‘I feel dangerous!’: Former champion Robert Whittaker accepts risky Khamzat Chimaev replacement to save UFC Saudi Arabia card

Robert Whittaker during a UFC middleweight championship bout in 2017. (AFP/File Photo)
Short Url
Updated 17 June 2024

‘I feel dangerous!’: Former champion Robert Whittaker accepts risky Khamzat Chimaev replacement to save UFC Saudi Arabia card

  • Ikram Aliskerov (15-1) steps in to replace Khamzat Chimaev (13-0)
  • Whittaker plans to ‘go in there and conquer’

LONDON: It has been a turbulent week for the UFC, with two high-profile cards enduring significant reshuffling. In the same 24 hours as Conor McGregor’s removal from UFC 303 was confirmed, it transpired that Khamzat Chimaev had been pulled from his main event clash with Robert Whittaker at UFC Saudi Arabia due to illness.

The Kingdom has emerged as an epicenter for combat sports in recent months, and the June 22 event in Riyadh will mark the first time the UFC hosts an event there. The loss of Chimaev is significant; not only is the Swede a significant contender for the middleweight title, but he is also a big star. The UFC was forced to pivot, and in stepped Ikram Aliskerov, a ferocious fighter on a seven-fight winning streak, with his only career loss coming at the hands of Chimaev.

This is a huge opportunity for the Russian. Ranked outside the top 15, but with two straight first-round finishes since his arrival in the UFC, the 31-year-old has a chance to usurp his opponent’s No. 3 ranking in the division. Whittaker deserves huge credit for accepting the fight, where he stands to gain little but lose a lot.

“It’s a little annoying. I spent months working for Chimaev because he’s a unique fighter, but I’m sure none of the skills I worked on will go to waste,” explained the Australian in an exclusive interview with Arab News. “The Reaper” acknowledges the challenge posed by Aliskerov: “Ikram’s a hard fight. I know he’s kind of come out of nowhere, but that element makes him more dangerous in other aspects. Plus, I think he’s better at certain angles in the fight game than Chimaev anyway,” he explained, adding, “The task is the same: Get in there, conquer, and go home.”

Whittaker ascended to the interim middleweight champion status following his victory at UFC 213. He later attained the position of undisputed champion when Georges St-Pierre relinquished the UFC Middleweight Championship in 2017. It was a landmark moment for “Bobby Knuckles,” who became the first-ever Australian champion in UFC history. Aside from knowing what it is like to hold the belt, the 26-7 star is a veteran of 21 fights inside the Octagon, and his attitude exemplifies just why he is so beloved by most MMA fans.

“It is what it is! I came here to fight. I’m headlining the card, I understand the responsibilities that that entails, I understand the amount of work that needs to go around it. The card is reliant on me to some degree,” said Whittaker. “Another thing is I’ve put three months’ work in. I’m shredded, I’m fit, I’m ready to fight. I’m not going to throw that away. If there’s a way to save the card, I’m going to do that. Props to Ikram for taking it. The fight goes on.”

Whittaker comes into this fight on the back of a crucial win over No. 8-ranked Paulo Costa at UFC 288. Having suffered a second-round knockout loss to current champion Dricus du Plessis in his previous fight, it was vital for the Sydneysider to get back in the win column. “It was massive. Any win is important. A win after a loss is even more important, especially the way that I lost against Dricus,” he reasoned, before adding, “I’m going into this fight with my head screwed on with the objective clear in my sights and a new kind of predator’s gaze.”

Du Plessis has already stated in interviews that even if Whittaker were to beat Chimaev, that would not be enough to earn a title shot. With the Aussie now facing an unranked opponent, it is likely he will need one more to seal a crack at gold, and many fans have been calling for a scrap with another former champion, Sean Strickland. “He looks like an awkward fight. I was trying to get him out to fight him before he beat Izzy (Adesanya), and then that obviously derailed my plans a little bit,” said Whittaker.

“We’re both in the division, we’re both at the top. Our paths will cross,” he added.

As far as Du Plessis’ comments go, Whittaker could not care less. The 33-year-old is fully focused on the task at hand and having spent 13 years fighting at the highest level, he understands one thing rings truest in the world of MMA: “Mate, winning opens doors,” he said. “I’ll worry about getting my hand raised and putting on a show and see how the chips fall after.”

Amnesty International slams French hijab sports ban ahead of Olympics

Updated 18 sec ago

Amnesty International slams French hijab sports ban ahead of Olympics

  • Human rights group accuses host country of breaching international law
  • Amnesty criticizes International Olympic Committee for failing to challenge ban

LONDON: Amnesty International has accused France of breaking international human rights law by enforcing a ban on women competing at this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris wearing headscarves.

