WrestleMania returns with a nod toward WWE’s connection to American football

WrestleMania returns with a nod toward WWE’s connection to American football
WrestleMania 37 will take place in Tampa on April 10-11. (WWE)
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Updated 25 February 2021

WrestleMania returns with a nod toward WWE’s connection to American football

WrestleMania returns with a nod toward WWE’s connection to American football
  • Wrestling’s showpiece event will take place in Tampa on April 10-11

It is exactly a year since WWE Super ShowDown drew thousands of Saudi wrestling fans to Mohammed Abdu Arena on Riyadh Boulevard, and many more on pay-per-view television across the world.

Delighting the crowd was local favorite Mansoor, who defeated American grappler Dolph Ziggler, and WWE legend The Undertaker won the five-man Tuwaiq Trophy Gauntlet match.

Within days, however, the COVID-19 pandemic would bring almost all global sporting activities to a grinding halt.

And yet WrestleMania 36 would somehow go ahead, filmed on March 25-26, 2020 and then broadcast on pay-per-view on April 4-5.

Now WrestleMania 37 is set to return on April 10-11, 2021 with a limited live audience.

This year’s event will take place at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, which recently hosted Super Bowl LV, where hometown team Tampa Bay Buccaneers, inspired by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski – who hosted last year’s WrestleMania – overcame the challenge of Kansas City Chiefs to be crowned champions.

The connection between WWE and American football goes further than that however, with many of the current wrestling superstars having swapped the field for the ring early on in their careers.

As the countdown to WrestleMania 37 begins, we take a look at some of those WWE superstars whose journey to the wrestling ring began on the American football field.

ROMAN REIGNS

Current WWE Universal Champion, and one of the brand’s biggest names, Roman Reigns (real name, Leati Joseph “Joe” Anoa’i), initially set out to reach the NFL, and his performances in college football, for Georgia Institute of Technology’s Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets team, provided him with a fantastic opportunity.

Anoa’i was signed, and subsequently released, by both the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars in 2007, although he was hampered by a serious illness. He then made the switch to the Canadian Football League in 2008, going on to spend a full season with Edmonton Eskimos, before being let go – and subsequently retiring – in 2009.

Reigns has enjoyed a monumental WWE career since signing a contract in 2010, battling it out with many of the brand’s biggest superstars, including the likes of Brock Lesnar, John Cena and The Undertaker, who he inflicted a shock defeat on at WrestleMania 33.

BIG E

Big E (real name, Ettore Ewen) boasted a rich sporting pedigree in not only one, but two, fields prior to joining WWE.

Having enjoyed an impressive college football career, in which he played for the University of Iowa, Ewen’s dreams of becoming professional were cut short due to injury. He then turned his attention to powerlifting, showing such prowess that he went on to become a national champion, breaking a number of records along the way.

He joined WWE after being introduced to commentator Jim Ross, and subsequently given a trial, in 2009. After making his name as part of three-man tag team, The New Day, Big E recently embarked on a solo career in which he has enjoyed huge success, defeating Sami Zayn in December to secure the Intercontinental Championship.

THE USOS

There is no getting away from the fact that twin brothers Jimmy and Jey Uso have a strong WWE family legacy, with their father Rikishi inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, while some of the brand’s biggest names – Roman Reigns, The Rock and Yokazuna – are cousins of the duo.

Their initial plan, however, was to forge a career in American football, and for a while it seemed a possibility. The pair earned partial scholarships to the University of West Alabama in 2003, where they played together at linebacker, but when their progression stalled, they called time on the sport.

They made their WWE main roster debut on RAW in 2010 and have since gone on to become WWE Tag Team Champions, as well as SmackDown Tag Team Champions on multiple occasions.

BRAY WYATT

As a defensive tackle and guard, Bray Wyatt (real name, Windham Lawrence Rotunda) showed great promise during two seasons playing for the College of the Sequoias, impressing to such an extent he earned a football scholarship to Troy University, where he spent two years.

