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
 


Saudi Arabia launches ‘Sports Career Day’ to connect job seekers with sports sector

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport launches the ‘Sports Career Day’ initiative in Riyadh. (Ministry of Sport)
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport launches the ‘Sports Career Day’ initiative in Riyadh. (Ministry of Sport)
Updated 26 January 2022

Saudi Arabia launches ‘Sports Career Day’ to connect job seekers with sports sector

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport launches the ‘Sports Career Day’ initiative in Riyadh. (Ministry of Sport)

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia launched the “Sports Career Day” initiative on Tuesday to connect qualified job seekers and sports institutions to achieve the goals of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.
The three-day initiative, which is being organized by the Leaders Development Institute, was inaugurated by Deputy Sports Minister Badr Al-Qadi, on behalf of Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, the minister of sport, at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Olympic Complex in Riyadh.
The minister was briefed on the activities of the first day, which included several workshops, sports commentary trials, TV presenting, job fairs, and a number of personal interviews conducted by the participating sports organizations and bodies.
48 governmental, semi-governmental and private sports entities and various institutions are participating in the Sports Career Day, including the Ministry of Sports, the Quality of Life Program, the Leaders Development Institute, Sadu Company, and Sawaed, in addition to the Saudi Football Association, the Saudi Professional League, and the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee. A number of sports clubs are also taking part, most notably Al-Nasr, Damak and Al-Wahda, as well as sports federations and several parties participating virtually through the Saudi Athletes Network.
29 workshops will be held by 15 different entities over the three days, and the topics include sports entrepreneurship, professional fields in the sports sector, social responsibility, data science applications in sports, the Quality of Life and Future of Saudi Sports Program, management consultancy, sports marketing, and other subjects aimed at developing the sports sector.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Sports announced that it will exceptionally raise the capacity of attendance in the Saudi match against Oman to 100 percent, in an effort to support the national team’s important journey in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The match, which is the seventh in the final round of the Asian qualifiers, is set to be held on Thursday at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah.
The decision came following approval from the concerned authorities following up on the developments of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry said.
It added that only fans who have been fully vaccinated will be permitted to attend the match, and urged the public to fully adhere to the precautionary measures and staff to take necessary action if violations are detected, in order to preserve health and safety.


Hakimi fires Morocco into quarter-finals after Malawi scare

Hakimi fires Morocco into quarter-finals after Malawi scare
Updated 26 January 2022

Hakimi fires Morocco into quarter-finals after Malawi scare

Hakimi fires Morocco into quarter-finals after Malawi scare
  • Gabadinho Mhango gave outsiders Malawi, playing their first ever knockout game at the tournament
  • Hakimi drilled in the winner on 70 minutes to set up a meeting with Egypt or Ivory Coast in the last eight

YAOUNDE: Achraf Hakimi scored a brilliant free-kick to send Morocco through to the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations after a 2-1 win over Malawi on Tuesday.
Gabadinho Mhango gave outsiders Malawi, playing their first ever knockout game at the tournament, a shock early lead with a stunning goal from 40 meters at Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium.
But Youssef En-Nesyri headed Morocco level in first-half stoppage time before Hakimi drilled in the winner on 70 minutes to set up a meeting with Egypt or Ivory Coast in the last eight.
That quarter-final was due to take place at Olembe Stadium in Yaounde but will be moved after a fatal crush outside the ground on Monday which killed eight people and injured 38.
As with the earlier match between Senegal and Cape Verde in Bafoussam, a minute’s silence was observed before kick-off and players of both teams wore black armbands.
Morocco, bidding for a second Cup of Nations title and first since 1976, fell behind on seven minutes when Mhango caught Yassine Bounou off his line with a superb long-range strike.
The Atlas Lions responded by creating a series of chances as Imran Louza stung the palms of Charles Thomu, who then did well to keep out Hakimi’s powerful free-kick and the follow-up from Louza.
Mhango dragged wide for Malawi after a terrific long ball from Micium Mhone, but the Flames found themselves under sustained pressure as Morocco captain Romain Saiss volleyed against the bar.
En-Nesyri prodded weakly at Thomu from close range before the Malawi goalkeeper tipped Hakimi’s low drive onto the post and then denied Sofiane Boufal with his legs.
Morocco were finally rewarded for their persistence on the stroke of half-time as En-Nesyri rose to power Selim Amallah’s deep cross past Thomu.
Hakimi appealed vociferously for a penalty in the second half when his cross struck the arm of Malawi defender Dennis Chembezi, but the Paris Saint-Germain star took matters into his own hands to secure victory.
His late equalizer against Gabon had secured top spot in the group stage, and Hakimi delivered again with another magnificent free-kick 20 minutes from time to end Malawi’s impressive run.


