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.


Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan
Updated 22 April 2021

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan
  • Three goals in 24 minutes saw Abu Dhabi team claim all three points against Qatari opponents

RIYADH: Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate has revealed his delight with his players’ attitude after the Abu Dhabi team on Tuesday recovered from a two-goal deficit to defeat Al-Rayyan SC 3-2 in Group E of the 2021 AFC Champions League.

Fares Juma’s stoppage-time winner secured Al-Wahda their first win of the campaign, taking them to second in the group on four points, five behind leaders Persepolis who defeated FC Goa 2-1 in the other Tuesday match.

Dutchman ten Cate praised his players for the fightback that saw three goals in 24 minutes dramatically defeat their Qatari opponents.

Speaking to the AFC official website, he said: “I’m a proud man. Especially to see where we are coming from. We had to play with a man down in the last 15 minutes and needed some luck. You need to have luck to win games and we had some today.

“I brought in a few players late in the second half and one of them was a 16-year-old (Awadh Mohamed). Then suddenly something changed within the team. Those players changed the way the game was played. They brought some renewed energy to the team and scored one goal.

“I’m extremely proud of my team, I know how much this win means to them. We have injured players, with little rest to restore our strength and I’m really happy with their team effort. Everybody in the UAE should be proud,” he added.

Al-Rayyan were the better side for most of the first half but started to fade after the break, and another collapse followed after a similar one against Persepolis.

After another three goals were conceded having taken the lead, Al-Rayyan find themselves at the bottom of Group E with coach Laurent Blanc admitting that the latest defeat to Al-Wahda has made things more difficult for the club’s progress into the Round of 16.

“It was a disaster. Honestly, I felt we played well. It was incredible the way we played. But we made some mistakes and conceded goals,” Blanc told the AFC website.

“I think both teams wanted to play good football and as you can see it was not a boring match. At the end of the day, to lose the match at this stage of the competition makes things complicated for us.

“If anyone saw us up by two goals, it should be 3-0 and then game over. But instead, we conceded and lost the match. That is football,” the Frenchman said.

Al-Rayyan will have a chance to make amends when the two teams square off again on Friday.


5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
Updated 22 April 2021

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
  • Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr edge closer to knockout stages while Al-Ahli finale claimed first win

RIYADH: At the halfway stage of the AFC Champions League plenty has happened for the three Saudi Arabian representatives and all are in with a chance of making the next stage.

In the latest round of matches, Al-Nassr drew 1-1 with Foolad of Iran to stay top of a tight Group D with five points; Al-Hilal defeated Tajikistan’s Istiklol 3-1 to go three points clear at the top of Group A; and Al-Ahli picked up a 3-0 win over Al-Shorta of Iraq and now have four points in Group C.

Here are five things we learned about Matchday Three.

1. There is a danger of recent history repeating itself

It is just a few months since Al-Hilal were forced to withdraw from the group stage of the 2020 AFC Champions League after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tore through the squad and staff.

Al-Nassr are not at that stage yet but the fact that five players and four other members of the club have tested positive is of huge concern to everyone. If it gets worse, then there is a real danger that the nine-time Saudi Arabian champions could be out.

As coach Mano Menezes pointed out, it is not just about the players who have contracted COVID-19, there are psychological effects among those who are still playing. “We must find new ways to compensate for the absence of players due to the coronavirus,” the Brazilian boss said.

“I am concerned about the effect on the players psychologically, and on the group as well and that is something that we have to think about.”

2. From now it is all about fitness and squad depth

Six games in the space of 15 days are going to be a punishing schedule especially given the time of year and the conditions in Saudi Arabia. Now the real tests come.

There is no time for training, just rest, recovery, and preparation. Coaches will have to rotate and will need to use all their experience to get the best out of their squads. Those with the strongest benches will have the best chance of getting through.

Tractor FC head coach Rasoul Khatibi spoke for many after his team’s 0-0 draw with Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.

“After the 70th minute our players were exhausted and both teams had to stay focused to see it through. For the next match, we will make sure we have a quick recovery to avoid this experience of losing energy in the latter part of the game. The team with the better recovery will have a better chance in the next match,” he said.

3. Hattan Bahebri steps forward for Al-Hilal

The encouraging thing for the three-time champions is that various players have stepped forward in the games so far. That was the case in the 3-1 win over Istiklol.

It was always going to be that the Tajikistan powerhouse would sit back and allow the Saudi champions possession, and it was used to very good effect by Hattan Bahebri who set up the opener and then grabbed two goals of his own. Both were delightful finishes. The first saw the winger cut inside on the edge of the area and the second was a cheeky chip that was worthy of winning any game.

A repeat performance against the same team on Saturday will leave Al-Hilal with one foot in the second round and Bahebri an even brighter reputation.