However, harboring dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, Rotunda turned his back on football to focus on achieving his goals in the ring, the pinnacle of his career so far coming in 2017 when he won the WWE Championship at Elimination Chamber.

In more recent times, Wyatt has been best known for the work of his alter ego, “The Fiend,” who captured the Universal Championship on two separate occasions, overcoming formidable opponents such as Seth Rollins and Braun Strowman along the way.

TITUS O’NEIL

After starring in college football, where he represented Florida Gators for three years between 1997 and 2000, Titus O’Neil made the step up to the AFL, playing for the likes of Utah Blaze, Tampa Bay Storm and Carolina Cobras, as well as trying out for the Jacksonville Jaguars, only for injury to prevent him from showing his undoubted qualities and cutting his career short.

In 2009, he signed a developmental contract with WWE, learning his trade with Florida Championship Wrestling before competing in the second season of WWE NXT. O’Neil went on to become WWE’s inaugural 24/7 Champion and secured the Tag Team Title as part of The Prime Time Players alongside Darren Young.

As a competitor on Monday Night RAW, one of WWE’s key brands, O’Neill has certainly come a long way since swapping the football field for the wrestling ring.

BROCK LESNAR

As a former WWE and UFC Champion, it is fair to say that Brock Lesnar does not have much to prove in the world of sport.

But in 2004, Lesnar put his WWE career on the backburner to pursue his dream of joining the NFL. Unfortunately, early on in his journey, Lesnar was involved in a road collision which left him with a broken jaw, bruised pelvis and pulled groin.

He still managed to impress to the point where he signed with Minnesota Vikings and played a series of pre-season matches but, hampered by the groin injury sustained in the crash, he was released just over a month later.

GOLDBERG

Having caught the eye during his appearances for the University of Georgia’s football team, Goldberg (real name, William Goldberg) reached the dizzy heights of the NFL when he was selected by Los Angeles Rams in the 1990 NFL Draft.

It was with the Atlanta Falcons that he enjoyed his most fruitful period in the NFL, featuring semi-regularly for the side over the course of a three-year period, before his career was curtailed due to an abdomen injury.

After learning his trade in the ring, Goldberg became one of WCW’s most iconic stars, before joining WWE for a short spell in 2003. He returned for a second stint in 2016, embarking on a lengthy feud with Lesnar, who he faced at WrestleMania 33.

Most recently, Goldberg locked horns with Drew McIntire at Royal Rumble for the WWE Championship in November, ultimately losing out to the Scotsman.

WrestleMania 37 can be watched exclusively via WWE Network in the MENA region.


Mo Salah announced as new Egypt captain

Mo Salah announced as new Egypt captain
Updated 19 April 2021

Mo Salah announced as new Egypt captain

Mo Salah announced as new Egypt captain
  • National team head coach Hossam El-Badry has named Mohamed Salah the new captain of Egypt
  • El-Badry said it was vital to introduce more stability to the national team squad, including on the leadership side

Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah has been announced as the new captain of Egypt’s national team by head coach Hossam El-Badry.

The news was posted in a statement on the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) Facebook page. Senior players in the Egypt squad were asked about the decision and gave their full support.

El-Badry said that it was “vital to introduce more stability” to the national team, including on the leadership side.

He added that the main goal for EFA technical teams in the coming months is to ensure that Egypt qualifies for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Salah has been one of Liverpool’s most succesful players since joining in summer 2017. He helped the club secure a sixth Champions League title by scoring the opening goal in the final against Tottenham in 2019.

A year later, he played a key role in the team that won Liverpool’s first English Premier League title in 30 years.

The 28-year-old forward, who has also represented Arab Contractors, Basel, Chelsea, Fiorentina and Roma, helped Egypt qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the country’s first appearance in the competition since 1990.

An infamous shoulder injury in the 2018 Champions League Final against Real Madrid, however, meant that he only played a peripheral role when the World Cup began in Russia. Despite lacking fitness and form, he managed to score Egypt’s only two goals in a disappointing tournament for the African nation.


