Thursday, 21 May 2020

Cases of GSP, Lesnar show Cejudo could return to the UFC

By Alistair Hendrie

A hush filled the Octagon as Henry Cejudo announced his retirement, speaking moments after he’d knocked out Dominick Cruz at UFC 249 on May 9. That same silence stretched over the empty bowels of the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville and made Cejudo’s declaration that he was walking away even more stunning and blunt.

He’d just defended his bantamweight belt against the division’s leader in WEC/UFC wins and as such, plenty of pundits were baffled as to why he’d quit so suddenly at the age of 33. This week, though, his manager Ali Abdelaziz said Cejudo might fight again, meaning he could perform the same U-turn on retirement as many other UFC stars.

Georges St-Pierre took a hiatus from the sport after he defended his welterweight crown a ninth time against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in 2013, earning a decision which most onlookers felt should have gone to the American challenger. St-Pierre, who was plagued with ACL injuries throughout his career, wanted a break and was sick of the razzmatazz that went with sitting at the top tier of fighting. In 2015, UFC president Dana White laughed off rumors of a return for “Rush.” What happened next? St-Pierre returned at middleweight in 2017, submitting Michael Bisping for the title in his 185 pounds debut.

Read the rest of the article on The Body Lock MMA

Check out Alistair Hendrie's Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring interviews with Joanne Calderwood, Rosi Sexton and more

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Jon Jones was misguided in UFC Jacksonville tweets, but is he welcoming the role of the heel?

By Alistair Hendrie

In an episode of UFC Unfiltered in January, 24-year-old UFC lightweight Bryce Mitchell said his momentary Twitter ban – put in place “a few years before” he joined the UFC – left him feeling liberated. He was banned for criticizing the US government and revealed that nowadays he ignores abuse, trolls, and drama when scrolling through social media, preferring to concentrate on simple pleasures such as training, fishing, and playing video games.

The Arkansas prospect appeared on the podcast only 18 months into his stint with the UFC yet came across as a grounded and humble character, but that’s in contrast to the UFC light heavyweight champion and 12-year-veteran of the promotion, Jon Jones.

On Wednesday, Jones mocked Anthony Smith for being burglarized when he tweeted a since-deleted post: “Good thing Glover is not on the hunt for a new TV,” referring to Smith’s defeat to Glover Teixeira at UFC Jacksonville. Jones’s morals and decision-making were already under the spotlight thanks to a litany of doping suspensions and arrests – his latest brush with the law came in March when he was arrested for DUI and negligent use of a firearm.

Read the rest of the article at The Body Lock

Check out Alistair Hendrie's Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring interviews with Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and many more

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

What lies ahead for UFC 249 winner Bryce Mitchell?

By Alistair Hendrie

Bryce Mitchell shot to the cusp of a featherweight ranking at UFC 249 on Saturday, dominating Charles Rosa on the mat for scores of 30-25 (twice) and one 30-24. Undefeated in thirteen fights, Mitchell, 25, will now be looking for a step-up in competition after commanding Rosa from side control and mount, threatening with arm-triangles and twisters.

While the Arkansas star leaves matchmaking to his manager, Matt Weibel of First Round Management, he could do a lot worse in 2020 than face Sodiq Yusuff. The Nigerian stands at 12-1 after outscoring Andre Fili in January, showing a malicious jab and a heavy top game, not to mention a granite chin – Yusuff had his knees buckled early but recovered well, boxing Fili’s head off for the rest of the round.

Depending on when the UFC can arrange further events during the coronavirus outbreak, facing Yusuff would make a lot of sense for Mitchell. Both men are unbested in the UFC and with Mitchell at 25 and Yusuff at 26, they are at similar levels of athletic and physical development. Mitchell was the second man to score a twister in the UFC and would hold the advantage on the ground given how he takes his time and strives for position rather than strikes. Still, would he be able to take Yusuff down, despite Yusuff’s mass and bulk at 145lbs?

