Belal Muhammad proud to display Palestinian roots in bid to upset Demian Maia at UFC

Belal Muhammad proud to display Palestinian roots in bid to upset Demian Maia at UFC
Belal Muhammad on his way to win in three rounds over Dhiego Lima at UFC 258. (UFC)
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Updated 08 June 2021

Belal Muhammad proud to display Palestinian roots in bid to upset Demian Maia at UFC

Belal Muhammad proud to display Palestinian roots in bid to upset Demian Maia at UFC
  • Chicago-based fighter goes into UFC 263 on back of 8 wins from 9 bouts

RIYADH: In the early hours of Sunday morning, June 13, Belal Muhammad will step into the famous UFC Octagon to take on the world’s 10th-ranked welterweight Demian Maia of Brazil. And two things will be on his mind.

First, considering the global platform of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) 263 and caliber of his opponent, the Chicago-born and based fighter will have the biggest opportunity yet to showcase his skills to the world.

And second, it is likely he will raise the flag of Palestine at the end of the fight.

Muhammad, as similar displays in previous fights have shown, is very proud of his family’s Palestinian roots.

The 32-year-old said: “For me now, I have a voice for the voiceless. There aren’t a lot of Palestinian athletes that have a stage or platform where they can carry the flag. And now, especially during these times, I need to carry that flag higher than ever. To show the world that we do exist, that we are a country, and there are real people there.

“For me it means a lot now, you’re fighting for more, now I have a voice for people that don’t have a voice, for people that the world wants you to forget about. So, if I keep shining a light on that, raising their morale, raising their hearts, I’m going to do whatever I can.”

He goes into the fight on the back of a five-win streak, and for the first time this year will be fighting in front of a live audience.

“I had a long training camp, I’m feeling good. It’s going to be my third fight of the year. I love being active so that will help me a lot and I just can’t wait to fight in front of fans again.

“The energy’s going to be different there, I’m excited, I’m ready to go. It’s a big fight, a big name, and I’m ready to make my name off him,” Muhammad added.

Despite the disruptions of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Muhammad has maintained a steady training regime and, with life slowly returning to normal, he sees more exciting days ahead.

“The training at first was a little bit difficult, because Chicago locked down. Chicago, or the police, wouldn’t let us work out in the gym so my training had to be in the garage, or we would train with the power off in the gym whenever I had fights. But now it’s starting to open up.

“Fighting without fans was a lot different. It’s a different kind of energy, you get so much from the fans, and hearing the crowd cheer or boo, it means so much and I feel like it does so much for me. Three fights without the fans was kind of weird but I got used to it by the end of it,” he said.

The last time Muhammad fought in front of fans was at UFC 242, which took place on Sept. 7, 2019, in Abu Dhabi.

“That was the last time I fought with fans, and honestly that was literally the best time. The cheering I got over there was amazing. Because when I fight here in the US, I get a lot more boos. But over there, there was not one boo, everybody was cheering me, I was the home team and that felt good,” he added.

The support from Arab mixed martial arts audiences is something that he is grateful for and feels that UFC’s rising popularity in the Middle East can only encourage more local fighters to take it up.

Muhammad said: “Honestly, it’s amazing, when you see Irish fans supporting (Conor) McGregor or Mexican fans supporting their people, we’re having Arab fans now that are starting to watch UFC and starting to pay attention to the sport.

“We’re starting to have a lot more Arab athletes in the sport, because like I tell people all the time, Arabs, we might not be the most athletic, but we have the most heart, and the will, more than anyone else. So, we’re the best fighters. I think now the world is starting to realize that, and UFC is starting to realize it.

“There’s really a lot of talent in the Middle East, and it’s about (showing) those younger kids out there that it’s possible to make it to UFC or be an athlete,” he added.

“In the old days, that was never the case, everybody maybe would play soccer or something like that, but nobody thought of being on ESPN, being a fighter, being one of those guys that kids look up to. So now I represent a bigger cause, I want kids to look at me and say I have to be like that one day.”

A win against Maia will get him further up the welterweight rankings and Muhammad is happy to bide his time in the coming months and years to get to the top.

He said: “(My ambition) is staying on an upward trajectory. I don’t need to rush, I don’t need to jump to a title shot or anything like that, I just want to keep levelling up.

“I won eight of my last nine fights and this is going to be the first ranked opponent they’ve given me. Now, I’m showing them that I belong in the top 10, showing them that I’m one of these top guys that should be fighting for a title one day, or could be fighting for a title one day.

“I had to prove it fight by fight, I had to show the world that here’s another one who’s going to be a challenge for (Kamaru) Usman (Nigerian-US fighter), that there’s another name out there that you’re going to be talking about,” he added.

