Mixed martial arts fighters are a unique breed, but there's recently been a common theme among UFC welterweight contenders. Ever since UFC president Dana White announced that Colby Covington would get the next shot at welterweight champion Leon Edwards, a slew of 170-pounders have vowed to look so good in their next fight in order to change White's mind about Covington and give them the title shot.
The latest is Belal Muhammad, who faces Gilbert Burns in the co-main event of UFC 288 on Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
Muhammad, though, has stolen a page from Covington's tried-and-true playbook in order to make the case for himself. Oh, sure, he told Yahoo Sports, and just about anyone else who would listen, that he plans to beat Burns so decisively and impressively that White will have no choice but to pick him to fight Edwards instead of Covington.
But on Thursday at the final news conference, Muhammad, one of the sport's true nice guys, opted to play the heel to taunt the audience.
"Now I know why the Nets left New Jersey to go to Brooklyn," Muhammad said as he was being heckled. "New Jersey sucks."
It raised the ire of the crowd, naturally, even as Muhammad chuckled, but it's not going to do much to sway White. There is likely nothing he can do to change White's mind at this stage, though Muhammad still feels a bit underrated by not only the fans but UFC management as well.
He's ranked fourth at welterweight, one spot ahead of Burns, and has won eight in a row and 12 of his last 13, with a no-contest in there when a bout with Edwards was stopped prematurely because of an inadvertent eye poke.
He's coming off an impressive second-round stoppage on Oct. 22 of the previously unbeaten Sean Brady. He said he was begging for a fight since and didn't get it until the opportunity with Burns came up recently. Burns, by contrast, defeated Neil Magny in Brazil in January and then returned last month in Miami to send Jorge Masvidal into retirement. Saturday's bout will be the third of the year for Burns.
"Stepping up for an opportunity on shorter notice will show (UFC brass) they have a guy they can count on, a guy who will step up," Muhammad told Yahoo Sports. "Obviously, as a fighter, you want to be in the good graces of the UFC as well as the good graces of the fans. You want the fans to be like, 'Ah wow, this guy does it. He's the last man standing. There's nobody else. He's a beast.'
"I also want it myself because it's a huge opportunity. It means a lot because I know I need to show them what they're looking to see."
Muhammad has had to fight way longer than one would have imagined to earn the respect of the fans. When he was poked in the eye by Edwards and couldn't continue, there were many who chided him for quitting. When he stopped Brady, he didn't get much praise for dominating a highly regarded prospect as he was ripped for fighting a lesser contender.
It's something many fighters face and it's worn on Muhammad.
"This is my sport and my game and people aren't respecting it, so sure it is [frustrating]," he said. "I've put in so much work and it's like they don't recognize or respect that. ... People won't give me the credit for beating the guys I've beaten. After I beat 'Wonderboy' [Stephen Thompson, they said], 'Oh, he was old.' I beat a guy like [Vicente] Luque and it was, 'Oh, he didn't have wrestling.' When it was Brady, they were like, 'Oh, Brady wasn't as good as we thought he was.'"
Muhammad, though, sees Burns as an opportunity to get past all of that and convince the critics that he's not only the real deal but the right man to face Edwards next. If Edwards defends the belt, as expected, in Abu Dhabi next, Muhammad figures he'll make more sense as the challenger than Covington, particularly if he handles Burns.
Though White has repeatedly shot down the idea that anyone other than Covington will fight for the championship next, Muhammad isn't giving up hope.
He believes he'll make the decision easy for White and Co come Saturday.
"I know what Dana has been saying, but I also know what Dana likes," Muhammad said. "All I can control is how I fight this weekend. But if I go out there and put on an amazing show, I just have to hope and pray I can change his mind because I'd be a better fight in Abu Dhabi for Leon."