Sami Zayn reflects on Saudi Arabia’s role in his journey to WrestleMania glory

Zayn prepared to defend his Intercontinental Title this weekend in a triple threat match against Chad Gable and Bronson Reed at the WWE King and Queen of the Ring event in Jeddah. (X: @SamiZayn)
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Updated 23 May 2024
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Sami Zayn reflects on Saudi Arabia’s role in his journey to WrestleMania glory

  • He defends his Intercontinental Title this weekend in a triple threat match against Chad Gable and Bronson Reed at the WWE King and Queen of the Ring event in Jeddah
  • It comes 11 years after he signed with WWE and 10 years after he first visited the Kingdom to compete in an event
  • ‘If you’re an Arab kid … with a dream of chasing this, becoming a wrestler or the WWE or whatever it is, it’s much more attainable than it’s ever been,’ he says

RIYADH: Amid the expansive global reach of the WWE, few wrestling stars embody the spirit of international connectivity quite as completely as Sami Zayn. His journey from pre-WWE days to competing in Saudi Arabia for the first time a decade ago and then glory at WrestleMania surely reflects the transformative power of sports entertainment.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, he shared some insights into the evolution of his career, his aspirations, and the effects the partnership between WWE and Saudi Arabia has had on him personally and wrestling in general.

It came as Zayn prepared to defend his Intercontinental Title this weekend in a triple threat match against Chad Gable and Bronson Reed at the WWE King and Queen of the Ring event in Jeddah.

As he reflected on his journey, Zayn, who signed with WWE in 2013, reminisced about his first visit to Saudi Arabia the following year, in the early days of WWE’s partnership with sports authorities in the Kingdom.

Though Zayn is not of Saudi descent — he was born in Canada to Syrian parents — he expressed a profound sense of belonging in Saudi Arabia and the wider region because it resonates with him on a cultural level and he appreciates its familiar characteristics.

“You know, with your culture, your language, your people, the food, the smells, the sounds, I don’t know, there’s something about it,” he said. “It just feels like home, even though it’s not home, you know?”

Discussing his victory over Gunther in April at WrestleMania 40 to claim the Intercontinental Title, which his opponent had held for a record-breaking 666 days, Zayn said he achieved something many people thought was impossible, and it was a pivotal moment marked the end of a significant chapter in Gunther’s illustrious career.

“I think just being in the ring with Gunther — who obviously has shown that he’s one of our top superstars now and, you know, probably the best Intercontinental Champion we’ve ever had — to beat him at the biggest show of the year, I mean, I think it’s very, very memorable. And I think that’s one of the hardest things to do right now.”

Zayn did his best to articulate the indescribable thrill of competing on WWE’s grandest stage. Amid the deluge of content in modern wrestling, he said it is particularly significant if one can craft memorable moments that will endure beyond the duration of the event itself.

“I feel like the hardest thing to do nowadays is to have a memorable match and memorable moments that people will remember, oh, two, three, four, five, maybe even 10 years down the road,” he said.

“And I feel like that match (against Gunther) was good, if nothing else because of how long he held the title. I feel like it’ll be very well remembered. So I’m very proud of that.”

As Saudi Arabia continues to evolve and open up to the world, the rapid pace of developments in the country over the past few years has made sport and entertainment accessible to all and opened up ever-greater opportunities, which means that the prospects have never been better for aspiring Arab wrestlers to follow in Zayn’s footsteps.

He acknowledges that what not so long ago was a distant dream for Saudis is now a realistic possibility, and he credits the long-established presence of WWE in the Kingdom for helping to foster a sense of connectivity and inspiration. He also stressed the importance of encouraging emerging talents to show determination and perseverance as they pursue their dreams.

“Now, because of the fact that we run shows in Saudi and we have this partnership with Saudi Arabia and we’re more connected to the region, if you’re an Arab kid or a young man with a dream of chasing this, becoming a wrestler or the WWE or whatever it is, it’s much more attainable than it’s ever been,” he said.

“If you have that goal, look, it’s not easy, it’s never easy, but it’s more achievable now than it’s ever been … for somebody from anywhere here in the Middle East.”

As for his own future, Zayn has a pragmatic but optimistic view. While harboring ambitions for world championship glory, he said he prioritizes the art of storytelling and emotional engagement as his guiding principles. He remains committed to making a lasting impact on fans as he continues to evolve as a performer and storyteller.