Favorite Medvedev, Tsitsipas target Australian Open semifinals

Favorite Medvedev, Tsitsipas target Australian Open semifinals
Updated 26 January 2022

Favorite Medvedev, Tsitsipas target Australian Open semifinals

Favorite Medvedev, Tsitsipas target Australian Open semifinals
  • The women's quarter-finals will wrap up with American Danielle Collins targeting a second Melbourne Park semi-final against giant-killing Frenchwoman Alize Cornet
  • Medvedev knows he needs to keep a lid on his temper, which was pushed to the limit in the last round under severe examination by serve-and-volley specialist Maxime Cressy

MELBOURNE: Title favorite Daniil Medvedev will need to keep his cool Wednesday to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open after a mini-meltdown in the previous round.
Should the Russian second seed get past young Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime in the night match on Rod Laver Arena, then the prize could be a last-four showdown with fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The women’s quarter-finals will wrap up with American Danielle Collins targeting a second Melbourne Park semifinal against giant-killing Frenchwoman Alize Cornet, and Polish seventh seed Iga Swiatek taking on veteran Estonian Kaia Kanepi.
The men’s US Open champion Medvedev knows he needs to keep a lid on his temper, which was pushed to the limit in the last round under severe examination by serve-and-volley specialist Maxime Cressy.
“It was long and it was not easy, they were all tough sets,” said Medvedev after a tetchy performance where he clashed with the umpire, complained of bad luck and screamed “It’s boring!” at Cressy’s relentless tactics behind his big serve.
The US Open champion admitted he was relieved to come through the most severe examination of his title credentials so far.
“If I didn’t win the fourth set I would have been in a tough mental shape,” said Medvedev, the de facto top seed after the deportation of defending champion Novak Djokovic on the eve of the tournament.
He faces ninth seed Auger-Aliassime who took a confidence-boosting win against the 2018 Australian Open finalist Marin Cilic in four sets in the last 16.
“It’s amazing. It puts my belief even higher, I lost three times to Marin in the past, this is my first win against him,” the 21-year-old said.
Tsitsipas survived a late-night fright to reach his third Australian Open quarter-final where he has an afternoon encounter with Italian 11th seed Jannik Sinner.
Tsitsipas was staring at defeat 2-1 down before he clawed back to beat the 20th seed Taylor Fritz in five sets of classic punch and counter-punch tennis.
“It was an epic match. I gave everything out on the court today, I am very proud of myself with the way I fought,” said the 23-year-old Tsitsipas.
The 20-year-old Sinner made light of his debut on Rod Laver Arena to end the hopes of Australia’s Alex de Minaur in straight sets and reach the last eight.
“It was a tough test for me, because he’s an incredible player,” said Sinner.
Cornet has reached her first Slam quarter-final at the 63rd attempt, where she will face 27th seed Collins, an Australian Open semifinalist in 2019.
Asked what her goals were now after reaching a first quarter-final, Cornet replied: “Going further.”
“I mean, I’m not gonna stop now.”
Collins is climbing back up the rankings after “scary” surgery last year for endometriosis.
Her side of the draw has opened up nicely after second seed Aryna Sabalenka, third-ranked Garbine Muguruza, sixth seed Anett Kontaveit and former world number one Simona Halep all exited early.
“I think that all of us can appreciate each other’s toughness and tenacity and what we do,” said Collins of Cornet, with both known for their fierce competitive instincts.
Both the 2020 French Open champion Swiatek, who is just 20 years old, and Kanepi, 16 years her senior, will be in their first Melbourne Park quarter-final.
“When I had that French Open run, it was all pretty surreal,” said Swiatek.
“Right now I feel like I really have to work for it if I want to win another (Slam).”
Kanepi admitted she knew little about her opponent Swiatek.
“I haven’t watched her, I never played her, and I don’t know how her ball feels,” she said. “So we’ll see when I play her. I expect to play good.”