Middle East fans can catch UFC 263 live on the UFC Arabia app, available for download from the App Store and Google Play Store
 


Sudanese judoka sent home from Olympics for not facing Israeli athlete

Israel’s Tohar Butbul in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics 73-kilogram division. (Reuters)
Israel’s Tohar Butbul in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics 73-kilogram division. (Reuters)
Updated 50 min 26 sec ago

Sudanese judoka sent home from Olympics for not facing Israeli athlete

Israel’s Tohar Butbul in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics 73-kilogram division. (Reuters)
  • The International Judo Foundation didn’t immediately announce a reason why Abdalrasool didn’t compete

TOKYO: A second judo athlete has dropped out of the Olympics before facing Israel’s Tohar Butbul in the 73-kilogram division.

Olympic officials say Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool didn’t show up to face Butbul in their round of 32 bout Monday despite weighing in for the bout earlier.

The International Judo Foundation didn’t immediately announce a reason why Abdalrasool didn’t compete, and the governing body didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Sudanese Olympic officials also didn’t immediately comment.

Algeria’s Fethi Nourine was sent home from the Tokyo Games and suspended by the IJF on Saturday after he withdrew to avoid a potential round of 32 matchup with Butbul. Nourine was supposed to face Abdalrasool for the right to meet Butbul.

Nourine later said his actions were a protest against Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Abdalrasool is the world’s 469th-ranked judoka in his weight class, while the accomplished Butbul is seventh.

Nourine also quit the World Judo Championships in 2019 right before he was scheduled to face Butbul.


Tennis star Naomi Osaka crashes out of Tokyo Olympics

Tennis star Naomi Osaka crashes out of Tokyo Olympics
Updated 27 July 2021

Tennis star Naomi Osaka crashes out of Tokyo Olympics

Tennis star Naomi Osaka crashes out of Tokyo Olympics
  • The 23-year-old had not played since May, when she walked out of the French Open saying media commitments were harming her mental health

TOKYO: Japanese star Naomi Osaka crashed out of the Tokyo Olympics tennis competition on Tuesday as Brazil’s Italo Ferreira and America’s Carissa Moore claimed the first-ever gold medals in surfing.
Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremony, lost 6-1, 6-4 to Marketa Vondrousova after an error-strewn performance, ending her cherished dream of winning on home soil.
The 23-year-old — one of the faces of the Tokyo Games — had not played since May, when she walked out of the French Open saying media commitments were harming her mental health.
The second seed will be bitterly disappointed at missing out on a chance of Olympic gold, especially after the early exits of world number one Ashleigh Barty and third seed Aryna Sabalenka.
“How disappointed am I? I mean, I’m disappointed in every loss, but I feel like this one sucks more than the others,” said the four-time Grand Slam-winner.
Asked what went wrong, she replied: “Everything — if you watch the match then you would probably see. I feel like there’s a lot of things that I counted on that I couldn’t rely on today.”


How boxing clever during COVID-19 lockdown helped Dubai gym emerge fighting fit

How boxing clever during COVID-19 lockdown helped Dubai gym emerge fighting fit
Updated 27 July 2021

How boxing clever during COVID-19 lockdown helped Dubai gym emerge fighting fit

How boxing clever during COVID-19 lockdown helped Dubai gym emerge fighting fit
  • Founder of dedicated Real Boxing Only turns to franchising as city residents fuel expansion plans

RIYADH: One year ago, the idea would have been unthinkable: Michelle Kuehn, founder of Dubai’s Real Boxing Only (RBO), in her Al-Quoz office fielding questions about franchising the gym dedicated solely to the noble art.

That she can even talk about it after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic nearly devastated the business she started in 2018 is a testament to the resilience of her and her staff. And, above all, people’s desire to re-embrace exercise, and embrace boxing, during a year like no other.

For Kuehn, the response after the lockdown was lifted and many restrictions eased would eventually exceed all expectations, but for business owners such as her, it was a situation they had never experienced before.

She said: “I wouldn’t say it was back to normal at all, especially in June 2020. Although we were allowed 50 percent capacity, we were probably only running at 30 percent. We found that a lot of people, although keen to go out, were afraid to go to the gym, being around others was definitely at the back of their minds.”

At first, the customers came back slowly, dipping their toes into uncharted waters, but their welcome return would not be, on its own, enough to ameliorate the financial hit that RBO had taken.

“The good news is we have a lot of loyal customers, so they were here first day, ready with their masks on. We had a lot of restrictions, so we had to redo the entire gym to make everything two meters apart which meant taking out boxing bags, moving treadmills. Class capacity was so small. By the end of June, I almost considered closing because we weren’t going to make it if we continued like that,” Kuehn added.

Real Boxing Only has seen an increase in new memberships in 2021. (RBO)

“Then I decided that was just not going to happen. So, we worked really hard from July to September, and in October I had a consultant come in and talk about the best ways to approach growth at a time that you can’t really grow because you can’t have that many people in your gym.