In a report on the ban published on Tuesday, Amnesty also accused the International Olympic Committee of weakness by not challenging France’s “discriminatory” law.

Anna Blus, Amnesty’s women’s rights researcher in Europe, said: “Banning French athletes from competing with sports hijabs at the Olympic and Paralympic Games makes a mockery of claims that Paris 2024 is the first ‘Gender Equal Olympics’ and lays bare the racist gender discrimination that underpins access to sport in France.”

She added: “Discriminatory rules policing what women wear are a violation of Muslim women’s and girls’ human rights and have a devastating impact on their participation in sport, blocking efforts to make sports more inclusive and more accessible.”

The report details how bans on wearing headscarves in multiple sports in France, justified domestically on grounds of secularism but which is not accepted in international law, have created a situation where the Olympic host is in breach of the IOC’s own human rights rules as well as numerous human rights obligations and treaties to which France is a party.

The IOC has failed to call on France to overturn bans on headscarves at the Olympics and in other sports, claiming in a letter earlier this year that French law was outside the committee’s remit, and that “freedom of religion is interpreted in many different ways by different states.”

France is the only European country to enforce a ban on headscarves in sport, which also contradicts the rules of international sports bodies such as FIFA, the International Basketball Federation and the International Volleyball Federation.

Basketball player Helene Ba told Amnesty that the French ban “is a clear violation of the Olympic charter, values and provisions, and an infringement on our fundamental rights and freedoms … I think it’s going to be a shameful moment for France.”

She added: “Mentally it is also hard because you really feel excluded … especially if you go to the bench and the referee tells you to go to the ladders (stands). Everyone sees you … It’s a walk of shame.”

Another female athlete told Amnesty anonymously: “It is sad. It’s even shameful to be at this point in 2024, to block dreams just because of a piece of fabric.”

In a press release, Amnesty said: “For several years, French authorities have been weaponizing these concepts (of secularism) to justify the enactment of laws and policies that disproportionately impact Muslim women and girls.

“And all of this is occurring against a backdrop relentless, twenty-year campaign of harmful lawmaking and regulation of Muslim women’s and girls’ clothing in France, fueled by prejudice, racism and gendered Islamophobia.”

Foune Diawara, co-president of the football collective Hijabeuses, told Amnesty: “Our fight is not political or religious but centered on our human right to participate in sports.”

Blus said: “No policymaker should dictate what a woman can or cannot wear and no woman should be forced to choose between the sport she loves and her faith, cultural identity, or beliefs.

“It is not too late for the French authorities, sports federations and the IOC to do the right thing and to overturn all bans on athletes wearing the hijab in French sport, both at the summer Olympics and in all sport, at all levels.”

‘I’m doing this for all of Palestine’ says Waseem Abu Sal on making boxing history

Updated 16 July 2024

‘I’m doing this for all of Palestine’ says Waseem Abu Sal on making boxing history

  • The 20-year-old fighter from Ramallah, who received a wildcard spot to Paris 2024, is the first-ever Palestinian boxer to take part in the Olympics

DUBAI: Despite the challenges of checkpoints, roadblocks and casualty updates from Gaza, Waseem Abu Sal has surpassed all previous achievements by a Palestinian boxer with his wildcard spot at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Not surprisingly, this milestone has not come without tremendous sacrifice, with the everyday struggles of living in the occupied West Bank presenting a far more formidable battle than the endless rounds he faces in the ring.

Over the last 12 months, Abu Sal has spent every waking moment preparing for the Olympics. He underwent training camps in Morocco and Jordan in 2023, competed in tournaments in Algeria and Russia, and wrapped up his preparations in China for the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou last September. Although he did not secure an Olympic spot in the qualifying events, earning a wildcard spot has reignited his hopes for success on the grand stage.

“I’m going to the Olympics not just for myself, but for all of Palestine,” said the 20-year-old, who will be fighting in th 57 kg category in Paris. “I’m fighting to show the world our dignity and to preserve our identity. It’s important to me and to the Palestinian Olympic Committee. My message is one of peace, but also to show the world that we are strong and resilient.”

Abu Sal is poised to enter the ring for his debut Olympic bout on July 28 at the Roland Garros Stadium in the French capital, where he will be among 248 boxers from 70 countries vying for gold.

His journey to such exalted company began at age 10 when his father took him to Elbarrio Gym in Ramallah, with a vision far beyond giving his son a mere hobby or self-defense skills.

Even at such an early stage, he aspired for his Waseem to become an Olympian, and barely 10 years on from that day, the dream of an Olympic ticket has became a reality.

Nader Jayousi, head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee and owner of Elbarrio Gym, has been instrumental in guiding and coaching Abu Sal. His Gazan coach, Ahmed Harara, restricted by occupation barriers between the West Bank and Gaza, supports him remotely by sending daily training schedules.