Mahdi Ali praises Al-Hilal after his injury-hit Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai team suffered AFC Champions League loss

Mahdi Ali praises Al-Hilal after his injury-hit Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai team suffered AFC Champions League loss
Updated 19 April 2021

Mahdi Ali praises Al-Hilal after his injury-hit Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai team suffered AFC Champions League loss

Mahdi Ali praises Al-Hilal after his injury-hit Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai team suffered AFC Champions League loss
  • The Emirati club now finds itself at the bottom of Group A after two rounds of matches

DUBAI: Shabab Al-Ahli coach Mahdi Ali has blamed his team’s long list of absentees for the 3-1 defeat to Al-Hilal, at the same time giving credit to the Saudi team and promising that he and his players will be doing their best to turn around their fortunes in the remaining AFC Champions League group stage matches.

Having drawn 0-0 in the opening match against Istiklol of Tajikistan, Shabab Al-Ahli was comfortably beaten by the Saudi champions at Prince Faisal bin Fahad Stadium in Riyadh and now finds itself bottom of Group A.

"I congratulate Al-Hilal, who played a good match and deserved to win,” Mahdi Ali said.

“For us, we were missing a number of players due to injuries, and we also suffered from a lot of intercepted passes, which made things more difficult for us."

“This is football and we hope that we will make up for that in the next match,” he added.

“We had the desire to compensate and we continued to try until the final minutes, when we wasted two chances. We suffered physically because the team has played a large number of domestic matches over the last month, as we are competing in many competitions, and we were also affected by the circumstances of the month of Ramadan.”

“We must put this match behind us and start thinking about the next one, as our chances (of qualification to the next round) are still alive with four matches remaining for the team, but we must work to avoid the mistakes that happened in the match.”

The third round of group stage matches will be played on Wednesday, when the Shabab Al-Ahli will meet with AGMK of Uzbekistan, while Al-Hilal will take on Istiklol.

On Thursday, the first round had seen Al-Hilal draw 2-2 with AGMK while Istiklol played out a stalemate with Shabab Al-Ahli.

Only the top team from each group is guaranteed progress to the knock-out stages, with the six second-placed teams with the best records joining them.


Tottenham fires manager Jose Mourinho

Tottenham fires manager Jose Mourinho
Updated 19 April 2021

Tottenham fires manager Jose Mourinho

Tottenham fires manager Jose Mourinho
  • Mourinho took over in November 2019
  • His firing comes with seventh-place Tottenham outside the Champions League places but with a League Cup final against Manchester City on Sunday

LONDON: Tottenham has fired manager Jose Mourinho, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press on Monday.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been made public by Tottenham.
Mourinho took over in November 2019. His firing comes with seventh-place Tottenham outside the Champions League places but with a League Cup final against Manchester City on Sunday.


5 talking points from Saudi clubs’ return to form in AFC Champions League group stage

5 talking points from Saudi clubs’ return to form in AFC Champions League group stage
Updated 19 April 2021

5 talking points from Saudi clubs’ return to form in AFC Champions League group stage

5 talking points from Saudi clubs’ return to form in AFC Champions League group stage
  • Second round of matches sees wins for Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr while Al-Ahli recover from mauling to claim first point

RIYADH: Two down and four to go. The group stage of the AFC Champions League is starting to take shape and already there are teams that have an awful lot to do if they are to maintain their presence in the tournament going into the knockout stage.

Some are looking good and the feeling around the Al-Nassr camp has improved massively after a 3-1 win over Al-Sadd, one of the favorites for the competition. Al-Hilal collected three points with a comfortable 2-0 win over Shabab Al-Ahli while Al-Ahli bounced back from their opening game mauling to take a 1-1 draw with Al-Duhail.

Here are five things we learned from the second round of matches.

1. Menezes gives Xavi a coaching lesson

Al-Sadd had not lost for 24 games heading into the clash with Al-Nassr. They won the Qatar Stars League without losing a game and with a goal difference of plus 63, which is incredible enough, but when the season is just 22 games long it really is something special. Yet Al-Nassr fully deserved to win.