Mirsad Bektic could also oppose Mitchell soon. Training under Firas Zaharbi and boasting a UFC record of 6-3, the Bosnian-American is unranked but would have been higher up the food chain were it not for bouts with Renato Moicano and Arnold Allen falling through. Not to be taken lightly, Bektic earned the biggest win of his career in June 2018 when he outpointed Ricardo Lamas, while he dropped a razor-thin decision to Dan Ige in his latest bout in February.

It’s fair to say Mitchell could make a lot of people sit up a take notice with a win over Bektic, a tough competitor who made his UFC bow in 2014. Georges St-Pierre described Bektic’s top game as the strongest he’s ever trained with so Mitchell could earn another feather in his cap by submitting “The Bosnian Bomber.”

Trouble is, featherweight is a crowded house and you only need to look at the career of Allen – who is 7-0 in the UFC yet only ranked twelfth – to see than Mitchell may have to wait for the bigger fights and recognition. The domination of Jose Aldo and Max Holloway in recent years, coupled with the rivals’ rematch in 2017, made it difficult for prospects to get a look in but that may have changed because of Holloway’s defeat to Alexander Volkanovski six months ago. Still, there’s no rush for Mitchell.

There’s no question over his talent and when you consider he won his first eight contests by tapout – seven of them in round one – he guarantees excitement. He’s got his head screwed on, too. Away from fighting he enjoys simple pleasures such as fishing and has been entrenched in the same gym, Westside MMA, from day one. His coaches at the Arkansas training base must have been delighted with how Mitchell disposed of Rosa on Saturday.

Mitchell scored a beautiful takedown in round one, tying up his rival’s shins with his legs and establishing wrist control, stunting his opponent with one of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s favourite techniques. He went close with an arm triangle and a twister and in round two, he attempted another twister, swapping grips on Rosa’s wrist and striking to the body and head. Once Mitchell locked up the twister, Rosa was saved by the bell.

“Thug Nasty” completed his victory parade in the third when he utilised fight IQ to telegraph a spinning-back kick and take the back. Thereafter he dominated and transitioned between side control, crucifix position and the twister set-up wherever possible.

With performances like that it’s no surprise the likes of Daniel Cormier, Javier Mendez and Matt Serra have all praised Mitchell after seeing his talent during season 27 of The Ultimate Fighter and various sparring sessions. For now, though, Mitchell is keen to stick with those who know him best at Westside MMA. While Mitchell’s coaches have nurtured his single-mindedness and broad submission arsenal, you never know, maybe one day they’ll help him secure a second twister finish as he ascends the UFC featherweight ladder.

Check out Alistair Hendrie's Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring interviews with Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and many more

Thursday, 7 May 2020

UFC 249: Ferguson and Gaethje set to provide “Mortal Kombat”

By Alistair Hendrie

There is a warm feeling in the air as we approach Saturday’s twice-postponed UFC 249 card which will be headlined by Tony Ferguson against Justin Gaethje for the interim lightweight title. The UFC has the backing of the Florida State Athletic Commission, has implemented social distancing procedures and is providing daily tests for coronavirus. So far, so good.

That aura of hope is exacerbated by a thrilling main event between Ferguson, ranked number one in the world, and Gaethje, ranked number four. We all have memories of watching a 25-minute staring contest which started to cries of “This can’t fail to be a war!” but this pair of 155ers are guaranteeing entertainment during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is going to be like Mortal Kombat,” said Gaethje, 31. “It’s perfect and it will be a f***ing war.”
“This is why we’re main event,” agreed Ferguson, 36. “We’re the best of the best and we’re going to go out there and keep sports alive.”