“So, I doubled down on classes. Instead of having one at 6.30, one at 7.30, I’d run three at 6.30. They were spaced out, smaller classes but at least I was running the same amount of people in the gym as I would have in one class normally before.”

With many customers losing their jobs or put on unpaid leave, and others facing uncertain futures, RBO had frozen memberships during lockdown and into July 2020. To attract new members, Kuehn’s team went on what she called a “discount spree.”

She said: “The only thing I could do was focus on new business, so I did a sales and marketing drive with my team, and we focused on just getting new business in. Luckily by September you could see people were happy to be out again, and they were feeling more confident because by October, November we broke records. That continued all the way into the new year, that’s when I decided to look at an extension.”

Kuehn noted that people had flocked back to the gym for health reasons.

“I definitely think health was on top of their minds and doing something fun. Having been stuck in the house for five months, no one wanted to feel overweight and just start jogging again. Boxing’s fun, everything about training here is fun. But it’s high fitness, these people were sweating off weight and they were feeling fitter than they ever felt. And that in itself is addictive, they were telling their friends and I had so many referrals coming in.”

Getting people to pay, or commit to long-term memberships, remained a challenge.

The new extension at Real Boxing Only gym. (RBO)

“We had to be serious and hit numbers. I also trained the other side of the team, the ones that interact with clients. I wrote all the class programs, I worked with coaches to make sure that there was some consistency, uniformity and when people came, they were spoken to well, they were treated well, there was no judgement. The coaches were encouraging and some of the best coaches in the city work here, they’re boxers that we brought from around the world,” she added.

Redeveloping the business in the circumstances reignited Kuehn’s interest in growing RBO, though eventually not in the way she had initially intended.

“Expanding was something I was looking at in 2019, toward the end of the year, I was starting to consider options for expanding. We get a lot of questions from Abu Dhabi, from Deira, asking if we have branches, all over the Emirates really. But I wasn’t convinced on whether to expand or franchise.

“I was leaning toward expanding but then when we were shut down during COVID, I realized the risk I was at. If I had five gyms like this, I would have closed probably four because the overheads would have been too much for one company to support. So, that kind of answered my question.”

Having decided that franchising was lower risk than expanding, Kuehn and her team had to make sure that the business could be duplicated, with new staff trained to ensure the same quality of service would be on offer.

It was, ironically, the original RBO’s expansion into an abandoned warehouse next door that helped solidify the franchise model.

“We set a target for March 1, for how many members I needed to have to be able to afford the new extension, and we hit that by January,” she said.

“I had to rush into the new extension which is 4,000 square feet. We went from 6,000 to 10,000. In the last 12 months we’ve grown 206 percent. With growth come larger challenges; now I have a much bigger team, a lot more clients, a lot more expectations to uphold, which has helped me write my franchise model.

“Every mistake we make, I change it, and I write that into the franchise model. For the last 12 months I’ve been creating the operating manual for my franchise, everything is systemized.”

With extra space, the number of classes doubled to 360 a month; higher staff salaries had to be met while ensuring RBO still had some of the most competitive rates in the city.

With business considerably more secure than a year ago, Kuehn is now in a position to negotiate her first franchise of RBO.

“Abu Dhabi will have one, but not until next year, and then I would consider a second, smaller franchise in the UAE, maybe in Dubai as well,” she added.

“And the UK next year is my target. Should the UAE and the UK go well, you want the franchise to sell itself. You don’t need me and my numbers, they can go and speak to any franchisee. As long as that goes well, Saudi and Oman I’ve considered as targets as well.”


Saudi footballers look to end Tokyo 2020 campaign with flourish against Brazil as Egypt eyes bigger goals

Saudi footballers look to end Tokyo 2020 campaign with flourish against Brazil as Egypt eyes bigger goals
Updated 27 July 2021

Saudi footballers look to end Tokyo 2020 campaign with flourish against Brazil as Egypt eyes bigger goals

Saudi footballers look to end Tokyo 2020 campaign with flourish against Brazil as Egypt eyes bigger goals
  • Already eliminated, Saudi coach Saad Al-Shehri wants team to play without fear, pressure against reigning Olympic champions

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s U-23 team will on Wednesday play its final match at the Tokyo 2020 football tournament when it takes on Rio 2016 gold medalists Brazil at Saitama Stadium.

Two previous Group D losses to Ivory Coast and Germany means the Young Falcons cannot advance to the quarterfinals even with a win against the reigning champions.

But coach Saad Al-Shehri will be hoping that with no pressure and nothing to play for except pride, his team will put on a performance as good as the ones in the earlier matches, particularly the hugely unlucky 3-2 defeat against a 10-man German team.

