Dustin Johnson back to full fitness ahead of Saudi International title defense

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Dustin Johnson on his way to winning the 2016 US Open at Oakmont Country Club, in Pennsylvania. (Getty Images)
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Dustin Johnson won the inaugural Saudi International at Royal Greens & Country Club. (Supplied)
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Dustin Johnson won the inaugural Saudi International at Royal Greens & Country Club. (Supplied)
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Dustin Johnson won the inaugural Saudi International at Royal Greens & Country Club. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 January 2020

Dustin Johnson back to full fitness ahead of Saudi International title defense

  • World number 5, Johnson, counts last year’s 61 at the Royal Greens & Country Club as one of his ‘best rounds’
  • Johnson is joined by leading US pros — world number 1 Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed

RIYADH: The Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers returns to King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) from January 30 — February 2. Arab News caught up with the big-hitting Dustin Johnson ahead of the European Tour event at Royal Greens & Country Club.

How are you feeling going into the Saudi International after a short spell out with injury?
I’m feeling very good. My knee has recovered well during the off season and I am anxious to get out on the course again. I have been working hard on my game over the last month or so and I am ready to get back to competition. It was a fun event last year and somewhat close over those final few holes, which made it exciting.

You must be excited to return to Saudi after winning the competition last year — what stood out for you from the victory?
Yes, of course. It’s always nice to go back to return to a tournament where you have good memories and my 61 in the second round was one of the best rounds of my year. I was surprised at how good the course was in the first year of playing the event and the hospitality in the country was second to none.

What surprised you about the competition in Saudi Arabia last year and how would you sum up the experience in the country?
Nothing really surprised me about the competition because we all know that it was a world-class field. I loved playing here last year and the field is looking even stronger this year. It’s is great to see a few more Americans making the trip over, which just shows how the tournament is gaining momentum and acceptance.

Last year was the first time the competition was held in Saudi Arabia, do you expect bigger crowds this year and what part can fans play in a Championship?
It was great to see so many people coming to watch us play last year and I hope the turnout will be even bigger this year. The crowds were fantastic and with all of the music concerts also lined up for this year, there is something for everyone to enjoy.

There are more top players competing in the Championship this year – are you confident of recording another victory in Saudi?
I don’t worry about the competition and about defending the trophy and just try to focus on my own preparation. If I play my best golf, I know I’ll have a chance to defend. I have managed to defend a title once before in my career, which is always challenging, so I don’t put any extra emphasis on it and just approach it like any other week.

How important is it for golf to be coming to Saudi Arabia and bring the game into new markets?
It is always good to introduce the game in new markets and although I play the majority of my golf in the US, it is nice come across to the Middle East to compete against such a strong field. Golf Saudi has a really cool vision for the sport in the next ten years and, it will be great to come back to this event in years to come.

Many people in Saudi Arabia will not have attended a golf championship. What can they expect, and what do fans get from watching the golf live and up close that is just impossible to experience through the TV?
It will be great to see more fans coming out to watch again this year. They are able to see what we go through on the course, how we decide which club to hit and experience the excitement of the competition, which is something you can’t really replicate on TV. It is always nice to interact with the fans, sign some autographs and hopefully improve the fans’ experience at the tournament.

More young people in Saudi Arabia are watching sport or taking up sport. What would you say to encourage them to take up golf and what can they learn from the sport?
Just get out there and play and have fun. It’s a great sport that anyone can enjoy for a lifetime. There is more than one way to swing the club and if you watch a few different golfers this week at the Saudi International you will see this for your own eyes.


UFC Fight Island delivers goods as Kamaru Usman reigns supreme in Abu Dhabi

Updated 12 July 2020

UFC Fight Island delivers goods as Kamaru Usman reigns supreme in Abu Dhabi

  • Alexander Volkanovski, Petr Yan and Rose Namajunas also score big victories at UFC 251
  • Main fight courted controversy with fans questioning the referee’s decision

DUBAI: It might have taken place behind closed doors, but Fight Island in Abu Dhabi delivered on its promises, with Kamaru Usman retaining his welterweight title after defeating Jorge Masvidal in UFC 251’s main event on Yas Island.

MMA fans in the Middle East had to set their alarm clocks for the early hours of Sunday, July 12, to watch the biggest international sporting event since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with action at Flash Forum in the UAE capital kicking off at 2 a.m. local time.

At the weekend Masvidal had called Usman “weak-minded,” but the man who had replaced Gilbert Burns on only six days’ notice would come to regret those words, losing (50-45, 50-45, 49-46) to the “Nigerian Nightmare, ” who had words of praise for his opponent nonetheless.

“Gamebred [Masvidal] is the biggest, baddest dude out there right now,” Usman said. “I had to switch gears on six days’ notice. I know a lot was made of him taking this fight on short notice, but he was preparing. All these guys are preparing for one guy—and that’s me at the top of the mountain. I had to make a mental shift. I trained for Gilbert and had a completely different game plan. I had a lot of other things coming into the fight, but that’s no excuse.”