Read the rest of the article at Fighters Only

For more UFC 249 coverage, take in Dominick Cruz's thoughts on fighting for a greater purpose during coronavirus

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more

UFC 249: Dominick Cruz aims to offer hope during coronavirus with title bout against Henry Cejudo

By Alistair Hendrie

“I look at this fight a lot differently than just belts,” said Dominick Cruz, talking on a conference call about his bantamweight title shot against Henry Cejudo on Saturday at UFC 249, which will be held behind closed doors. “What’s the value of championship belts when there are millions of Americans applying for unemployment benefit who can’t feed their families? I look at this fight as a time when I can make a huge difference.”

As such the leader in UFC and WEC bantamweight wins is aware of the moment of respite a UFC event can offer the world during the coronavirus pandemic. The 35-year-old, returning from a four-year absence due to a litany of arm and shoulder injuries, spoke of the millions of Americans who are being laid off work as the economy suffers. Indeed, Cruz wants to offer a glimmer of hope on Saturday.

“Realistically this fight is a stand for everyone who thinks they’re not a champion and to let them know that regardless of what anyone says, regardless of what their credentials are, if you believe something, if you want something, you have a greater purpose than just yourself. I’m gonna stand for that after a four-year lay-off – again – when everyone says ring rust exists even though it doesn’t.”

Read the rest of the article at Fighters Only

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more

Friday, 24 April 2020

Luke Rockhold wants a UFC return but can he test the current crop?

By Alistair Hendrie

Since Luke Rockhold last won a UFC contest in September 2017 a lot has changed. The 185lbs title he once wore has switched hands three times and three of the American’s last four victims – Lyoto Machida, Michael Bisping and David Branch – have either retired or left the UFC. But after Rockhold suffered a pair of knockouts between 2018 and 2019, leading to concerns for his welfare, the polarising middleweight is now considering stepping back into the Octagon.

“I’m getting healthier, and I might be getting an itch (to fight again)” Rockhold told MMA UK. “We’ll see… If Anderson Silva is still interested and seemingly he is. Maybe, you never know.” UFC president Dana White and former foe Michael Bisping had urged Rockhold to leave the sport after his dip in form and since going on hiatus last summer, Rockhold has acted in a film, Cage Fighter: Worlds Collide, in order to keep his options open for a career after MMA.

After all, White and Bisping’s advice was understandable. Yoel Romero broke Rockhold’s jaw when blasting through the Californian in February 2018, while Jan Blachowicz’s punches sent the American Kickboxing Academy man clattering to the mat, stiff as a board, in a light-heavyweight contest in July 2019. The ex-Strikeforce 185lbs leader still has the desire to compete but over the course of his 1-2 skid, Nigerian stylist Israel Adesanya has swaggered into the UFC, vanquished eight foes and taken the middleweight crown. That’s the standard Rockhold will be stepping up to, if he does decide to fight on.

Learn who Rockhold might face on his comeback by reading the full article at Fighters Only

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

On this day: Manchester United silence the critics to stun Juventus in 1999 Champions League

By Alistair Hendrie

Which team did Manchester United fear the most during the mid-to-late nineties? Real Madrid? Borussia Dortmund? Arsenal? Wrong on all counts. It was Juventus. Sir Alex Ferguson was so in awe of Marcelo Lippi’s side that won the Champions League in 1996 that he studied many of Lippi’s traits and idiosyncrasies and applied them to his own team. “Juventus were the model for my United,” he admitted. “Just standing in the tunnel next to them was intimidating,” added full-back Gary Neville.

Heading into the Champions League in 1998-1999 United had won only once in their last four battles with Juventus and the pair were drawn together again in the semi-finals. United were written off, holding a record of two goals in Italy in their history. A 1-1 draw in the first meeting did them no favours but in the return leg in Turn, on 21st April 1999, United roared back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 and progress to the final in what was considered one of the most thrilling turnarounds in European history. Until a few weeks later, of course.