He will also take the chance to give some game time to players who have not yet taken part in the tournament.

Goalkeeper Amin Bukhari and midfielder Mukhtar Ali were unused substitutes against Ivory Coast and Germany, while Zaid Al-Bawardi, the third-choice goalkeeper, right back Abdullah Hassoun, midfielder Nasser Al-Omran, and Firas Al-Buraikan, the striker who joined the squad after the first match as a replacement for the injured Turki Al-Ammar, have yet to make the bench.

Egypt, meanwhile, still have major ambitions to reach the quarterfinals after drawing with Spain and narrowly losing to Argentina in the first two matches of Group C.

But it will not be easy. The team will have to beat an Australian side that has already defeated Argentina, and then hope that the South Americans do not win against Spain. Even then, goal difference will come into play.

The Pharaohs will know that the first part, at least, remains a distinct possibility despite the Olyroos’ fine form. Thanks in large to the leadership of the excellent Amr Hegazi and the solid contribution of his fellow defenders, the Egyptians have conceded only one goal, though it proved decisive against Argentina.

A clean sheet would give the team a platform to attack the Australians but there would have to be a major improvement in finishing. Egypt must break the scoreless run in the tournament to have any hope of progress.


Weightlifter Diaz wins first ever Olympic gold for Philippines

Weightlifter Diaz wins first ever Olympic gold for Philippines
Updated 27 July 2021

Weightlifter Diaz wins first ever Olympic gold for Philippines

Weightlifter Diaz wins first ever Olympic gold for Philippines

TOKYO: Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz made history on Monday when she became the first athlete from the Philippines to win an Olympic gold medal.
The 30-year-old Rio 2016 silver medallist from the southern city of Zamboanga realized her dream in the women’s 55kg class at the Tokyo International Forum, smashing her personal best to see off world record holder Liao Qiuyun of China who had to settle for silver.
With Liao setting a target of 223kg, just four kilogrammes shy of her own world record, Diaz was faced with a final clean and jerk of 127kg to win — fully 5kg more than she had ever achieved in competition.
With a massive effort she hoisted the huge Olympic record weight and the tears of joy began to flow even before she dropped the bar to the floor after a triumphant effort.
Liao took the silver, with Kazakhstan’s Zulfiya Chinshanlo the bronze 10kg adrift of the top two.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s a dream, come true,” Diaz told AFP moments after the Philippines Air Force woman shed more tears on the podium as she saluted her flag and sung the national anthem.
“I want to say to the young generation in the Philippines, ‘You can have this dream of gold too’.
“This is how I started and finally I was able to do it.”
Diaz was already assured a place in her country’s sporting folklore, alongside the likes of boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, as the only woman from the sprawling archipelago ever to win an Olympic medal — her surprise silver five years ago breaking a 20-year medal drought for the Philippines.
Diaz spent the last year and a half training in exile in Malaysia because of Covid restrictions, so dedicated was she to claim an unprecedented gold in her fourth and probably final Games.
“I’m looking forward to going back home to the Philippines to be with my family because I really miss them,” she said, choking up once more with emotion.
“I’m looking forward now to enjoy my life after so many sacrifices.”
Diaz’s medal was just the 11th by the Philippines since they first took part in the Olympics in 1924, and now the only gold.
Diaz became just the second athlete from her country to win multiple Olympic medals, joining swimmer Teofilo Yldefonzo who won bronze in the men’s 200m breaststroke in 1928 and 1932.
She became a national hero for her exploits in Rio and her profile soared when she won Asian Games gold in Jakarta in 2018.
But on that occasion China were suspended by the International Weightlifting Federation for multiple doping violations.
China have been dominant since their return later in 2018 and have had it all their own way so far in Tokyo in the absence of fierce rivals North Korea.
The first three weightlifting golds were all won by Chinese athletes — in the women’s 49kg through Hou Zhihui on Saturday and men’s winners Li Fabin (61kg) and Chen Lijun (67kg) on Sunday.
Liao was gracious in defeat as the Chinese gold rush in weightlifting was halted in stunning fashion.
“I really respect Diaz as an opponent because she did the best she could, in fact better than that and that is the ultimate,” Liao said.
“She did a better job and it is nice for all the people that were supporting her.”
Diaz, known as “Haidee,” has a huge social media following in her home country which is set to grow.
Internet platforms instantly turned her into the country’s top trending topic on Twitter as news of her win spread, upstaging President Rodrigo Duterte’s final State of the Nation address.
“Congratulations, Sgt Hidilyn Diaz!” tweeted the Armed Forces of the Philippines where the weightlifter is enlisted.
Vice President Leni Robredo said: “Big win for the Philippines!! Thank you for making us proud, Hidilyn.”
Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, congratulated Diaz “for bringing pride and glory to the Philippines.”