“I would just like to keep doing what I’m doing now, which is to continue to tell good stories, prominent stories,” he said.

“I want to be an important part of the television show. And I think what I bring to the table, just as much as anybody if not more than most, is the emotional component of the stories that I tell in the ring or, you know, leading up to these matches.”

Still, he acknowledged that he would love to win the world championship before he steps out of the ring for the final time.

“But hopefully that’s not for another few years, you know, God willing, inshallah, at least five more years or something. But you don’t know what life has for you.”

Looking back on into his formative years, and his journey from wrestling fan to superstar, Zayn pays tribute to his own childhood idols and inspirations. From Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart to the Hardy Boyz, Mick Foley and Eddie Guerrero, they all left an indelible mark and influenced his journey.

He said the Hardy Boyz and Mick Foley in particular had a big impact on him “because they had stories that, in some ways, I could really relate to: They started in their backyard and then they got trained. It just seemed like a more attainable route to get there. I think they kind of opened my eyes in that way.”

WWE returns to Saudi Arabia this weekend with the double-header of SmackDown and then King and Queen of the Ring at Jeddah’s Superdome. The action begins on May 24 with the Kingdom’s inaugural SmackDown event, which will be broadcast live globally and include the second semifinals of the King and Queen of the Ring championships. The finals of those competitions will take place at the main event on May 25, along with Zayn’s battle and two other championship bouts.


Tom Brady enshrined into Patriots Hall of Fame during star-studded night

Updated 14 June 2024
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Tom Brady enshrined into Patriots Hall of Fame during star-studded night

  • Team owner Robert Kraft brought Brady to tears when he announced that his No. 12 would never be worn by another Patriots player
  • In a night that felt like a Patriots family reunion, the biggest moment was reserved before Brady’s speech when he was reunited with former Patriots coach Bill Belichick

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.: Tom Brady brought the New England Patriots endless memories and six Super Bowl trophies during his two-decade run with the team.

The Patriots made sure his induction into the franchise’s Hall of Fame was a celebration unlike it had ever thrown before.

Dozens of Brady’s former teammates and coaches, spanning multiple eras of Patriots history joined thousands of fans and celebrities including Jay-Z and Bon Jovi on Wednesday night to salute Brady as the 35th person to be enshrined into the team’s hall.

“Patriots nation, it’s good to be home,” Brady said.

Before Brady spoke, team owner Robert Kraft brought Brady to tears when he announced that his No. 12 would never be worn by another Patriots player.

“The No. 12 is now officially retired,” Kraft said.

Kraft also announced that a 12-foot bronze statue of Brady was being commissioned and it would be placed outside the Patriots Hall of Fame later this year.

In a night that felt like a Patriots family reunion, the biggest moment was reserved before Brady’s speech when he was reunited with former Patriots coach Bill Belichick. It included an extended ovation for Belichick, who parted ways with the team after the 2023 season.

“It was a tremendous honor for me to draft Tom and coach Tom for 20 years,” Belichick told the crowd. “Everything he brought to the team, it was really an honor for me to be involved with that.”

Brady weighed in on the never-ending debate about whether he or Belichick was most responsible for Patriots success during their time together.

“It wasn’t me. It wasn’t you. It was us,” Brady said. “Let me make it clear. There is no other coach I’d rather play for than Bill Belichick.”

The evening began with a red carpet featuring a who’s who of Brady’s 20 seasons with the Patriots, including Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Randy Moss, Vince Wilfork, Drew Bledsoe and Rob Gronkowski, among others. It also included Brady’s parents, Tom Sr. and Galynn Brady.

The official ceremony inside Gillette Stadium was kicked off by a smoke-filled performance by rapper Jay-Z of his 2003 “Public Service Announcement,” which Brady used as entrance music when he’d jogged onto the field to warmup before games.

On this night, Brady emerged from near the stage at the end of Jay-Z’s performance, walking through the section reserved for the night’s special guests before taking a seat on stage himself.

There he watched video tributes from his competitors over the years, including Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Charles Woodson and Jason Taylor. There were also video appearances by former New York Giants Michael Strahan and Eli Manning, who were booed by fans who haven’t forgotten how the Giants spoiled the Patriots’ bid for a perfect season with their upset in the 2007 Super Bowl. They defeated Brady and company again in the 2011 Super Bowl.

Other video cameos included some of Boston’s most celebrated celebrities, such as Red Sox great David Ortiz and Matt Damon.