Juventus in 70m euro move for rising star Vlahovic: reports

Juventus in 70m euro move for rising star Vlahovic: reports
Updated 26 January 2022

Juventus in 70m euro move for rising star Vlahovic: reports

Juventus in 70m euro move for rising star Vlahovic: reports
  • Often compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Serb has 17 goals in Serie A this season
  • Juventus are ready to pay around 70 million euros for the youngster

ROME: Italian giants Juventus are close to signing Fiorentina’s rampaging 21-year-old striker Dusan Vlahovic, Italian media reported widely on Tuesday.
Often compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Serb has 17 goals in Serie A this season and Juventus are ready to pay around 70 million euros for the youngster as they seek to fill the goal gap left by Cristiano Ronaldo.
With only 18 months remaining on Vlahovic’s deal in Florence, speculation around his destiny has risen considerably.
In the summer Fiorentina held off interest from the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico Madrid, while Arsenal are also said to be watching closely.
Juventus lost Ronaldo’s goals this season after he moved on to Manchester United and Vlahovic appears a good fit.
Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport said Juventus had offered just short of 70 million Euros ($79 million) while Sky Italia reported a global figure of 75 million euros.
Fiorentina owner Italian-American businessman Rocco Commisso offered Vlahovic an improved contract in October and insisted he would not be held to ransom when the player refused.
“Our annual turnover is around 75 million euros, so we can’t risk losing him on a free transfer,” Fiorentina director Daniele Prade said this week.
The fee would be the biggest in Serie A history for a winter break transfer.
The current record came when AC Milan paid 40 million euros to Brazilian club Flamengo for Lucas Paqueta in January 2019.
It has been a rapid rise to stardom for the 21-year-old, who went from cheering on Partizan Belgrade in the stands to making his club debut less than a month after his 16th birthday in early 2016, before moving to Italy two years later.
Described by his former Partizan Under-21 coach Milan Ristic as the biggest talent he has seen come out of the former Yugoslavia, Vlahovic has also become a fixture in the Serbian national team.


Al-Hilal hero Bafetimbi Gomis departs Saudi football as one of its greatest foreign players of all time

Bafetimbi Gomis will be remembered in Saudi Arabia as one of the best foreign players the country has ever seen. (Twitter/@BafGomis)
Bafetimbi Gomis will be remembered in Saudi Arabia as one of the best foreign players the country has ever seen. (Twitter/@BafGomis)
Updated 25 January 2022

Al-Hilal hero Bafetimbi Gomis departs Saudi football as one of its greatest foreign players of all time

Bafetimbi Gomis will be remembered in Saudi Arabia as one of the best foreign players the country has ever seen. (Twitter/@BafGomis)
  • Since arriving in 2018, the 36-year-old Frenchman has barely put a foot wrong on and off the pitch for the Riyadh giants, helping them win two AFC Champions League crowns and two SPL titles

RIYADH: It says a lot about Bafetimbi Gomis that his departure from Al-Hilal has been reported all over Asia, but then he has scored against clubs from the top nations during his AFC Champions League heroics.

