Top-ranked grinder, Belal Muhammad, will square off opposite Brazilian finisher, Vicente Luque, this Saturday (April 16, 2022, 2021) at UFC Vegas 51 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s been six years since the last time these two met inside the Octagon. Both men have improved significantly and picked up the biggest wins of their career since then, but the core style match up remains the same. Muhammad overcomes opponents like they’re obstacles, often through sheer force of will and toughness. Luque, meanwhile, destroys foes like a hammer through drywall, and he remains the only man whose punches Muhammad could not simply walk through.
Likely, Muhammad will have to bring something entirely new to this match up if he’s to be victorious. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
More than pure speed or power, Muhammad is a fighter who is successful thanks to his work rate and consistency.
He’s always working. At range, Muhammad flicks up kicks at every opportunity. Mostly fighting from the Orthodox stance, Muhammad fires kicks from both legs. If he’s the one circling, Muhammad does a good job of changing directions and trying to time his opponent’s step. If he’s pressuring, Muhammad will flash a jab or feint before kicking.
Either way, Muhammad’s shot selection is smart. His right leg will target the calf of an Orthodox foe, while he’ll switch it up with more body and high kicks when faced with a Southpaw like Takashi Sato. In general, Muhammad’s left kick is more versatile though, as he’ll target all three levels (legs, body, head) with good fluidity. On several occasions, Muhammad has managed to sneak his switch kick under punches, landing to the ribs with great timing.
Intelligent is a good descriptor of Muhammad’s kickboxing and overall game. He understands his strengths and weaknesses, as well as style and stance match ups. He may not always win, but he typically makes the correct choice.
Against Lyman Good, for example, Muhammad could not walk down his foe, which is generally his preferred strategy. Good is, on paper, the sharper striker, and he’s too physically strong and powerful to bully. Rather than walk himself directly into the pocket where Good is most dangerous, he opted to fight from the outside.
At distance, Muhammad managed to frustrate his opponent. He was active with his kicks and direction changes, and he often hid potshot punches behind those changes in direction. Good was looking to set his feet and box, but Muhammad didn’t let him, and whenever Good tried to corner him along the fence, Muhammad used the threat of the takedown to escape.
That’s not to say he didn’t get cracked on occasion — he definitely did. However, Muhammad managed to edge the first two rounds with volume and movement, out-striking the objectively cleaner striker.
In a more recent bout against Dhiego Lima, Muhammad had little interesting in trading kicks with one of the gnarliest low kickers in his division. Instead, he put the pressure on from the first bell, working behind the jab (often in doubles and triples) to push his foe into the fence. He’d often chase the takedown once near the cage, and when it didn’t work, use those wrestling exchanges to control the fight and land clinch shots.
In addition, Muhammad picked his shots really well. Working behind multiple jabs is smart, but “Remember The Name” also made a habit of going to the body. Jab high-cross low-left hook high was a common combination for the Palestinian athlete, and that’s a great combo to set up the double leg shot. Plus, that body work helped set up his overhand. Muhammad’s focus on the jab saw his lead leg get a bit chewed up, but he was able to land enough of his own head shots and takedowns to clearly take the win.
Against Demian Maia, Muhammad walked the line carefully of winning the stand up without given up takedowns. His volume was reduced, as Muhammad stuck mostly to the jab and low kicks at distance. It wasn’t exceptionally fun to watch, but Muhammad bloodied his opponent up and didn’t allow a single takedown.
Muhammad’s last two wins are the best of his career, and both can largely be credited to his improved wrestling.
Muhammad has two distinct styles of takedown: in the open and against the fence. He seems to prefer the double-leg shot either way, but there’s differences in execution. In the center of the cage, Muhammad tends to prefer the more MMA-style of running double. He does, however, do a very nice job of cutting the corner, meaning that sometimes his opponent’s sprawl simply transfers him to the back. In addition, Muhammad will attempt simultaneous shot-trips in the open, something he used against Sato to great effect.
Things are a bit different along the fence. Typically, Muhammad will drop lower, often hitting both knees on the canvas as he searches for the hips. There’s a general rule in wrestling never to wrestle from one’s knees, but Muhammad is just using that position briefly, a way to get beneath his foe’s attempted underhooks. Once his hands are locked, Muhammad will rebuild back to his feet before completing the shot.
It’s also worth-mentioning that Muhammad does a nice job of finishing takedowns with big lifts. When in a high-crotch or head outside double leg position, Muhammad applies the “golf club swing” technique I once broke down for Daniel Cormier, rotating his body and lifting his foe to his shoulder.
Muhammad’s best offensive wrestling undoubtedly came vs. Stephen Thompson. Right away, Muhammad demonstrated his smarts, methodically cutting off the cage and moving Thompson towards the fence. Once Thompson was within a few feet of the fence, Muhammad would change levels and force his foe into a grimy wrestling match.
If the double leg takedown was there, Muhammad would look to connect his hands and finish, but that wasn’t usually the case. Muhammad was often forced to work from the single leg, a position strikers like “Wonderboy” (and Muhammad himself) use to stymie shots. Muhammad avoided that fate with good posture, getting his hips close to Thompson and the cage. From this position, Muhammad could still seek to finish that golf swing lift, or he could elevate Thompson and try to trip the base leg, Khabib-style.
Speaking of single leg defense, Muhammad put on a clinic vs. Demian Maia. Any time the Brazilian shot, Muhammad was clubbing his head to the inside position and getting his back to the fence, a pair of defensive moves that make back takes far more difficult. Once there, Muhammad would work to control his opponent’s wrists, often going two-hands-on-one to really prevent Maia’s transitions.
With Maia stuck in place, Muhammad would land small, annoying strikes and look to free his leg and return to open space.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, Muhammad is not the most active submission grappler. However, he is very quick to jump onto the back, and the rear-naked choke accounts for his single career submission win.
Muhammad’s strategy on the mat is pretty clear — he’s usually looking to jump into back mount. If he’s able to cut the corner on his double-leg shot, he’s in perfect position to start putting hooks in. However, his back-taking is often more the result of necessity rather than choice. Holding down skilled opponents is difficult. Often, Muhammad opts to take his chances and throw hooks in rather than force himself to try to take down his foe a second time if they’re able to wall-walk.
Still, judging by how often he’s able to gain both hooks and control opponents after the takedown, it’s clearly something Muhammad is good at. His best position of the fight vs. “Wonderboy” came when Muhammad jumped his back and immediately flattened his opponent out with hip pressure, nearly securing a strikes stoppage in the process.
Muhammad is a very intelligent fighter, an athlete who makes the absolute most of his skill set and athleticism. Luque remains a difficult and dangerous style match up, however, one that will really force Muhammad to overachieve if he’s to avoid the Brazilian’s murderous punches.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.