With Harara only being able to meet Abu Sal during international competitions, the boxer trains each morning and then again in the evening under the guidance of Jayousi.

After the Asian Games last October, the onset of the war in Gaza significantly intensified the challenges Abu Sal faced. Initially, Israel imposed a mandatory halt on all sports activities. As the conflict escalated during the final qualifying rounds, Abu Sal’s training opportunities were severely limited.

Training in Palestine has become increasingly perilous due to a rise in checkpoints, military presence and settler violence, complicating travel even between West Bank cities and thus restricting his access to sparring partners. For international travel, Abu Sal must undertake a journey by road from Ramallah to Amman, Jordan, to catch a flight — if he is fortunate enough not to be denied an entry visa.

Despite the hardships — witnessing his friends trapped in Jordan, unable to return to Gaza, and suffering the loss of family members and injuries due to the conflict — Abu Sal channeled the pain into his training. The devastating impact of the conflict has taken a toll on Abu Sal and his teammates, yet it has also fueled his determination to continue working toward his Olympic goals.

As part of the Olympic preparation program, the Olympic Committee provides support through supplements, training and international travel, significantly boosting performance.

“This support has led to a historic achievement, with seven athletes traveling to the Olympics this year,” said Jayousi. “When applying for wildcard entries, we chose to focus on the best-performing athletes. We aimed to highlight the high level of talent emerging from Palestine, showcasing our potential on the global stage.”

Abu Sal has been winning medals internationally since 2018. He has come a long way since, and compared to the challenges of his daily life, no goal is too big for the fighter from Ramallah.

With the Paris Olympics only 10 days away, Abu Sal is now undergoing a specific training period. Having traveled to France for a two-week international training camp on July 4, he will reunite with his squad at the Olympic village starting from July 20.

New UAE body to introduce winter sports, esports and strongman contests

Updated 16 July 2024

New UAE body to introduce winter sports, esports and strongman contests

  • Ice hockey, figure skating, short-track speed skating and curling on the list of sports for UAE

DUBAI: A new body has been launched in the UAE to introduce winter sports, esports, strongman and other physical activities in the country.

The announcement of the new organization, the Association for the Development of Corporate Sports, was made on July 10 in Dubai by Emirates Sports Group.

The plan is to introduce several winter sports including ice hockey, figure skating, short-track speed skating, curling, and drone events.

Vladimir Burdun, co-founder of the ADSC and CEO of Emirates Sports Group, said: “The biggest part of our association is education. So, we educate people how to do things properly.

“We help them set things up. How to deal with the big corporate clients. How to involve them with this kind of sport.”

He said the aim is to have 1,000 companies join the association in the UAE, especially in Dubai, as well as 50 to 60 countries.

Mohammad Abbas Ahmad Ali Alblooshi, general-secretary of the ADCS, said: “Thanks to my brother Vladimir, who has been with me for a long time.

“Thank you again to the UAE government for the biggest support which we always receive in everything we do. And, of course, many thanks to the Community Development Authority.”

Ilya Galaev, co-founder of the ADCS, added: “Here are so many new initiatives which corporate sports are bringing to the table. The large ice hockey arena that is being built here will also be very interesting.”

He said the organization would also look at developing other sports including bowling and darts.

Burdun added: “We have already attracted interest from several countries and plans to host major events in Dubai, as this is the best place for ambitious sports development goals.

“We have already had a small congress where about 21 countries participated.”

Team Falcons top Esports World Cup Club Championship standings after two weeks of action

Updated 16 July 2024

Team Falcons top Esports World Cup Club Championship standings after two weeks of action

  • Saudi team won the Free Fire event at world’s biggest gaming festival, which runs until Aug. 25 at Boulevard Riyadh City

RIYADH: Saudi Arabian side Team Falcons have toped the Esports World Cup Club Championship standings after the conclusion of the second week of competition.

Team Falcons claimed Free Fire gold and 1,000 points on Sunday night to add to the 600 points picked up in Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, which also ended on Sunday. Team Falcons, who top the table with 2,600 points, won Call of Duty: Warzone, the opening tournament of the Esports World Cup, in week one.

Selangor Red Giants, who defeated Team Falcons 4-3 in an epic best-of-seven Mobile Legends: Bang Bang final, sit in second place in the Club Championship standings with 1,000 points.

T1, the South Korean powerhouses who stormed to League of Legends glory thanks to the exploits of gaming superstar Faker, are third with 1,000 points. With 350 points acquired in Warzone, Saudi side, Twisted Minds, are joint eighth.

