Saudi Arabia boxer plotting to become lord of the ring

Updated 26 May 2018

Saudi Arabia boxer plotting to become lord of the ring

  • Zuhayr Al-Qahtani is three fights into his career
  • He has set his sights on fighting Lomachenko

Zuhayr Al-Qahtani is on a mission. Not content with being the first and only professional boxer from Saudi Arabia and signing with new promoters MTK Global, the Jeddah-born “Arabian Warrior” wants to be a multi-weight world champion, take on Ukrainian hitman Vasyl Lomachenko and defend world titles in the Middle East.
It is quite the dream for “Triple Z,” who penned a four-year contract with Irish promoters MTK in March. The lightweight believes the Irish-based management and promotion firm, which also counts Tyson Fury and Michael Conlan among its stable, will set him on the path to superstardom and give boxing the platform it deserves in the Gulf region.
Dubai has always threatened to become a top-class fight city, with fanciful bouts involving Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Amir Khan or Tyson Fury discussed with varying degrees of credibility in the past decade. But Al-Qahtani, who makes his debut for MTK on July 13, wants to be the man who makes the dream a reality.
“I’ve already made history by being the first Saudi boxer, but that’s not enough. What’s the point if you don’t win a world title? I want to be undisputed and to be a champion in three different weights,” he told Arab News, with a mixture of excitement and absolute conviction.
“When I was growing up, I always wanted to be that change, to make history and be the first professional Saudi boxer, to be the first who represented the region.
“I want to take boxing there and defend my title in the Middle East. Instead of Vegas, the O2 or Wembley Arena, let’s bring it to the Middle East — it has never been done.
“MTK has paved the way for success; they’re going to invest in me and help me get the fights to build up to where I want to get. I believe they have made a wise investment.”
There are many issues surrounding the potential hosting of fights in the Middle East, starting with the climate. Unless the bout is held between November and January, it would almost certainly have to be indoors, and there are a lack of suitable venues.
There is also a big question mark over whether it is financially viable, an aspect that has put off investors in the past, plus the time difference with the US for maximum pay-per-view exposure.
That has been countered to an extent by Manny Pacquiao fighting in daylight hours in Australia, while Abu Dhabi has also hosted two major UFC cards — albeit the most recent coming four years ago. But what could really tip the scales would be the prospect of having a genuine world-class fighter from the region.
MTK believe Al-Qahtani fits the bill and have signed him for four years, which should take him up to the seven or eight fight mark, a period of time he thinks should be enough to guarantee him a title attempt.
The road begins on July 13 against an opponent still to be confirmed at York Hall in East London. It is a home from home for Al-Qahtani, who was born in Jeddah, but moved to London as a schoolboy as two of his older brothers — Khalid and Fahad — were studying in the city.
By his own admission, Al-Qahtani was a troubled soul as a child. He used to take money to beat up bullies at school in south London, which led to suspension, police involvement and concern from his family at the direction his life was taking.
“All I knew was to fight,” he admitted.
“I went to a rough school and used to fight a lot. I wanted to bully the bullies; it wasn’t right, but it’s all I knew.”
Al-Qahtani channelled his anger and found solace in the “sweet science” after spending time with his brother Fahad in the gym and developing a growing fascination with every aspect of the sport, watching videos of Muhammad Ali, Prince Naseem Hamed, Marvin Hagler and Hector Camacho.
By his early teens he was working out at a local youth club in Wimbledon before Fahad took him to the iconic Fitzroy Lodge gym. He soon knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“I love the concept of being able to push your body to a level that you’re so good, so fit, so skilful. I loved going to the gym to train, hit the bag, spar, shadow box.