The No. 199 pick in the 2000 draft, Brady inherited the starting job in his second season in New England when Bledsoe, the former No. 1 overall pick, was injured and led the Patriots to a Super Bowl championship that year. He won five more titles over the next two decades.

Back with Brady again, Bledsoe joked that Brady didn’t follow the No. 1 rule as his backup.

“You were the worst backup quarterback in the history of the NFL,” Bledsoe said. “You never learned that when I got healthy, that you were supposed to go sit back down.”

There were emotional moments. Like when some of Brady’s top playmakers — Moss, Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Wes Welker joined Brady on stage.

Moss was moved to tears as the crowd showered him a two-minute ovation. Moss recalled how when he arrived in New England in 2007 he knew he had to be close to Brady.

“Put my locker beside Tom Brady’s and the rest will take care of itself,” Moss said.

There were also surprise in-person guests, like Pro Football Hall of Famer Peyton Manning participating in a sit down discussion with Brady and the night’s host Mike Tirico to discuss the quarterbacks’ on-field clashes over the years.

Manning revealed how he never counted the Patriots out when his teams faced Brady, especially when Brady had the ball with a chance to win late in games.

“I was praying on the sidelines,” Manning said. “I never pray on the sidelines.”

Brady paid Manning compliments as well, calling him one of his best friends. He also noted how he’d followed Manning’s career as a young quarterback, dating back to high school.

“There’s nobody out there like Peyton Manning right now,” Brady said.

Manning even offered some of his textbook quips, drawing cheers from what was often a hostile New England crowd when he lamented, “They like me here because I always lost here.”

In front of a crowd spilling with his No. 12 jersey, Brady said his family and the Patriots will be forever intertwined.

“I feel like we’re still the family that’s trying to love each other,” Brady said. “We’re adopted New Englanders.”

At one point Brady ran down the list of towns he’d lived in around New England during his time with the Patriots, from Franklin to Quincy to Chestnut Hill to Brookline.

Brady concluded his speech welling with tears.

“I am Tom Brady. And I am a Patriot,” he said.


US views Copa America as last big challenge before hosting 2026 World Cup

Updated 14 June 2024
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US views Copa America as last big challenge before hosting 2026 World Cup

  • Berhalter: Copa America is essential to the growth of this group, and I believe this is a very important tournament for us as a team
  • This will be the fifth Copa America appearance for the US, who were eliminated in the group stage in 1993 and 2007, and finished fourth in 1995 and 2016

NEW YORK: In a region that provides few tests, the US views the Copa America as its last significant challenge ahead of the 2026 World Cup.

“A World Cup on home soil is the biggest thing that you know we’ll probably do in our career,” star attacker Christian Pulisic said. “It’s a special time for this sport in America.”

Eighteen players from the 2022 World Cup roster were in training camp ahead of the tournament. The US open against Bolivia on June 23 at Arlington, Texas, play Panama four days later at Atlanta and close the group stage vs. Uruguay on July 1 at Kansas City, Missouri.

The US could meet Brazil in the quarterfinals. But players and staff view this as another step toward June 12, 2026, when the Americans play their World Cup opener at Inglewood, California.

“Copa America is essential to the growth of this group, and I believe this is a very important tournament for us as a team. This is the last major tournament before the World Cup. We’ll have Gold Cup, but the caliber of teams does not match Copa America,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It is a building block in which to to go into the World Cup confident.”

Berhalter was let go when his contract expired at the end of 2022 in the messy fallout of a feud with the Reyna family, then brought back and returned behind the bench last September. His core is the same as during the 2022 World Cup, where the US lost to the Netherlands 3-1 in the round of 16.

Pulisic, 25, comes into the tournament following his best season. He scored 12 Serie A goals in his first season with AC Milan plus one in the Champions League and two in the Europa League. His equalizer gave the Americans a 1-1 draw against Brazil Tuesday night in their last pre-tournament warmup, his 29th international goal in 68 appearances.

“He’s had some unfortunate injuries along his path and he’s been at some places where maybe he hasn’t gotten the best look and wasn’t really the number one option, but I think everyone in this country knows how talented he is,” said American forward Hajji Wright, Pulisic’s teammate now and at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup. “He’s really finding his goal-scoring form. He’s able to affect the game by actually scoring and contributing in front of the goal. And that’s something he always used to do when we were children.”