Neville’s concerns became all the more reasonable when you looked at Juventus’ record of three consecutive Champions League finals in 1996, 1997 and 1998. In their ranks they boasted World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane, revered battler Edgar Davids and archetypal fox-in-the-box Filippo Inzaghi, who in the previous season bundled in 18 goals in Serie A after arriving from Atalanta. However, Lippi left a struggling bianconeri in February 1999, and although Carlo Ancelotti restored order, the former Chelsea manager hadn’t quite engineered the sort of form which helped Manchester United streak to the top of the Premier League and into the FA Cup Final, having vanquished Arsenal in the semis.

United travelled to Italy seven days after that success and it looked like there could have been an FA Cup hangover on the cards when they collapsed with an audible crash in the opening moments. Inzaghi helped himself to a brace in first eleven minutes, the first a close-range finish at the far post and the second via a looping deflection over Jaap Stam. Zidane whipped in an inswinger for the first as Inzaghi stole ahead of Neville. The second was less artistic as Inzaghi, turning with his back to goal, swiped a shot which fortuitously ballooned over Peter Schmeichel.

Watching Zidane was a bit like watching a stage actor playing out a part he’d played a hundred times before – he seemed to know what was about to happen before it happened. He was such a stylish and unflappable footballer. Inzaghi was a striker’s striker who loved scoring goals, however they went in. He marked both of his finishes with arms outstretched, eyes in a frenzy, sprinting away from his teammates. This was his moment, and only his.

Still, moments after Dwight Yorke was hauled down by Ciro Ferrara on the edge of the D – no foul, apparently – United earned a lifeline as Roy Keane ghosted in at the near post, unmarked, to head in a David Beckham corner which span to the danger area with menace and velocity. Ten minutes later, though, Keane misread Jesper Blomqvist’s square ball and clattered into Zidane. Yellow card. Keane was suspended for the final. “Roy was really shouting at me… I think he’s still mad at me,” said Blomqvist. The Irishman went on to run the rest of the game like a captain should.

It’s not that it was one of Keane’s best performances, it was more the fortitude and professionalism the former Nottingham Forest man showed to marshal his team and drive them on despite his own setback. For the last hour of the match, he made sure nobody in a red shirt put a foot wrong and played sensible passes, dribbled when possible and allowed Beckham to build up a head of steam down the wing. “It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have ever seen on a football field,” said Ferguson.

With Keane on a yellow United surged forward and made it 2-2 when Andy Cole crossed for Yorke to head home. As such, the Englishmen had equalised for a second time in the tie and were on their way to Barcelona for the final. Yorke hung in the air beautifully, guiding the ball into the top corner so Angelo Peruzzi in the Juventus goal had no chance. He smacked the post moments later too, shooting on sight, driving across goal from 20 yards.

Ancelotti threw on Nicola Amoruso and Paolo Montero at half-time. He was going for it. So were United. The second half was a dog-fight that you couldn’t take your eyes off. Inzaghi rushed when one-on-one with Schmeichel, banging a shot straight at the Dane’s knees. He thought he’d scored a moment later – offside – and Stam stole across Amoruso when the Italian had a clear path to goal.

Keane led by example and so, too, did Schmeichel. The Denmark international was a doubt for the second leg after suffering a groin injury and it was that with Raimond van der Gouw standing by as United’s second choice, the Dutchman could be thrown in at crunch time. There were no problems with Schmeichel’s mobility though. He stood up to Inzaghi and on more than one occasion sprinted into a pack of players to claim and spring a counter, aware of the threat Ancelotti’s men posed.

Schmeichel did look beaten on 83 minutes when Fonseca’s cross skidded across an open goal, but nobody in a black and white shirt could reach the delivery. By now, home fans were shuffling out, heads down, hoods up against the drizzle, and Yorke and Denis Irwin had already blown chances to seal it for United. Cole had no such trouble keeping his composure, converting a loose ball with six minutes remaining to send 6,000 travelling fans into raptures and fire United into their first European final for 31 years.