Faisal bin Homran, chief product officer at the Esports World Cup, said: “The first two weeks of the Esports World Cup produced tournaments and matches that have captured the imagination of gaming fans across the globe. The standard of play has been at the highest level with moments of magic to last long in the memory.

“A special mention must go to the clubs and players who have put on such enthralling performances for the multitude of fans watching in person at the SEF Arena at Boulevard Riyadh City and online from every part of the world. We hope their achievements provide inspiration to the next generation of gamers in Saudi Arabia and far beyond.”

The eight-week Esports World Cup, which features a cross-game structure pitting the world’s top clubs and players against one another across 22 global competitions in 21 leading games, runs until Aug. 25 at Boulevard Riyadh City. The tournament has a prize pool of $60 million, the largest in the history of esports.

More than 1,500 players, representing more than 60 nationalities, are battling it out at the Esports World Cup. Week three begins on Wednesday with competitions taking place in the Dota2 Riyadh Masters, Counter-Strike 2, and PUBG Mobile.

Brian Harman starts his British Open title defense by returning the claret jug

Updated 16 July 2024

Brian Harman starts his British Open title defense by returning the claret jug

  • The homecoming of the claret jug was an unofficial way to launch the start of the final men’s major of the year
  • After handing off the jug, Harman headed out to see Royal Troon for the first time

TROON, Scotland: Of all the recent traditions in the Royal & Ancient game, what Brian Harman took part in on Monday afternoon might be the least enjoyable.

Returning the claret jug.

The formal handover of the British Open trophy required a little pomp. Harman was in the back seat of an SUV. The destination was not much longer than the 40-foot birdie putt he made last year on the 14th hole on his way to winning the Open. But he had to wait for the film crew to be set, for the traffic on the road to clear.

“It’s all yours,” Harman told Martin Slumbers, the R&A CEO who took back golf’s oldest trophy that apparently has seen its share of the finest wine and bourbon in the year since Harman won at Royal Liverpool.

Harman is a straight shooter — with a rifle, with his mouth and last year with his putter — but a staged moment as this didn’t bother him.

“In my opinion, it’s the coolest trophy in all of sports,” Harman said. “So I think it’s deserving of all of the pageantry that’s involved with it.”

Getting it back by the end of the week is the real challenge.

The homecoming of the claret jug was an unofficial way to launch the start of the final men’s major of the year. The 152nd Open Championship begins Thursday on the Scottish links along the Firth of Clyde on the Irish Sea.

Royal Troon is renowned for its pot bunkers that are so deep they effectively serve as a one-shot penalty when tee shots find them on the longer holes. The outward holes are shorter with the prevailing wind, the inward holes are longer and into the wind.

“You have to take them on,” Scottie Scheffler said.

Harman had gone six years without a win until putting together a masterpiece last year to lead over the final 51 holes and win by six. He hasn’t won since then, a matter of getting his putter to cooperate. He hopes that’s the case this week.

“You can work and work and work. You just never know when that work is going to pay off,” Harman said. “You never know when the peak is coming. You never know when you’re going to catch a little bit of momentum. So you just have to hope it’s a big week.”

No one has won back to back in the British Open since Padraig Harrington in 2007 (Carnoustie) and 2008 (Royal Birkdale). Go back to 1960 and the list of repeat winners includes only Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer.

“A little sad to give it back, but I’ll remember everywhere it’s been forever,” Harman said. “I’m happy to give it back, happy to be here. Ready to get going.”

Royal Troon is green and lush, and the rough is particularly thick at the base of turf. This isn’t likely to be a bright and sunny week along the Ayrshire coast, and the links have been busy.

Woods arrived Sunday and went 18 holes, spending much of his time chipping and putting. His son Charlie is not with him, instead at home preparing for the US Junior Amateur next week outside Detroit.

Scheffler got into the competitive spirit, playing alongside Sam Burns as they took some cash from PGA champion Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay.

After handing off the jug, Harman headed out to see Royal Troon for the first time. Monday was largely a day of reflection and he was eager to move forward.

But it was a good year, even without another win. He took the jug to Georgia Bulldogs football and Atlanta Braves baseball games. He took it everywhere he could, a reminder of reaching the pinnacle of his sport.

“You never know how it’s going to go, but just the reception from everyone back home was overwhelming, just how excited everyone was,” he said. “I was obviously very excited, but to be able to share that excitement with people that I care about was probably the best.”

Harman was among several players who came across the coast from the Scottish Open last week, a list that included Robert MacIntyre, though his immediately whereabouts could not be confirmed. MacIntire won the Scottish with an eagle-par-birdie finish and promised he would “celebrate hard” as the first Scot to win his national open in 25 years.

He was scheduled for a press conference Monday afternoon. It was rescheduled for Wednesday afternoon. That was a big win for him. Next up is one even bigger.