“Growing up, I used to watch Naseem Hamed, Tyson, Hagler and Camacho. The whole flamboyant aspect of boxing. Every time I go to the gym, I try to imagine how they did it, what it took. I try to go through the same steps they went through.”
His best lesson, though, came from his former trainer, Mickey Cairney, who told Al-Qahtani he would not be allowed into a ring to compete unless he knuckled down at school.
“He sat me down and asked me, ‘what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to box.’ He said, ‘you’re not ready and you can only box if you do well at school.’ After that moment I started studying. It put me back on the straight and narrow. Boxing is the best form of meditation. It changed my life.”
Cairney’s wise words certainly worked as Al-Qahtani sat his GSCEs and made it to college before going on to study civil engineering at South Bank University, where he completed a degree and then a master’s.
Meanwhile, he was earning a reputation as a promising amateur, winning titles across the southeast of England and racking up an impressive 50-5 record. “Fifty wins and five robberies,” he said, laughing, claiming the defeats were politically motivated because he was being paired with up-and-comers in the Team GB program.
Like many before him, Al-Qahtani has been motivated by rejection, a desire to prove people wrong, but also by a determination to make the most of his talent and achieve what others in his family were unable to.
Despite a blossoming amateur career, Fahad was never able to realize his potential in the ring due to a motorbike accident which led to a serious knee injury and early retirement, while Khalid failed to complete his studies.
After taking time out from competing to pass his degree,
Al-Qahtani made his pro debut against Yousef Al-Hamidi in Crystal Palace last year, beating the Syrian journeyman on points. “I schooled him. He didn’t get to hit me once.” Two more wins followed before he agreed the deal with MTK.
Fahad has stayed by his side and his older sibling remains his eyes and ears outside the ring, often shouting instructions to the fighter via their own unique code.
In describing his style, Al-Qahtani does not mess around, comparing himself to four of the all-time greats. “If I had to put my style in a category, I would say I resemble four fighters: Tyson, Hagler, Prince Naseem and Manny Pacquiao,” he said.
“I’m 5ft 6in and a lot of my opponents are a lot taller than me. I’ve got a strong build, I know my power and I can punch with both hands. When I box, because of the size difference, I have to move my head a lot to get inside — like Tyson. That peekaboo style.
“Like Hagler, I have the ability to switch. I can be a southpaw or orthodox.
“Prince Naseem, it’s all from my brother; the slide movement, the screw punches. I can go for a whole round with my hands up, or a whole round with my hands down.
“I chose Pacquiao because he has such a high work rate, working behind the jab; angles, left, right and wearing his opponents down.” He insists the combination of styles will soon elevate him to the position of contender — and he has one man in his sights.
Vasyl Lomachenko is the hottest thing in boxing right now. The Ukrainian is third in The Ring magazine’s pound-for-pound rankings after a whirlwind 12-fight pro career that has seen him dubbed the “Tiger Woods of the fight game” due to the excitement he brings to the ring.
Lomachenko has been nicknamed “The Matrix” for his baffling, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them shoulder rolls, but Al-Qahtani thinks he can crack the code.
“I will fight Lomachenko in my 10th fight,” he said. “He skipped the ranks, he proved he can have a title fight in his second fight. I can do the same. I know he is an Olympian and you have to respect him, but I believe I should be in the same ranking.
“I think he’s really good, but I think too many of his opponents follow his game plan. For example, if you’re a heavy puncher, I’m not going to come and box you aggressively and try to knock you out. I will try to break you, I will box my way, follow my rhythm.
“Tony Bellew once said to David Price, ‘I will be a champion one day and I will call out David Haye.’ I will say the same thing right now. I believe once I get a shot at the title, I will call out Lomachenko.”
It is quite the boast from a boxer just three pro fights deep. But Al-Qahtani is an ambitious fighter whose horizons stretch far beyond just the ring.