The match is still gripping viewing today and the rain, Juventus’s support and the gaping, yawning, cavernous Stadio delle Alpi only added to the element of theatre. The second half in particular unfolded like a computer game as both teams attacked as if battling for their lives at the bottom of the table rather than navigating their way to Europe’s biggest prize. It’s a shame, too, that this Houdini moment is overlooked by United’s heroics against Bayern Munich in the final – also a stellar feat of escapology, it has to be said.

It’s true that with the will of Keane and the tandem offence of Yorke and Cole, United never knew when they were beaten. They went on to complete a historic Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble in 1999 which earned Ferguson a knighthood and sent these players – many of them academy graduates – into club folklore. They became the first English side to upend Juventus at the Stadio delle Alpi since 1980 and frankly made a mockery of their tag as underdogs. Neville and Ferguson would never tremble at the thought of Juventus again.

Check out Alistair Hendrie's Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more

Thursday, 9 April 2020

New Mane documentary shows Liverpool icon is adored in Senegal yet naysayers remain

By Alistair Hendrie

A group of children gather in a square in Bambali, Senegal to catch a glimpse of their hero Sadio Mane, who has returned to his birthplace to announce his plans to develop a hospital and a school in the area. “Sadio, Sadio, Sadio!” they chant, whipping up a frenzy as the Liverpool forward watches from a balcony.

Suddenly a man with dreadlocks, perhaps aged around fifty, demands silence amid the commotion. A hush sweeps across the crowd. The man yells up to Mane: “Anything you can do, do it not just for Bambali, but for all of Senegal. May God assist you.” Mane nods along and the crowd explodes again, dancing, singing and drumming to celebrate their talisman.

It’s a scene in Vertical Social Club and arena11’s documentary Sadio Mane: Made in Senegal, which demonstrates how although Mane is revered in his homeland, he still receives criticism for his performances for the national team. Throughout the piece, though, he is mobbed for photos and handshakes as cameras follow him across Bambali and Liverpool.

Those who know Mane best are interviewed and Aliou Cisse, the Senegal manager, describes Mane as a part of the great “castle” of African players. Mady Toure, the president of Dakar’s Generation Foot academy where Mane lived from the age of 15, said he thinks of the current African Footballer of the Year as a son.

Furthermore, the coach who brought Mane to Metz in France in 2011, Olivier Perrin, remembers how Mane played like “something out of a video game.” The first time Perrin watched the youngster “he intercepted the ball in the penalty area and proceeded down the entire field before making the decisive pass to the guy who scored. It wasn’t normal.”

As the documentary unveils how Mane lost his father at the age of seven and how nowadays he struggles to sleep after matches with the adrenaline pumping, Liverpool staff and players also give their thoughts on camera. Manager Jurgen Klopp, centre-back Virgil Van Dijk and central midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum all talk of Mane in glowing terms.

Why wouldn’t they? This is man who has helped Liverpool win the Champions League, the World Club Cup and the UEFA Super Cup in the last year. And yet the naysayers in Senegal remain, despite his status as Senegal’s fourth highest ever scorer with 19 goals. Despite his four consecutive appearances in the Confederation of African Football’s team of the year. Despite his winning the Premier League golden boot in 2018-2019.

One market worker in the film argues that Mane doesn’t perform well enough for Senegal. “Sadio Mane is only good at his club and not his country,” he fumes. “It’s not OK, we aren’t happy with him.” Another chimes in: “He’s one of Africa’s best players, but he doesn’t show it here.” A third bystander adds: “He’s the best, he knows it but he needs to bring something home – the Africa Cup of Nations!”

Indeed, Mane is depicted at his lowest ebb when, in 2017, he misses the deciding spot-kick against Cameroon in their Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final penalty shoot-out. “It really hurt when he missed that penalty,” says Mane’s sister, Mariatou Toure. “It was really tough, people destroyed Sadio’s car after that.” Another scene shows locals arguing about Mane’s status in the national team. It becomes heated as one participant bellows: “He’s our leader!”