With the champion curiously focused on stomping on his opponent’s feet, the fight initially lacked the entertainment value of earlier bouts on the main card.

The challenger had edged the first round, but by the end of the second Usman looked to have squared it at 19-19. With the American fighter’s early energy subsiding, Usman took control of the fight to shade rounds three and four by taking the fight to the canvas. 

Kamaru Usman on his way to victory over Jorge Masvidal. (Getty Images/ UFC) 

“Gamebred is tough and he showed it out there,” he added. “He took a lot of big elbows on bottom, but he kept getting up and fighting. He didn’t quit.”

Masvidal needed to overcome Usman’s grappling tactics with a stoppage in the fifth and final round. This proved beyond his reach and Usman’s UFC record now stands at an impressive 12 wins and no losses, emulating the starts made by Anderson Silva and Khabib Nurmagomedov in MMA’s premier organization.

“I’m at the top of the mountain, I’m the champion,” Usman said. “Everybody’s looking at me. So there’s never going to be a shortage of contenders.”

The two fights leading up to the main event had arguably been the highlights of Fight Island, at once brutal and not short on controversy.

The American Max Holloway had looked set to avenge his loss to Australian Alexander Volkanovski in December’s UFC 245 after dominating the first two rounds comfortably. A stoppage or even knockout looked on the cards. However, Volkanovski reasserted himself in round three, and though he still looked to be trailing by most estimates by the end of the fight, was surprisingly awarded a split decision victory (48-47, 48-47, 47-48). The champion remains unbeaten after 19 professional MMA fights.

“It was a tough fight. He stood there and didn’t take a backwards step,” Volkanovski said. “He made it tough for me in the earlier rounds, I didn’t use the kicks as much as I would have liked, but I got the job done. That’s the main thing. I knew it was two rounds a piece going into that last round. I had to win that last round. I wanted a finish. He went for the finish. Unfortunately, neither of us got it. I won the decision and that’s what counts.”

“He’s a gamer,” he added. “We’re both hard workers, but I got the job done. Nothing but respect to Max. We had words, but maybe he was just trying to get in my head.”

The decision, however, did not go down well with fight fans online. Across social media, audiences voiced their dismay, many calling the fight 3-2 in favor of Holloway, and others posting barbed comments and memes questioning the judges’ competence and eyesight.

Just prior to that dramatic conclusion, the vacant bantamweight title had gone to Petr Yan who defeated Brazilian legend Jose Aldo in another controversial fight, though for entirely different reasons. As the undefeated Russian pounded his opponent mercilessly, the referee inexplicably allowed the fight to continue when a stoppage looked inevitable, and much needed. On Twitter,  “stop the fight” trended alongside #UFC251.

Russian champion Petr Yan lands a punch on Jose Aldo of Brazil. (Getty Images/ UFC)

“I expected it to be a hard fight,” Yan said. “He hit my leg and I was forced to change stance. It got me off my game a little bit. It is a crazy situation in the world to prepare for this fight. The world was closed, but we worked hard to prepare. Aldo is a legend. I have only respect for him.”

Yan revealed that he had planned to put pressure on his opponent, tire him out and then attack after the third round.

“That’s exactly what happened,” he said. “In the first and second round, he had hard punches and low kicks. I waited and pressured him. After the second round, I started to work. It was a good knockout. I liked it. My division has very tough fighters in the top five. The nmumber 1 contender is Aljamain Sterling. I will fight everyone. I like it, it’s my job.”

After the main card had kicked off with Amanda Ribas forcing Paige VanZant into a quick submission, one of the most anticipated fights of the night saw Rose Namajunas regain her straw-weight title by defeating Jessica Andrade by a split-decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29), the American having lost the title to her Brazilian rival at UFC 237 in May, 2019.

Rose Namajunas overcame Jessica Andrade at UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi. (Getty Images/ UFC)

“It was fun, man,” Namajunas said. “I was just in the right state of mind. That’s everything. Early on in the fight, I was doing great. Then I think she hit the desperation button and started really unloading. She caught me a couple times, but I just stayed strong.

Namajunas v Andrade was later named the fight of the night.

The prelims had seen Jiri Prochazka, on his UFC debut, showed why he is one of MMA’s most exciting talents by knocking out Volkan Oezdemir; Muslim Salikhov edged Zaleski dos Santos on a split decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28); Marcin Tybura overcame Maxim Grishin; Makwan Amirkhani stopped Dan Henry in the first round; and Leonardo Santos beat Roman Bogatov (29-26, 29-26, 29-26).

In the Early prelims Maxim Grishin of Poland won his heavyweight against Russian  Marcin Tybura (30-27, 30-27, 30-26); Raulian Paiva overcame Zhalgas Zhumagulov (29-28, 29-28, 29-28); Brazilian Karol Rosa defeated compatriot Vanessa Melo (30-26, 30-26, 30-27); and Davey Grant had kicked UFC Fight Island with a knockout win over Martin Day.

UFC Fight Island is set to air three more pay-per-view fight nights on July 15, 18 and 25. All will take place at Flash Forum.