Tyler Adams, the US World Cup captain and another member of that 2015 team, is regaining fitness following a frustrating 15 months. A 25-year-old defensive midfielder, Adams played just one club match from March 2023 until this past March 13 because of a torn right hamstring that needed surgery. After returning to play two matches for Bournemouth in March, the midfielder was limited by back spasms to one game over the rest of the season, an 11-minute appearance on May 11. He entered the June 12 friendly against Brazil in the 76th minute.

Right back Sergiño Dest will miss the tournament because of a torn ACL, opening the spot for 21-year-old Joe Scally. Chris Richards appears to have gained a starting spot in central defense alongside Tim Ream on a back line that has Antonee Robinson on the left.

Goalkeeper Matt Turner is a cause for concern. He lost the starting job at Nottingham Forest this season after poor play and was at fault for some of the goals in the 5-1 loss to Colombia and this week’s game against Brazil.

“He’s getting his rhythm. He’s going to be fine come tournament time,” Berhalter said. “You can see that he didn’t have a regular slate of games and it’s going to take him a little bit to get into it.”

This will be the fifth Copa America appearance for the US, who were eliminated in the group stage in 1993 and 2007, and finished fourth in 1995 and 2016.

“What you’re seeing on the pitch is now we’re clicking even more than ever,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson said, “and I think it’s just going to continue to get better and better.”


Chimaev out of UFC fight against Whittaker in Saudi Arabia, Aliskerov steps in

Updated 14 June 2024
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Chimaev out of UFC fight against Whittaker in Saudi Arabia, Aliskerov steps in

  • Ikram Aliskerov is on a seven-game winning streak
  • Chimaev has headed home to recover

RIYADH: Khamzat Chimaev is out of the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Saudi Arabia due to illness, according to the head of the championship.

Chimaev was due to fight Robert Whittaker on June 22 in the middleweight division, but Dana White, CEO and President of the UFC, said the Russian has been “violently ill,” prompting a change to the main event.

Chimaev’s team has not commented on the nature of the illness afflicting the undefeated fighter, with White only saying he had returned home to recover.

Ikram Aliskerov, who is on a seven-game winning streak, will step in to face Whittaker in Riyadh. Aliskerov’s only loss in his 16 bouts came against Chimaev.

“This dude is a legit contender in only his third UFC fight,” said White about Aliskerov, as he announced the change.

“If he gets a knockout against Robert Whittaker, he’ll go into a tie for the longest active UFC knockout streak.”

Aliskerov, who was pulled from Saturday’s UFC event in Las Vegas, said: “Next fight is dream come true and we are ready for any challenges.”

Talking up the courage of Whittaker, White said: “We offered everybody in the division this fight, nobody would take it except Whittaker.”

Turki Alalshikh, the head of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority and the man behind bringing the UFC to the Kingdom, confirmed the change to the main card and wished Chimaev a speedy recovery.


McIlroy fires bogey-free 65 to share US Open lead with Cantlay

Updated 14 June 2024
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McIlroy fires bogey-free 65 to share US Open lead with Cantlay

