Belal Muhammad is not a bad guy, but he’ll occasionally play one on TV.
While he’s regarded as one of the best UFC welterweights and a beloved teammate and coach, Muhammad often finds himself on the wrong end of a loud and boisterous crowd. The latest example happened before his fight at UFC 288, where the New Jersey faithful showered him with boos during the pre-fight press conference for his fight with Gilbert Burns in the co-main event.
Rather than let the negative attention ruin the moment, Muhammad leaned into it, saying “For all the fans out there booing, now I know why the Nets left New Jersey and they’re in Brooklyn … cause you guys suck.”
The jabs continued during his post-fight victory speech at UFC 288. Muhammad enjoyed them, and he’s learning to embrace that role with fans.
“If I have to go heel, I’ll go heel,” Muhammad told MMA Fighting. “I’ll never get out of my character. I’ll always have fun with it no matter what, but maybe I’m starting to like that role a little bit.”
The terms ‘babyface’ and ‘heel’ come from professional wrestling. Storylines usually try to paint one character as the good guy and another as the villain. Those roles eventually develope into much more elaborate displays to get a rise out of a crowd; some performers actually prefer to portray a heel because it allows more freedom when creating a certain kind of character.
For Muhammad, he abides by that old school pro-wrestler rule book, which includes taking aim at a city where he’s performing – or perhaps the hometown of the opponent he’s about to battle. It’s nothing personal, and he makes it clear he’ll never cross a line that goes beyond his own boundaries of good taste.
“I think for me it’s all fun, and I’m starting to like it,” Muhammad said. “It’s not like I’m trying to go stupid, loser Colby [Covington] heel, but I’m going to have fun with the way I do it, with my personality.”
At his worst, Colby Covington turned the entire nation of Brazil against him with inflammatory comments. Then there’s the direct trash talk he’s unleashed at his opponents over the years.
If the bar is set for going too far, Muhammad promises he’ll never stoop to that level. But he can still roll with the punches and stir up the crowd.
“I took this fight on short notice for you guys to bring a fight to Jersey, to give you guys a co-main event, and you guys are going to boo me? Boo me?” Muhammad said. “Freaking Al Iaquinta style? So I’m going to come at you hard.
“To me, it’s like I know the people that support me are going to support me no matter what, and there’s people out in the crowd that are just booing to be a part of the crowd. But when I got there and got close to them, they’re asking for pictures. An old lady [said] ‘I don’t know why I was booing, I was just booing because they were booing but you’re such a nice guy.’ It’s so funny how people are.”
Truth be told, Muhammad knows being a heel is probably more interesting than the adoration that comes along with being a babyface.
“I used to watch wrestling in the heyday with ‘The Rock’ and ‘Stone Cold’ [Steve Austin]. Those were some of the best heel guys,” Muhammad said. “The bad guys are some of the most popular guys out there. If I go that road, that will be all right.”