The French striker may be respected in Asian football, but he will be remembered in Saudi Arabia as one of the best foreign players the country has ever seen. 

Since arriving in Riyadh in August 2018 from Turkish giants Galatasaray and then departing almost three-and-a-half years later, the 36-year-old barely put a foot wrong on or off the pitch.

His lion celebration in which he gets down and paces on all fours after scoring has become iconic for Al-Hilal fans and increasingly — and understandably — disliked by those on the receiving end. It is testament to his exploits that a possible replacement at the 17-time Saudi champions has been reported to be Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, the Arsenal star who is one of the biggest names in African football. 

The Gabonese goalgetter is unlikely to come to Saudi Arabia, but the fact that he is being mentioned as Gomis leaves shows the impact the Frenchman has had. 

 

 

There were few expectations of this when he arrived. Gomis had enjoyed a fine career even if he had not reached the elite level of the European game, but there have been dozens of those coming to Saudi Arabia over the years. After starring for Saint-Ettienne, he got a move to Lyon in 2009, where he scored double figures for five successive seasons. Then came spells in the English Premier League with Swansea City, a return to France with Marseille and the move to Turkey. If he was in danger of becoming a journeyman striker, he seems to have found a spiritual home in Riyadh.

His stats alone are impressive. There were 113 goals in 154 games that helped Al-Hilal to two domestic championships. Last season’s win was helped immensely by his 24 goals in the league, five more than the second-highest scorer. 

It was in Asia where he really made a difference and made the team believe that a return to continental glory was possible. Al-Hilal had won their second Asian championship way back in 2000 and had been desperate to make it three for a long time. They had watched Al-Ittihad win in 2004 and again in 2005 and then reached the final in 2014 to play Western Sydney Wanderers. Hilal dominated and missed chance after chance only to be caught by a sucker punch from the Australians. 

In 2017, they lost 2-1 over two legs to Urawa Reds. Had Gomis been present for both ties, they could have ended very differently.

In 2019, it did. It was a legendary campaign. The reward for getting out of the group stage was a second round tie against Saudi Arabian rivals Al-Ahli. In the first leg, in front of almost 50,000 fans in Jeddah, the hosts took an early lead. Then Gomis scored a hat-trick to basically win the tie. Already popular, it earned him near-legendary status. The reward for that was a quarter-final against the other Jeddah giants, Al-Ittihad, which Hilal won

Gomis scored three across two legs in the semi-final against Al-Sadd, an 6-5 victory on aggregate. 

It earned them a final against Urawa Reds and a chance for revenge. It was taken and Gomis scored in the final seconds of the second leg to ensure that the 19-year wait for the third title was over. It was his 11th goal of the continental campaign, and he was the top scorer and tournament MVP.

Only two players scored more than Gomis’s six in last year’s continental triumph, a record fourth for the club. It wasn’t just about the goals. Here was a team player, proven by his through ball assist in the final for Moussa Marega that sealed the win over Pohang Steelers.

It was a symbolic goal. Gomis was no longer the main man in attack for Hilal with Marega, six years younger who arrived from FC Porto earlier in the year, taking on that mantle. Time has been catching up with the former French international. He is not quite the dynamic and powerful force in the area as when he first arrived. His finishing is also not quite as sharp, even if he has scored nine league goals this season so far. There is still plenty for Gomis to give, but it is perhaps the right time that he gives it somewhere else. 

Now he moves. It could be a return to Turkey to end his career or perhaps to Qatar and Al-Rayyan to link up with French coach Laurent Blanc. If he does choose Doha then he could be in the team that faces Al-Hilal in the group stage of the AFC Champions League in April.

Fans in Riyadh would be wary of his abilities, but would also surely welcome the chance to see him once more and say goodbye to a club legend. It would be especially fitting in the tournament where he earned a continental-wide reputation.