UFC, and I’m planning on keep doing that.”
While both Burns and Muhammad were open the idea of fighting each other rather than Covington, there was still some work to get done before anything was official.
First and foremost, Muhammad hadn’t fought since October and was out of the country when he heard the news about UFC 288 needing a co-main event. Muhammad was still training right up until that trip because he was helping his teammate Ignacio Bahamondes prepare for a fight at UFC 287, but he still wasn’t deep in one of his own training camps, plus he really wanted the chance to enjoy some local cuisine.
“For me, I was in Canada and I was on holiday and I wanted to try some Canada poutine,” Muhammad said. “Let me see if I can get this at a catchweight so I can have some fries with gravy on there, but he wasn’t budging, so you’re going to make me work that much harder. It’s fine.
“It’s not even a hard weight cut for me anyway. I was like alright, now I’m going to make him pay for it because I can’t have the fries. I’m in Canada, and I can’t touch the fries, it’s going to be annoying.”
Burns never considered Muhammad’s request for a catchweight fight, which he says put the matchup in jeopardy for a couple of days as he awaited a response from the UFC.
“In the beginning, he said he couldn’t make weight,” Burns explained. “Then he asked me to do a catchweight and I said hell no, you’re not that big. The way I see it, we’re going to a war. We’re trying to knock each other out. Why am I going to give you any advantages? I know you’ve got Ramadan — I don’t give a s***. You can do whatever you want, but if you really want to fight, if you really want to put your name out there to fight, you’ve got to make weight. He said he’s not going to make weight and then back and forth, then he’s going to fight.
“Monday, he was going to fight. Monday night, he couldn’t make the weight. Tuesday, the fight was off. Tuesday night, he decided he can make weight. Wednesday, I think he wants more money, then I was like, I don’t know. But I kept training. When I got back from Mexico on Saturday — like I said, I changed my whole lifestyle, I was in very good shape. I don’t eat no crap, I was eating very good. Monday, I was back in training. Thursday, two hours before, I don’t know if I’m fighting, it was a lot of back and forth, I was waiting, then Hunter called me and he said the fight is on.”
The fight was booked, but not without one more request from Muhammad.
“I wanted it five rounds,” Muhammad revealed. “Honestly, for me, when you look back and you see the legendary stories, some of the biggest legendary stories of guys stepping up on short notice — Michael Bisping was one of the guys I always loved to watch and his story was kind of similar to mine, and then when he took that Luke Rockhold fight on short notice, it was his title fight. The big fight for me, this is my title fight. I know [if] I beat him, I’m fighting for the title. This is my biggest moment. I wanted it to be five rounds so it could feel like that big moment.
“It’s all on the line for this one for me. It’s all or nothing and I’m going all in. So I want this fight to be a five-rounder because the winner of this fight is going to be fighting for the title anyway. I don’t want nothing but championship rounds. Because I’m a champion. I needed it to be five rounds.”
Burns had no problem accepting that stipulation, especially after requesting the same five-round exception for his fight with Masvidal, but on that occasion, he was denied.
“[Hunter] said Belal asked for five rounds and I was just asking for five rounds so it’s going to be five rounds,” Burns said. “[He told me,] ‘We’re going to announce it in a little bit.’ It’s a lot of back and forth but finally we’re here.”
It may not be an ideal situation for either fighter, but Burns and Muhammad agree that there are no excuses whether the outcome is a win or a loss at UFC 288.
With a potential title shot on the line, the welterweights are moving beyond their requests to fight Covington, although both Burns and Muhammad feel that a truly impressive performance on May 6 could vault the winner into the prime position to challenge Edwards next.
“It’s a huge opportunity for me, so I don’t even want to give Colby any clout or any attention,” Muhammad said. “His name doesn’t even matter. Right now the two best welterweights in the division, the two No. 1 ranked guys are fighting each other on May 6, and we’re the only ones who are willing to fight the next best guy always. We’re the ones who are willing to go in there and put on a show.
“So I think for the UFC, for the fans, they know what the real No. 1 contender fight is. Whether they give it to [Colby] next or whatever, it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I know if I win this fight, my next fight’s going to be for the title regardless.”