Belal Muhammad is not afraid to fight down in order to reach new heights.
Currently sitting as the UFC's fifth-ranked welterweight, Muhammad (21-3 MMA, 12-3 UFC) is fighting No. 8 Sean Brady (15-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) Saturday at UFC 280. It is an extremely difficult matchup, as the versatile Brady has proven over his 15-fight winning streak that he is multifaceted in the cage. This is a key fight, one that will serve as the centerpiece for the prelims, and it is a necessity for Muhammad, as fighters ranked above him – specifically Colby Covington and Khamzat Chimaev – have not wanted to share the cage with him.
"That's the difficult part of the fight game," says Muhammad. "Guys sit and choose their opponents. Colby waits and fights guys that aren't winning, unless it's a title fight. He's selling his soul, looking like a clown, and the UFC is allowing it to happen. I'm not going to look for fights that way.
"I wanted Colby, I wanted Chimaev. I was told they're not available. I'm ready to fight. I want to stay active."
A win Saturday for Muhammad against Brady would extend his unbeaten streak to nine. It could also elevate him into a position where he is fighting for the belt against the winner of the Leon Edwards-Kamaru Usman trilogy bout.
"The guys I fought, so many of them are coming off wins or ranked or coming off winning streaks," Muhammad says. "Brady has a lot of hype behind him. When I beat him, there is nothing else for me but the title."
Muhammad's style is predicated on an unrelenting attack. That mentality has also served him well in his preparation, particularly for this fight during training with Khabib Nurmagomedov and Islam Makhachev.
"I have a goal in mind," Muhammad says. "My family, my team, we know we can achieve greatness.
"I want to fight the guys that people think can beat me. Just like in this fight. I'm not hiding from anyone."
Representation is a significant element for Muhammad. A Palestinian-American, he is proud to fight in the UFC and serve as a role model.
"I never want to lose myself," Muhammad says. "This is a big platform. I am representing Muslims. That's a big responsibility. I hear from a lot of people whose kids look up to me. I'm not in this for myself, I'm in it for something far bigger. That makes me work that much harder. I'm fighting for myself, my family, and my people."
It is easy to champion a fighter while he is riding a dominant hot streak, but true character is revealed during hard times. After Belal lost two of his first three UFC fights, he put in an immense amount of work to become a legitimate title contender.
"That was the roughest time," Muhammad says. "I asked myself, ‘Do I really belong here?' I didn't want just making it to the UFC to be my highlight. My goal was always to be champion. I kept that strong faith and believed in myself."
Taking away Brady's zero at UFC 280 would be another monumental achievement for Muhammad en route to a title fight, and he has charted out a plan to be champ within the next 12 months.
"I have a style that matches up with either of those guys, or any of these guys in the division," Muhammad says. "If I stay on this course and win this fight, by this time next year, I'll have the best around my waist.
"I'm going to show that I am on a higher level."
UFC 280 shaping up to be electric night of fights
UFC 280 is a showcase card.
The main card is absolutely loaded, headlined by Charles Oliveira against Makhachev for the vacant lightweight title.
Oliveira (33-8 MMA, 21-8 UFC) is seeking to regain the title he lost when he missed weight this past spring, then went out and obliterated Justin Gaethje at UFC 274. He is the greatest finisher in UFC history, but Makhachev (22-1 MMA, 11-2 UFC) has also proven to be an unstoppable force. He has not tasted defeat since October of 2015, and he possesses a level of grappling that could cause problems for Oliveira.
Makhachev is the oddsmakers' favorite to win. Yet the one constant with Oliveira is, each time he is counted out, he finds a way to win. As foolish as it seems to bet against Makhachev, I believe Oliveira's power will be too much. Pound-for-pound, he is the best fighter in the world, a fact he will prove again Saturday.
The best of the bantamweight division will also be on display at 280. Aljamain Sterling defends the title against former two-time champ T.J. Dillashaw, and former champ Petr Yan meets Sean O'Malley in a bout to determine the next challenger for the belt.
Dillashaw (17-4 MMA, 13-4 UFC) is still an elite fighter, but a lot has changed in the bantamweight landscape since he was fully active. This will mark only his first fight in 15 months, and he is going to struggle mightily against the power and grappling of Sterling (21-3 MMA, 13-3 UFC).
It also feels destined that Yan (16-3 MMA, 8-2 UFC) will also emerge victorious, setting up a third bout against Sterling. Yan is a vicious, dangerous fighter, and his wrestling will be too much to overcome for O'Malley (15-1 MMA, 7-1 UFC).
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.