From Moroccan slums to the cage: Youssef Zalal

Youssef Zalal’s journey from schoolyard fights to Colorado MMA

Coming off a successful professional debut at Sparta Combat League 31, Morocco’s own Youssef Zalal looks to stay undefeated and become a world champion. 

Yousseffv Zalal, a recently-turned-pro fighter from Morocco, spars with Brandon Royval of Lakewood during a work out at The Factory X Gym in Englewood. Photos by Mark Stahl • mstahl5@msudenver.edu

On Aug. 19, Zalal defeated Michael Santos via D’Arce choke in the third round in his first professional fight, a momentous occasion after years of adversity and hard work that got him to this point. After moving to Aurora from Morocco when he was 15, he was forced to start over with his mother nearly 5,000 miles away. Since then, he has fought through the challenges of losing his biggest fan in his brother and being away from home. He didn’t know what mixed martial arts was, but was very familiar with the art of combat It’s something he’s excelled at.

“Morocco, man, Morocco was tough,” Zalal said when asked about his life. “I got into my first fight when I was about 10, so I was going to school and stuff, but it’s liked we lived in what you call the hood or whatever you call it. It’s not a good environment for the kids.”

Zalal has faced adversity his whole life, leading him to some trouble as a kid. He noted how his mother used fighting to keep him off the streets.

“She put me in kickboxing classes. I was like an energy kid, I was just like hyped. I would go to the school, the gym, then home, everyday,” Zalal said.

Zalal was just 12 years old when he began kickboxing, but after two years of training he fell in love with the sport. “I was just like, from then, I wanted to become a world champion, but when I came here the whole story changed,” he said.

After arriving stateside, Zalal’s focus shifted from kickboxing to mixed martial arts.

“I didn’t know what MMA was. I had never seen a cage fight in my life,” Zalal said. “I was like why are they hugging each other? I was like what is this? And then, boom, started MMA after a year.”

Zalal wasn’t the only one in his family unfamiliar with the sport. His mom thought the fights were to the death. Even though his friends and family didn’t quite understand the sport of MMA, Zalal began training full-time.

“I started doing jiujitsu classes at American Top Team,” Zalal said. “Me getting tapped like eight times in one round, I was getting murdered. I only had heavyweights, welterweights to train with, but I never wanted to quit. I always want to win, whatever I do.”

This mentality has allowed Zalal to succeed in both mixed martial arts and muay-thai. He won five out of his six amatuer MMA fights and three out of his four in muay thai.

“He’s intense, going the whole time, motivating others,” said teammate Brandon Royval. “He’ll pick up a move real quick and drill it like 30 times. He’s just naturally talented,”

Zalal just loves to fight. He trains and coaches full time and eagerly tried to get on a fight card six months into training, but his coaches at American Top Team made him wait.

Youssef Zalal, originally from Morocco, is now part of The Factory X Gym in Englewood.

“I waited a year-and-a-half then I got a muay thai fight,” Zalal said. “I was 16, that fight. It went so well they called me the next week and they wanted me to be the main event. And I was the main event and I just murdered that kid.”

After an impressive muay thai career, Zalal competed in his first MMA bout at the age of 18.

In that fight, he was beaten badly by a Brazilian jiujitsu brown-belt for the entire first round, but promptly knocked out his opponent 15 seconds into the next.

Since moving to Colorado, life still hasn’t been perfect for Zalal. Tragedy struck him and his family when his brother was killed in a drunk driving accident when Youssef was 18.

“I was the last one to hold him,” Zalal said, reflecting on that fateful day his brother passed. “He was my biggest fan. I was trying to kill myself after my brother died. I tried taking pills and they stopped me, it’s a big reason I don’t drink.”

Zalal vowed to make his brother proud and has since become obsessed with the sport of mixed martial arts.

“No parties, no girls, I just stay focused,” Zalal said, “I put in way too much time and sacrifice to even try to stop. No one’s stopping me.”

The dedication and work ethic Zalal brings to Factory X, the team he joined after leaving American Top Team in 2016, is also recognized by his teammates.

“He’s real good, he’s fast, he’s young, the kid’s good,” said UFC veteran and teammate Chris Camozzi.

Zalal’s natural talent is a true testament to his background and has been apparent since his mother enrolled him in kickboxing classes almost a decade ago. This minor disctaction proved to be the first step in becoming one of the most promising prospects in professional mixed martial arts.

Zalal said, “I want to become UFC Champion and take it back to Morocco and show them, show her, that’s what I’m going to do.”

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