Mane struggled to have an impact on the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final as well, when Algeria ran out 1-0 winners. He hasn’t always impressed in the national jersey but playing in Africa - where conditions are different, pitches are inferior and the pressure is intense - will never be easy. Fans will forever ask: “Well, if he can walk the walk in the Premier League, why can’t he do it for his country?”

For instance, England fans were guilty of vilifying David Beckham after was sent off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Nevertheless, the former Real Madrid man scored the free kick against Greece which sent England to the 2002 World Cup, and in the group stages of that World Cup he converted a penalty against Argentina, earning a measure of revenge.

So perhaps the fans who question Mane’s level of effort for Senegal might eat their humble pie. Supporters get frustrated when national stars don’t produce their club form at international level, but Senegal have a way of playing and Liverpool have a way of playing.

Note Mane’s telepathic relationship with Roberto Firmino. Last October, against RB Salzburg in the Champions League, the duo played a lovely one-two, slicing through the Austrians’ backline as Mane netted against his former club. You don’t get that kind of understanding overnight, especially when national teams only get together every three to four months.

Elsewhere, the death of Mane’s father is portrayed with sensitivity and compassion. “The day my father died I was seven years old,” says Mane. “We were about to play on the field when a cousin approached me and said my father passed away. I couldn’t grasp it. He had a stomach ache but because there were no hospitals we tried traditional medicine. So they took him into the village for treatment but he died there.”

Those upsetting memories surface alongside animated reconstructions and sky-high shots of Bambali. Made in Senegal also twists towards elements of a thriller as Mane runs away to Generation Foot in Dakar, defying his family in the hope of becoming a professional footballer. He tells only his closest friend Luc Djiboune where he is, and Mane’s distressed mother warns Djiboune he’ll get beaten up if he doesn’t disclose her son’s whereabouts.

There’s comedy too when Mane arrives in Metz to see dark, blustery and drizzly skies. Oblivious to anything other than the heat of Bambali, he spends his first training session battling the elements in a t-shirt and shorts. His new teammates fall about laughing, wrapped up in layers, coats and gloves. “It was so cold and a bit bizarre,” laughs Mane. “Oh God, did I suffer that day!”

Made in Senegal, all things considered, plays out with balance and intimacy, revealing a lot about Mane away from the goals, success and trophies. Mane is idolised by the majority of Senegal and worshipped by all Liverpool supporters, chiefly for moments of genius such as last season’s backheeled goal against Watford, and his solo effort on his Liverpool debut against Arsenal in 2016. 

Although Senegal haven’t enjoyed the kind of stardust Mane has sprinkled at Liverpool, once it’s all said and done he should be remembered as one of Africa’s finest alongside the likes of Roger Milla, Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba. Perrin puts it best when he states: “He plays football like the greats. When you have fun you’re stronger and I think he’s having fun.”

Take in the documentary here for free, as Mane reveals tales of grief, defying his parents and success on the football pitch

Check out Alistair Hendrie's Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Belarus's plan to save UFC 249 was a desperate stab in the dark

By Alistair Hendrie

Belarus’s proposal to host UFC 249 on Saturday 18th April looked ambitious at best and was reminiscent of a chancer bursting into an auction as the final bids were made. They’d crash through the doors, causing a commotion and embarrassing themselves. “Listen to me” they’d shout, “I’ll save you; I’ll do anything!”

Last weekend, before Justin Gaethje replaced the self-isolating Khabib Nurmagomedov in the UFC 249 main event - where he’ll face Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight strap - the executive director of the Belarus Federation of Hand to Hand Fighting and MMA, Maxim Korolkov, revealed he’d made a leap of faith in giving the UFC options for the event to be staged in, say, Minsk, in front of 15,000 fans despite the coronavirus outbreak.