Saudi Arabia produce improved display but still exit World Cup

Updated 32 min 12 sec ago

Saudi Arabia produce improved display but still exit World Cup

  • Luis Suarez wins Group A clash with goal after 23 minutes
  • Green Falcons go toe-to-toe with South Americans, but looked a bit toothless in attack

LONDON: It came too late to save Saudi Arabia’s World Cup hopes, but this was much more like it from the Green Falcons.
The record books will show that Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side are now without a win in 12 World Cup games and bowed out of this tournament with one game to spare, but this was a restorative afternoon in Rostov, a day when the Green Falcons put some pride back in the shirt.
The team received criticism from senior figures in the Kingdom after rolling over against Russia and they knew they needed to front up against Uruguay. Some of their international futures may have depended on it. The players did just that, mixing it with the two-time winners and showing that they did, after all, belong at this exalted level.
The big frustration for Pizzi will be that Uruguay did not have to work hard for their winning goal, recalled keeper Mohammed Al-Owais handing it to Luis Suarez on a plate with a piece of goalkeeping he will not look back on with any fondness. Suarez could not believe his luck that he was gift-wrapped a goal with which to mark his 100th international appearance. It undid such a promising start from the men in white.
The Green Falcons’ response to falling behind was impressive, though, full of intent and no little skill as they went toe to toe with the South American giants. They actually ended the first half with 57 percent of the possession and registered more attempts on target than their more vaunted opponents. This is what the Saudi Arabians packed into the muggy Rostov Stadium had come to see, their team giving their all and representing more than the sum of their parts. This was why the Green Falcons had finished ahead of Australia in qualifying.

For Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, he was left to rue a lack of fire-power up front against the Uruguyans.

Speaking to the media immediately after the game, Pizzi said: "We kept the ball well, we had the majority of the posession, but we just did not have the weapons needed up front to equalize.

"We played at a much better level than in the Russia game, and that is more our style of play, but we just did not have the right tools to break Uruguay down."

The problem of scoring goals at this lofty level remains — this was the ninth time in 11 finals games they had failed to score — but that is a long-standing issue that was never going to be solved overnight. Most importantly, Pizzi got the type of reaction he was looking for after a performance against the hosts he described as “shameful.” Pizzi shook things up by dropping Omar Hawsawi, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, Abdullah Al-Mayoof and Yahya Al-Shehri, bringing in Al-Owais, Ali Hadi Al-Bulaihi, Hatan Bahbri and Fahad Al-Muwallad. The changes largely worked a treat, with Bahbri looking particularly lively cutting it from the right.
Saudi Arabia started brightly and on the front foot. They forced the first corner, won a free-kick on the edge of the Uruguay box and Al-Bulaihi showed more defensive resilience in blocking an early shot from Suarez than the Green Falcons did in the entire 90 minutes of the World Cup opener. You would not have known which team was ranked 14th and which was ranked 67th.
But the bright start was punctured just past the 20-minute mark. Al-Owais came to collect a corner but completely mis-judged the flight. He flapped at the ball with his left hand, got nowhere near it and that left Suarez with the simple task of slotting into an empty net with his left foot. It was the Barcelona man’s sixth goal in 10 World Cup games. He will not score an easier one.
It would have been easy for Saudi Arabia to fold like they did against Russia, but they showed they are made of sterner stuff than we first thought. Al-Muwallad shot over the bar from a tight angle, Bahbri forced a smart save from the Uruguay keeper and then the same player shot over at full stretch soon after. It was an encouraging response. Abdullah Otayf then left his mark soon after on Edison Cavani. Salem Al-Dawsari then clattered Matias Vecino. The Uruguayans knew they were in a game.
Saudi Arabia even recovered from the blow of losing key midfielder Taiseer Al-Jassam to injury before half-time, but Housain Al-Mogahwi came on and slotted in seamlessly. The most impressive thing about the performance was the control their midfield three enjoyed in the center of the field.
With their hopes of staying the tournament at stake, Pizzi might have thrown caution to the wind earlier than he did in the second half and throw on Al-Sahlawi, Al-Shehri or Muhannad Assiri. But he was just so worried about being opened up on the counterattack and risking another humiliation. With 15 minutes, he eventually opted for the height of Mohamed Kanno and the sharp-shooting of squad top-scorer Al-Sahlawi and asked his team to go more direct. They huffed and puffed but they just lacked the subtlety and muscle to breach a Uruguay defense marshalled by the wily Diego Godin. They will not be first to encounter that problem and certainly not the last.