Mazen Ballout will not enter the cage alone.
No, the welterweight will be bringing everything he has gleaned from his close-knit group of friends and fellow fighters when he faces Antoine Gray at HFC 35 on Nov. 24.
All the sparring sessions, all the spirited scrambles, all the words of encouragement – those are the type of things that will be there for him to draw on when he steps inside the cage at Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, Indiana.
“I’ve been able to surround myself with people that I can always take bits and pieces from, always learn from,” said Ballout, 21, who trains at Midwest Training Center in Schaumburg, Ill.
“They’ve shown me what hard work can do. That’s the type of atmosphere I try to build for myself. That’s the type of atmosphere we’ve built for each other. We all try to push each other in that type of way.”
His inner circle includes an impressive group of fighters from the Chicago area, including Belal Muhammad and brothers Askar, Motaz and Asef Askar.
Muhammad, who has a UFC welterweight fight with Tim Means on Saturday, is a big brother figure. Askar seems destined for the big time as he takes a 6-0 record into his flyweight bout Friday with Nesaw Merriweather. Motaz, who will fight featherweight Amin Szymaniak on Dec. 1, has been a source of inspiration.
He calls Asef, however, his best friend. After all, Asef, a flyweight who won his pro debut at Bellator 175 in March, helped change Ballout’s life.
Only six or seven years ago, Ballout was struggling to find his place in the arena of athletics. It certainly wasn’t on the wrestling mat, considering he couldn’t make his high school JV team.
Ballout soon tipped the scales at 240 pounds, but that’s when Asef reached out to his classmate and extended an invitation to join him at the gym.
Ballout jumped at the chance, and after a few thousand kicks and punches, he had lost 70 pounds in just seven months. At the behest of a coach who saw a flicker of potential in him, he affixed his gaze toward becoming a pro MMA fighter.
Muhammad has also had a big influence on Ballout. They see each other two or three times a week. Muhammad always has some good advice. He’s told Ballout to slow down and think a little a little more inside the cage. He’s also constantly reminding Ballout to, even at the end of another grueling workout, have fun.
Perhaps above all else, Muhammad has taught by example.
“That’s someone who’s made it and it’s someone I’ve known him for a while,” Ballout said. “I’ve known him before he made it. And now I’m watching him make a run at the title and trying to make those moves in the UFC. It’s something that definitely motivates me as far as making it to the next level. Whenever spare or whenever we roll together, he’s always trying to give me advice. I appreciate that.”
So, with a little help from his friends and the sage wisdom of his coach at Midwest Training Center, Alex Trujillo, Ballout has arrived at a big moment in his career. He is hoping that getting his had raised at HFC will give him a leg up at reaching the next level.
“I would definitely want to be there by 24, 25,” he said. “I know for some people, it takes longer. As soon as I turned 18, I had my first amateur fight. I’ve been training since 15. So, I feel like that experience is definitely going to be there by the time I’m 25. It will be 10 years of experience. I really feel like if I can get to a strong 6-0, 7-0, with finishes and good performances, I really feel like I could get on ‘Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series’ or even get a last-second fill-in, a shot at the UFC. That’s how I see the future.”
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