4. Al-Nassr show what they are made of

It was not a surprise that Al-Nassr were not as impressive in their 1-1 draw with Foolad as when defeating Al-Sadd three days earlier.

Injuries and absences took their toll and given that, it was a decent performance, and they were perhaps a little unlucky not to collect three points against solid Iranian opposition.

The goal conceded was a little weak and could have been avoided had usual No. 1 Brad Jones been available.

Once again, coach Mano Menezes looked to hit the opposition on the counter as much as possible and had the finishing been a little better and the Iranian goalkeeper not made a couple of excellent saves, then three points could have been taken.

If Al-Nassr can avoid losing more players due to COVID-19 and continue playing this way, then a place in the second round is very much within reach.

5. Al-Ahli break the streak

After 10 games without a win, a dismal run that included seven defeats, Al-Ahli finally tasted victory with a 3-0 victory over Al-Shorta of Iraq.

The opposition may have been the weakest team in the group but had the Saudi team failed to win it would have been hard to see a way back in the group.

It was a nervy start but once the Jeddah club took the lead, they looked fairly comfortable and saw the game out.

The question is, what happens next? Can Al-Ahli actually make it out of the group? Just challenging would be a step in the right direction. Another win against the same opposition would put the three-time Saudi champions right in the mix.

That would mean they would have to get something against Al-Duhail and Esteghlal, but the confidence would be there and there would be a chance. That is the ideal scenario and gets the team back on track.


Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia
Updated 22 April 2021

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia
  • Earlier this month, franchise owner Javed Afridi challenged the Saudi cricket team to a friendly match

KARACHI: Players from the Pakistan Super League (PSL) franchise, Peshawar Zalmi, have said they were excited to be “the first team from Pakistan” to play a friendly match in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month, franchise owner Javed Afridi wished the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF) the best over its media partnership with Arab News, and challenged the Saudi cricket team to play a friendly match against Peshawar Zalmi. SACF accepted the challenge. A date for the match has yet to be announced.

Peshawar Zalmi have won the title of Pakistan’s hugely popular Pakistan Super League once, and been a runner-up twice since the tournament’s launch in 2016. Arab News Pakistan has been an international media partner for Peshawar Zalmi since 2020.

“This will be the first team of Pakistan to go and play in Saudi Arabia,” Kamran Akmal, a wicket-keeper batsman who opens the innings for the team, told Arab News in an interview last week.

“International players will come (to Saudi Arabia) to play cricket. So, they will also get experience ... This is a good sign when players like Wahab Riaz (Peshawar Zalmi captain) and international players like Saqib (English bowler) will go there ... their young players will get good experience.”

“They (Saudi Arabia) will get to know how to improve cricket, how the environment should be, how other teams play, so it’s a good sign for Saudi cricket,” Akmal added.

Speaking to Arab News, Peshawar Zalmi captain Riaz said a friendly match between his team and the Saudi team would be a “great opportunity.”

“It’s really good that a country like Saudi Arabia is taking interest in cricket, because they are well known for football mostly. So, it’s a great challenge for us as well. And it’s going to be a fun game, honestly, to play against the Saudis, so they will get some experience as well,” Riaz added.

He said he hoped Saudi Arabia would develop a good team in the coming years and that Peshawar Zalmi would have some role to play in their development.

“Because in Peshawar Zalmi, you know, a lot of Pakistan and international players are playing. So that will give them (Saudi team) some confidence, that will give them some experience,” Riaz said. “And then I think with the passage of time, they will start working on their skills and they will become better.”

Sending a message to the around 2.6 million Pakistanis who live in Saudi Arabia, Riaz invited them to come and watch Peshawar Zalmi play Saudi Arabia.

“My message to them is that they should come, they should see us, they should support both of us, even Saudi Arabia team,” the team captain said. “They can take that entertainment and excitement which they have been missing from the last few years. The message is they should always come support both the teams and enjoy the game.”

In March, Pakistan suspended the PSL tournament after seven team personnel tested positive for COVID-19. The series is expected to resume in June.


Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus

Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus
Updated 21 April 2021

Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus

Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus
  • The Super League promised guaranteed entry for its founding clubs and billions of dollars in payments

LONDON: The two Milan giants and Atletico Madrid followed all six English Premier League clubs in pulling out of the European Super League on Wednesday, dealing a fatal blow to the project.

The withdrawals by Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham came just 48 hours after the league’s unveiling late on Sunday following a furious response from fans and officials.

The three Italian clubs involved — Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan — admitted defeat and La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid also pulled out.

Real Madrid and Barcelona  — the last of the initial group of 12 clubs to sign up — have yet to make any comment but the project in its current form is dead in the water.

AC Milan were one of the main drivers behind the plans, having missed out on the Champions League for the past seven seasons.