  • “I’m delighted with the start,” McIlroy said

PINEHURST, US: Rory McIlroy sank a birdie putt from just inside 20 feet at the 18th hole to finish a five-under-par 65 first round and match Patrick Cantlay for the lead at the US Open on Thursday.
World number three McIlroy, chasing his first major victory since the 2014 PGA Championship, delivered a bogey-free round at Pinehurst, defying its dome-shaped greens, sandy waste areas and wiregrass.
“I’m delighted with the start,” McIlroy said.
“As the week goes on the golf course is going to get a bit faster and a bit firey, but right now, there’s opportunities out there and thankfully I was able to take advantage of them.
“I think more so this championship than the others, getting off to a good start is really important to try to keep yourself up there. Because you need to give yourself as much of a cushion as possible knowing what’s lurking around the corner.”
America’s ninth-ranked Cantlay, a back-nine starter, birdied three of his last five holes for an early 65 and with McIlroy took a one-stroke lead over Sweden’s sixth-ranked Ludvig Aberg, Masters runner-up in his major debut, with France’s Matthieu Pavon and American Bryson DeChambeau sharing fourth on 67.
“It’s the US Open. It’s supposed to be hard,” Aberg said. “That’s what we’re doing here.”
McIlroy, a 30-year-old from Northern Ireland, sank a seven-foot birdie putt at the fourth hole then chipped in brilliantly from just off the green for a birdie at the par-5 fifth.
The four-time major winner added a birdie putt from just inside seven feet at the par-5 10th then birdied two of the last three holes, sinking an 11-footer at the par-4 16th and then his tension-packed putt at 18.
“I think the one thing we got a little lucky with today was the cloud cover, so the golf course didn’t get as fiery as I expected it to get this afternoon,” McIlroy said.
“The nice thing is to go out there and take advantage of the conditions and get back out in the morning and try to keep the momentum going.”
McIlroy was second in last year’s US Open, his fifth top-10 effort in a row at the US Open with each better than the last.
An afternoon feature group with the world’s three top players was dominated by McIlroy, with world number one Scottie Scheffler, the Masters champion, firing a 71 and second-ranked Xander Schauffele, who won last month’s PGA Championship, on 70.
Scheffler has five PGA Tour wins this year, the most by any player at this stage since Tom Watson in 1980.
Schauffele snapped a two-year win drought last month with his first major triumph.
Cantlay, seeking his first major triumph, and McIlroy matched the low US Open rounds at Pinehurst, two 65s by Martin Kaymer on his way to victory in 2014.
“Played pretty solid most of the way,” Cantlay said. “The golf course played pretty difficult. But drove it well. Lot of balls on the fairways. Left the ball in the right spots, for the most part.”
Cantlay, the 2021 PGA Tour playoff champion, is a contender for a US berth at the Paris Olympics but must finish no worse than second this week to have a chance.
Aberg sank a six-foot birdie putt at the par-3 ninth to finish on 66 with six birdies and two bogeys.
“Very nice round of golf,” Aberg said. “Not a lot to complain about.”
DeChambeau, last month’s PGA Championship runner-up and the 2020 US Open champion, made a three-foot birdie putt at 13, holed out for birdie from 52 feet at 18 and birdied the fifth after putting his tee shot way right into trees.
Pavon, ranked 24th, soared with eagles at the par-5 fifth on an 18-foot putt and on a 27-foot putt at the par-5 10th hole.
“I made my four best swings of the day on the par-5s and dropped two putts,” Pavon said. “It gave me a little bit of freedom.”
Five-time major winner Brooks Koepka and seventh-ranked Collin Morikawa, a two-time major winner, were among those on 70.
Tiger Woods, a 15-time major winner, struggled to a 74. He had five bogeys in a seven-hole stretch starting at the 16th after teeing off on the back nine.


England thrash Oman to revive T20 World Cup campaign

Updated 14 June 2024
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England thrash Oman to revive T20 World Cup campaign

ST. JOHN’S, Antigua and Barbuda: England thrashed Oman by eight wickets as the reigning champions revived their T20 World Cup campaign with a record-breaking success in Antigua on Thursday.
Needing a heavy win to bolster their net run-rate (NRR) as they attempt to overhaul Scotland in the race to qualify for the second-round Super Eights, England dismissed Oman for just 47.
England then made 50-2 in a mere 3.1 overs, captain Jos Buttler 24 not out and Jonny Bairstow, who hit the winning boundary, unbeaten on eight.
This overwhelming Group B victory meant England recorded the largest win in T20 World Cup history in terms of balls remaining.
Oman had no answer to England’s combination of spin and pace, leg-break bowler Adil Rashid taking 4-11 from his four overs, while express quicks Jofra Archer and Mark Wood both had figures of 3-12 in an innings that ended with nearly seven overs to spare.
Number seven Shoaib Khan (11) was the only Oman batsman to reach double figures after Buttler won the toss.
Significantly, England’s NRR climbed to 3.081, better than Scotland’s 2.16. England, however, stayed third on three points, behind Scotland’s five.
Already-eliminated Oman, who ended the tournament having lost all four of the games, just scraped past the record lowest completed total of 39 at any T20 World Cup, posted by fellow-non Test nation Uganda against co-hosts West Indies in Guyana last week.
Archer did the early damage with 2-12 in nine balls.
Oman then lost two wickets in Wood’s first over as they slumped to 25-4 in six overs.
The very next delivery wicketkeeper Buttler luckily removed the bails at the second attempt to stump Khalid Kail off Rashid’s first ball Thursday as wickets continued to tumble.
Phil Salt struck the first two balls of England’s chase for six, only to be bowled off the third by Bilal Khan, but his side were on their way.
England, beaten by Australia after their group game with Scotland was abandoned due to rain, play Namibia on Saturday.
Australia and Scotland, however, will meet on Sunday after England have completed their group games.