"We received an oral reply [from the UFC]” said Korolkov. "Firstly, we were thanked for the offer. Secondly, our proposal was included as a conditional 'plan B'. They already have venues for this tournament. Dana White does not want to report this, but they have well-developed options. In any case, they are grateful and ready to consider our option with Minsk for future UFC tournaments… By April 18 we will [be able to] prepare everything."

As if these developments couldn’t be any weirder, the country’s Ministry of Sport and Tourism claimed they hadn’t even spoken to the federation about staging the event. Then there’s the labyrinthine logistical issues.

If Belarus was serious about hosting UFC 249 the country would have needed to ensure a raft of athletes from the United States, Brazil and eastern Europe can travel to the country regardless of flight cancelations, airport closures and aviation staff being placed on leave all over the globe.

Furthermore, coaching teams would need to be transported to the show, whereas the federation would also have to convince referees, judges, doctors and other staff that it’s worth working a UFC event during a worldwide pandemic.

In that sense Belarus’s plans to save the UFC’s next showcase were too large of a bet to be taken seriously but when you look into the country’s dismissal of the threat of coronavirus, Belarusian naivety should be no surprise. Its borders are free to roam through. Its train stations are open. Its sports leagues are continuing as if nothing has happened.

On Sunday Yunost Minsk defeated Shakhtyor Soligorsk to win ice hockey’s Belarusian Extraleague, while the Belarusian Premier League is one of the only football competitions still in progress. And this from a country whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, is more likely to be seen wearing a blindfold than a protective mask as he denies the legitimacy of a pandemic which the rest of the world can see.

Lukashenko waved away the dangers of coronavirus when he called it “another psychosis” and added “panic can hurt us more than the virus itself”. Questions over his sanity were raised further when, in his infinite wisdom, he recommended drinking vodka and sitting in saunas as a remedy for symptoms of the virus. It should be noted for balance that according to Google, at the time of writing on Monday 6th April 2020, Belarus has only suffered eight deaths from 562 cases, with 52 recoveries. Still, Lukashenko’s cartoonish demeanour and wilful ignorance are the lasting images of the country’s response to coronavirus.

That said, it’s unlikely that the UFC will accept Belarus’s last-minute bid as they bundle into the conversation, spouting offers and promises they can’t fulfil. For starters, the UFC promoting an event in an arena full of fans would be treacherous in spreading the virus, while the company cooperating with Lukashenko would be a blot on their corporate image.

Added to that, last week US president Donald Trump told UFC president Dana White he is eager to reopen sports leagues as quickly as is safe, and White has since set his sights on staging the event on the US west coast. As such, considering the health risk and PR disaster which could occur from switching Gaethje against Ferguson to another country, Belarus are left defeated, red-faced and clutching a redundant bet slip.

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more

Monday, 16 March 2020

Cage Warriors 113: Paddy Pimblett relieved to secure replacement foe Decky Dalton

By Alistair Hendrie

Cage Warriors lightweight mainstay Paddy Pimblett has endured a change of opponent for his last two contests, but he is pleased that Irish veteran Decky Dalton is replacing Davide Martinez as his rival at Cage Warriors 113 on Friday.

Pimblett, 25, heard the news as Martinez was deemed unable to travel from Italy to England due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I think Dalton is a better opponent than Martinez,” said “Paddy The Baddy”, chatting exclusively to Fighters Only after one of his final sessions in camp at Next Generation in Liverpool.

“He’s battle-tested and he defeated Kalifa Seydi two weeks ago so he’s going to be fight-ready. I read an interview with Decky recently where he said he wanted to get on a few big arena shows, so he’s obviously jumped at the chance.”

Read the rest of the article at Fighters Only

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Potter suffering dreadful 2020 as Brighton struggle for Premier League goals and wins

By Alistair Hendrie

Graham Potter is having a terrible year. That’s a given. His Brighton and Hove Albion side are the only team in the top four divisions yet to win a match in the league this year, while the Seagulls’ defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday made them the first Premier League team in history to lose on 29th February thanks to 2020 being a leap year. With that said, try telling Potter that having an extra day in the year is a good thing.