Abderrazak Hamdallah scored the opening goal from the spot, but after Santi Cazorla equalized on the hour, the Saudi team’s players kept their nerve, their shape, and their discipline and hit the erratic Qatari team on the counter thanks to the intelligent movement and hard work of their forward line.

With the help of two well-timed substitutions, it was a strategy that bore fruit and two goals followed that put the hosts in with a great chance of the second round.

Al-Nassr coach Mano Menezes has not had much time to work with the players but on this performance, there should be more to come even if fans should not get carried away by being the first team to defeat Al-Sadd this year.

2. Al-Breik stars for clinical Al-Hilal

After a somewhat disappointing opening game, Al-Hilal stepped it up a level against Shabab Al-Ahli.

Star foreign players Bafetimbi Gomis and Andre Carrillo grabbed the headlines with their very well-taken goals in the first half but Mohammed Al-Breik deserves plenty of credit. The Saudi international created both in a perfect example of how a right-back should get forward in the modern game.

The first was a delicious cross that was whipped in behind the Dubai team’s defense with Gomis on hand to sweep home from close range. The second came from deeper but found Carrillo in space just inside the area and the Peruvian international made no mistake with a fine swivel and shot. Both goals were easy on the eye and the defender played a huge part.

3. Al-Owais, Al-Somah give Al-Ahli hope

After seven straight defeats, a 1-1 draw will lift some of the gloom surrounding the Jeddah club. It was snatched in the final minutes against Al-Duhail who had largely dominated proceedings.

The Qataris struggled however to find a way past Mohammed Al-Owais. The goalkeeper dealt with everything that was thrown at him to keep the score line down to a minimum. Shot after shot came in and there he was tipping deflections over the bar and getting down well to push headers around the foot of the post.

It was due to such heroics that Omar Al-Somah’s last-gasp goal, which came after an overhead kick assist from defender Motaz Hawsawi, earned a much-needed point to break that dismal losing streak.

4. Strikers come to the fore

It may well be that none of the Saudi teams are firing on all cylinders at the moment, but it will be pleasing to fans that their star strikers have all scored already.

If Al-Hilal are going to go all the way and get a record fourth title, then they are going to need the goals of Gomis, and the French forward is looking hungry and dangerous.

Hamdallah was one of the stars of the 2020 tournament and while the Moroccan has not looked as lethal this year, to get on the scoresheet will be an immense relief for both player and coach. Al-Nassr need him if they are to get out of a difficult group.

And then there is Al-Somah. There has been a lot written about the Syrian striker this season but whatever has happened behind the scenes, three goals in two games speaks for itself. If one of the best strikers in Asia continues to score, then Al-Ahli have a chance.

5. Next comes the crunch

The next two games can make or break a team’s chances as they come against the same opposition. Al-Nassr are level on four points with Foolad of Iran. If the Riyadh giants can come out on top over these back-to-back clashes, then they really can start to think about the next stage.

Al-Hilal take on Tajikistan powerhouse Istiklol who are going to make things very tough. The new boys in the competition have also managed four points from the opening two games thanks to some solid defending. Al-Hilal have the firepower however and can take control of the group.

And as for Al-Ahli, there are twin games with Al-Shorta of Iraq. These will not be easy, even if Al-Shorta are regarded as the weakest team in the group, but they do offer a perfect chance to pick up a win and start challenging at the top of the table.


European soccer split as 12 clubs launch breakaway Super League

European soccer split as 12 clubs launch breakaway Super League
Updated 19 April 2021

European soccer split as 12 clubs launch breakaway Super League

European soccer split as 12 clubs launch breakaway Super League
  • Real Madrid president Florentino Perez would be the founding chairman of the Super League
  • UEFA has threatened to bar from any competition clubs who join the breakaway league

