The difference 23 hours can make: Youssef Zalal details the road back to UFC

Youssef Zalal packed his bags at the host hotel where he was lodged with a couple dozen other UFC hopefuls.

What a disappointment. After thinking he was on the verge of a second chance, he was back in the pool of bodies with uncertain futures.

Less than 24 hours after the “TUF 32” producer knocked on his door to inform him he was in the last batch of cuts, Zalal (13-5-1 MMA, 3-3-1 UFC) received a phone call that picked up his spirits once again. What a rollercoaster.

Zalal now calls his UFC departure the ‘best thing’ that ever happened to him, though he probably didn’t realize it until his manager Jason House notified him the promotion wanted him – directly. No reality show. No Dana White’s Contender Series. Just a straight-entry short-notice fight vs. Billy Quarantillo (18-5 MMA, 6-3 UFC).

“It’s super weird,” Zalal recently told MMA Junkie. “I was actually excited when I got the show, right? I was like, ‘It’s going to be good for my brand. People get to really know who I am, how I actually act, and all this stuff.’ Because you can tell. People will get irritated. So I was kind of excited about that, right? But a lot of people don’t know that the producer walked up to my room three days before they send us into the house and he’s like, ‘Hey, you didn’t make the final cut.’ I was like heartbroken and have all this stuff going on in my head. Then, 23 hours later, they call me and are like, ‘Yeah, you’re in the UFC.’ So yeah, we’re good now.”

It’s unusual enough for a fighter to make it to the UFC once, never mind twice. Zalal, 27, did not renew with the promotion after an August 2022 draw. He then went 3-0 in MMA, 1-0 in boxing, and 1-0 in kickboxing prior to his re-signing.

During his time back on the regional scene, Zalal learned three key lessons he plans to carry with him throughout his second UFC stint.

“It’s 100 percent the best thing that happened to me. No. 1, it was like, do I really love this sport? That was the answer that I found. I really love this sport no matter what the money is. That was the No. 1 thing I found,” Zalal said.

“No. 2, I really saw how everybody acts and myself acts. I was not trying to embarrass myself in fights. That’s how I was fighting. I was not fighting my fighting style. I was not fighting who I am. I was just like, ‘Oh, yeah, all the losses are close losses. It’s not like anybody walked through me or anything.’ That was kind of the whole energy. I had to learn, ‘OK, go fight your style. Go fight with all the pressure off your back. Go fight all this stuff. If there is pressure, let’s use it in a good way instead of a bad way.’ That was a lot of things I learned from there.

“And No. 3 is maturity. I learned so much. I have so much under my belt now. Experience is the best feature, so I’m happy about that. I can’t wait until phase two. It’s going to be awesome.”

Quarantillo is the perfect opponent to get the ball rolling again, in Zalal’s opinion. With Quarantillo in the middle of a crowded 145-pound division, Zalal sees a lot of upside.

“For sure, man. I think every time Billy fights, they are like, ‘Oh, this is either going to be Fight of the Night or a Performance of the Night.’ That’s what I’ve got in my head for sure,” Zalal said. “It’s either going to be Fight of the Night or Performance of the Night – 100 percent.”

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Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie