The Rolling Stones sang of the devil as a man of wealth and taste, however the Moroccan Devil is different. With an upbringing in Casablanca, Morocco, Youssef Zalal, 21, is a professional mixed martial artist aimed at gold and glory
“My short-term goal is to get to the UFC,” said Zalal, slightly smiling at the thought of being a champion in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC, the most famous mixed martial arts organization.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, 13.5% of the nation’s population are immigrants. Zalal, one of more than 43 million ready to pursue the American Dream, plans to pull himself up from his glove straps. Training and teaching in Factory X Gym, Englewood, CO., the undefeated professional has grander long-term ambitions; Zalal aims to not only be the champion of America and the world but to also “bring it back home,”. With a “dream big,” persona and a hard work ethic, the Middle Eastern immigrant “will become the champion of the world,” he said.
After immigrating with his mother and younger brother to Arvada, CO., at 14 years old, Zalal was already armed with some kickboxing training but not English. He learned English by sticking to other immigrant youths who knew the language, citing his Somali classmate as one of his teachers. When Zalal’s mother and younger brother decided to go back to Morocco, Zalal decided to stay with his father and older brother in hopes of pursuing a professional fighting career.
English was not the only obstacle for Zalal as an immigrant. Having not seen his mother for “eight and a half years,” and losing his older brother two years ago, Zalal maintains his Moroccan heritage with his father.
“It’s always tough in Morocco, that’s for sure,” said Zalal. “I mean, growing up in Morocco, any third world country, you feel the difference,”
Speaking Arabic and cooking traditional meals is a must in the Zalal household. Zalal, practicing to start his own meal preparation service, prepares meals for other fighters but the kitchen isn’t the only place Zalal is hands on.
Kickboxing was Zalal’s “whole goal,” he said, but after learning about mixed martial arts, (MMA), his aspirations evolved. Inspired, Zalal began to alter his training and learned to wrestle under the supervision of the multi-faceted Franklin Robert Lashley. Better known to World Wrestling Entertainment fans as Bobby Lashley, the former United States Army sergeant pushed Zalal to learn quickly by pinning him against heavyweights.
“I was just getting killed in the gym,” said Zalal, describing the hardships of transitioning from one martial art to a mixture of many.
Citing Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather and the Moroccan-Dutch Badr Hari as his inspirations, Zalal had another thing coming. As a 16-year-old, Zalal won his first martial arts title in Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing originated in Thailand, yet he had “never heard of a fight cage, never seen a fight cage.”
After he won four out of five fights as an amateur, Zalal turned pro. In his professional and undefeated career thus far, Zalal’s record stands at three wins and zero draws. With two submission victories and one technical knockout, TKO, Zalal now trains with other professional fighters much more experienced in cage fighting. Austin Jones, 28, from Denver, recalls training with Zalal in the American Top Team MMA academy in Aurora, CO.
“It’s funny how much he’s [Zalal] grown,” said Jones. “He used to weigh about 95 lbs. when I first met him and now he’s a ‘45er,”
Jones, experienced with 15 professional fights, said fighting “seems natural,” for Zalal “but he definitely worked towards those talents,” Zalal’s last two professional fights were taken on extremely short notice with one being only two hours before the fight, forcing him to lose nine pounds in said time. Jones expressed high hopes for Zalal, calling him the “most dominant striker out here in the ’45 [lb.] class.”
Zalal trains in a demanding environment, mixing his hard work with the right gym which Chris Camozzi, 31, a veteran fighter with 20 fights for the UFC, advocates for. Camozzi, speaking from experience with his first gym, equated it to a school where “you wouldn’t want a teacher who’s not experienced,” he said.
“The worst thing people would say, I think, is when they come in and talk about, like, street fights,” said Camozzi. “They don’t compare to training to fight somebody else that’s training to fight you.”
After fulfilling his dream of becoming a UFC champion, Zalal plans to have the first UFC event in Morocco. Earning the gold and glory won’t be enough for the Moroccan Devil.
“It’s a big dream,” said Zalal. “But if you don’t dream big, you don’t dream enough.”