LONDON: A group of 12 elite English, Spanish and Italian clubs dramatically split European soccer on Sunday by announcing the formation of a largely-closed Super League. They are leaving the existing UEFA-run Champions League structure despite warnings they could be kicked out of their domestic competitions and face legal action.
The seismic move to shake up the world’s biggest sport is partly engineered by the American owners of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United who also run US franchises in closed leagues — a model they are trying to replicate in Europe.
The power-play came after the rebel clubs reneged on a promise on Friday to back the plan by UEFA — European football’s governing body — to expand the Champions League beginning in 2024. The deal was designed to appease their wishes for more games, seemingly because they couldn’t control the sale of rights to the existing competition.
The Super League plan was first leaked in January but re-emerged this weekend.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez would be the founding chairman of the SL, which said it “intended to commence as soon as practicable” as a 20-team competition playing in midweek like the current Champions League and Europa League.
“We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world,” Perez said in a statement. “Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.”
No evidence was presented that supporters want a Super League. Fan groups across Europe last week criticized even the current Champions League expansion plan as a “power grab.”
Only 12 clubs have signed up for now — with none from France or Germany — but the SL hopes for three more as permanent members. Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are the other founding members, along with Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Five slots would be left open to be determined each year based on the previous season’s results.
UEFA warned clubs that joining the “cynical project” based on self-interest would see them banned from playing in any other competition — domestic, European or global. It said their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams.
The statement was issued jointly with the leagues and national governing bodies from England, Spain and Italy.
England has the most clubs with the six including Chelsea and Manchester City, who are due to contest a Champions League semifinals this month. Also included is Tottenham, which is outside of the Premier League’s top four to qualify for the Champions League next season,
“By bringing together the world’s greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities, and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid,” said Joel Glazer, co-owner of Manchester United and SL vice chairman.
Another vice chairman of the new competition would be Andrea Agenlli who on Sunday night quit his role as chairman of the European Club Association, which was working with UEFA on enlarging the Champions League to 36 teams. Agenlli also resigned as a member of the executive committee of UEFA — rupturing his previously-close friendship with the governing body’s president, Aleksander Ceferin.
The UEFA leader has been determined not to grant more control of the sale of television and commercial rights to the clubs.
“We have come together at this critical moment,” Agnelli said, “enabling European competition to be transformed, putting the game we love on a sustainable footing for the long-term future, substantially increasing solidarity, and giving fans and amateur players a regular flow of headline fixtures.”
The rebel clubs are all members of the ECA which has a working agreement with UEFA, signed in 2019, which commits all its members to take part in and respect the Champions League and other European competitions through the 2023-24 season.
While FIFA issued a statement in January warning that players in a Super League could be banned from the World Cup, the world governing body has not denied that its president, Gianni Infantino, has been involved in the breakaway talks with officials, including Real Madrid’s Perez.
“FIFA can only express its disapproval to a ‘closed European breakaway league’ outside of the international football structures,” the world body said in a statement on Sunday while not answering questions about any role by Infantino.
The Premier League said the Super League would “undermine the appeal of the whole game” by going against the principles of open competition. There was even an intervention by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who warned that a Super League would be “very damaging.”
The Super League confirmed on Sunday that each of the 15 founding members would get a share of at least 3.5 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in initial infrastructure grants.
The AP previously reported that this money would be split among four tiers of clubs, with the top six each getting 350 million euros ($420 million). The competition would begin with two groups of 10 teams, with the top three from each group advancing to the quarterfinals. The teams finishing fourth and fifth would be involved in a playoff to complete the last-eight lineup. The knockout phase would still feature two-legged quarterfinals and semifinals before a single fixture final.
The previously-reported Super League proposal hoped to generate 4 billion euros ($4.86 billion) annually from broadcasters.
In comparison, UEFA said the total commercial revenue was 3.25 billion euros ($3.9 billion) for each of the past three seasons from selling the rights to the Champions League, Europa League and UEFA Super Cup.
For the 2021-24 sales cycle, UEFA is expected to sell around $14 billion in broadcast and sponsor deals for its club competitions, which includes the new third-tier Europa Conference League.
Those sales were completed worldwide on the legal commitment of top clubs to play according to the UEFA-ECA accord. Any breach of the cooperation deal would likely lead to legal threats and suits.
“We will consider all measures available to us, at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent this happening,” UEFA said of the Super League. “Football is based on open competitions and sporting merit; it cannot be any other way.”