The seven-time European champions said change was necessary due to the changing football landscape but admitted they “must be sensitive to the voice of those who love this wonderful sport.” 

Italian champions Juventus said they remained “convinced of the soundness of the project’s sport, commercial and legal premises” but accepted it could not go ahead in its original form.

The Super League promised guaranteed entry for its founding clubs and billions of dollars in payments. Most of the clubs have huge debts and wage bills, and suffered a sharp drop in revenues during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the project was vehemently opposed across the football spectrum, from fans to players, coaches, politicians and UEFA and FIFA, the European and world football bodies.

The clubs were threatened with a ban from domestic and European football, while their players could even have been barred from representing their countries.

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin struck a conciliatory tone on Wednesday, saying he wanted to “rebuild the unity” of European football, and described the English clubs as “back in the fold.” 

“I said yesterday that it is admirable to admit a mistake and these clubs made a big mistake,” Ceferin said in a statement.

“But they are back in the fold now and I know they have a lot to offer not just to our competitions but to the whole of the European game.

“The important thing now is that we move on, rebuild the unity that the game enjoyed before this and move forward together.”

Shares in Juventus plunged by more than 13 percent on Wednesday following a slump in the value of Manchester United stocks.

In response to the English pullouts, the Super League had said it was looking for ways to “reshape,”  insisting the “status quo of European football needs to change”.

“We shall reconsider the most appropriate steps to reshape the project,” its statement said.

Liverpool owner John W Henry apologized for his part in the planned Super League after club captain Jordan Henderson said the players did not want it to happen.

“I want to apologize to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club for the disruption I caused over the last 48 hours,” the American said in a video posted on the club’s Twitter site.


Female board member sets sights on achieving corporate governance with Al-Shabab

Female board member sets sights on achieving corporate governance with Al-Shabab
Updated 21 April 2021

Female board member sets sights on achieving corporate governance with Al-Shabab

Female board member sets sights on achieving corporate governance with Al-Shabab
  • First-ever female board member at Al-Shabab, Reem Al-Zamil, believes clubs should be managed with an investor’s mentality
  • Al-Zamil sees the Saudi sports market as a place of opportunity, which she encourages young women and men to explore

RIYADH: Reem Khalid Al-Zamil, the first-ever female board member at Al-Shabab Football Club, believes that women attaining similar positions should no longer be seen as unusual, adding that Saudi women today are empowered in all fields thanks to the government of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

She thanked Minister of Sports Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal and President of the Al-Shabab Football Club Khalid Al-Baltan for placing their trust in her.

Al-Zamil is a management professional with over 16 years of experience in strategy formulation, PMO set up, E-services and digital platforms, and above all is interested in youth development and working toward a digital economy.

Last month, the Saudi Ministry of Sports approved Al-Zamil’s appointment as a board member of Al-Shabab, a team enjoying a hugely successful Saudi Professional League season in which they are second only to champions Al-Hilal on goal difference.

“Al-Shabab recently launched a strategy, identifying a number of goals it seeks to achieve,” Al-Zamil said. “The goals were translated into several projects. The club has achieved significant accomplishments and is being managed in the same way as a corporation. It aims to be iconic in terms of investment and corporate social responsibility, in addition to its role in sports.”

Al-Zamil said that among the board’s tasks and priorities will be the governance of all aspects of the club to ensure its continued success and foster an environment that helps the team achieve its goals.

She added that with women playing bigger roles in all fields thanks to the support of the government, many have excelled and become leaders in the sports sector.

Al-Zamil also highlighted the spate of legal cases raised overseas, which have seen several Saudi clubs suffer sanctions and fines, saying: “These problems can be resolved if a club is managed with an investor’s mentality and a culture of corporate work is created in the environment. Roles, responsibilities and powers must be clearly defined, and there must be a clear governance framework that can be used to manage risks and prevent any financial or administration problems, or at least set alternative plans to manage and reduce losses as much as possible.”

The Kingdom views the sports sector as playing a vital role in driving social change and contributing to social welfare and economic growth, she explained.

This is evident in the different government initiatives and projects that are focused on creating a sports and entertaining system that is sustainable, Al-Zamil said, adding that today’s sports industry includes electronic gaming and adventure sports. 

“The sports sector is one that can increase national income and have a positive impact in terms of developing the national economy through hosting championships, sports conferences and other events, and holding exclusive rights for broadcasting and sponsorships,” she said. “It is also a part of many other sectors such as health, education, tourism and entertainment.”

Al-Zamil insists that Saudi women are qualified, ambitious and capable, and soon she fully expects some of them to be chairwomen of boards in several sectors and not only of sports clubs.

She also sees the Saudi sports market as a place of opportunity, which she encourages young women and men to explore. According to Al-Zamil, the market needs people, including academics and accelerators, who are specialized in sports to work in sports journalism, marketing, tourism and investment.