After all, his side huffed and puffed against bitter rivals Palace and despite setting a club Premier League record of 24 shots, they couldn’t find inroads when it counted. Winger Solly March hit the side netting when bearing down on goal, French forward Neal Maupay fired directly into the arms of Vicente Guaita and Lewis Dunk’s goalbound header smacked into Maupay, such is Brighton’s luck.

That means Brighton are now winless in eight Premier League matches, leaving them bottom of the table if you take into account only that streak. They have five points during that run whereas Bournemouth, Newcastle United and Aston Villa have seven. Their slump is not down to any lack of defensive prowess or downturn in effort but you have to think Potter’s indecision over his best formation is weighing his squad down.

As Brighton have faltered in 2020, Potter has lined up his rudderless troops in a 3-4-3, 5-3-2, 4-2-3-1 and a bizarre 4-1-2-1-2 against Chelsea in January, which left the Seagulls without a sense of width or any degree of threat from the flanks. Potter would have been delighted to see Alireza Jahanbakhsh rescue his side a point in that match with a stunning overhead kick.

That draw against Frank Lampard’s team simply papers over the cracks however. Since the turn of the year Brighton have failed to score more than once in any Premier League match barring their 3-3 tie at West Ham in February. Potter’s chopping and changing of systems is not leading to goals and it’s a shame to see Maupay struggling when he has the potential to score decent numbers in the Premier League.

The 23-year-old, signed by Potter last summer from Brentford for £19.8 million, has scored only once in his last eleven matches, cutting an isolated figure as he roams down the wings and fights for scraps through the middle. However, he has scored eight altogether in the league this season – not bad for a team short of bullets – but their next highest scorer is own goals with four, underlining their feeble finishing.

Potter lets Maupay play a free role owing to his shrewd dribbling but the trouble is, the 44-year-old doesn’t seem to know how to get the best from Maupay – that is, how to help him find the back of the net more often. Should Maupay play as a lone striker? Should he play alongside Glenn Murray? Who knows? Clearly not Potter, who has flitted between both options without grasping three points.

The former Swansea City manager also added Genk winger Leandro Trossard to his squad during the summer. The little box of tricks netted 11 times last season in the Belgian First Division A, making him the joint-sixth highest scorer in the league as De Smurfen swept to their fourth league title. Conversely, Trossard has struggled to hit those numbers under Potter, netting only three times this term after scoring on the first day of the season in a 1-1 draw with West Ham.

Additionally, Potter has the dilemma of fitting Murray into his plans. The 36-year-old, only the second man in history to grab 100 goals for the Seagulls, has started just three matches in 2020 and it looks like Potter either doesn’t know how to extract the best from Murray or believes the veteran is past his best days.

Given Brighton’s inability to score on a regular basis and their profligacy when presented with golden opportunities, surely Murray’s height, spring and heading ability could get Potter out of a rut. Last season, under Chris Hughton, Murray became an outsider for an England call-up as he banged in 13 Premier League goals, four of them penalties, helping him finish as the league’s joint-seventh highest goalscorer.

Under the watch of Potter, though, the former Palace and Reading marksman has netted just twice in all competitions as he has faded into the peripheries. Take a look at Brighton’s next seven fixtures and Potter’s fight becomes even more gruelling. Champions League-chasing Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester City await and they also face Liverpool in April. Perhaps Murray could get Brighton firing once more in that passage.

The home matches against Liverpool on April 20th and Manchester City on April 25th look to be Herculean assessments, but as conventional wisdom suggests Albion would enjoy less possession against the top two, knocking in early crosses to Murray could bear fruit. At 6 foot, he is taller than Maupay, Trossard and Aaron Mooy and much more of a target for deliveries from the wings.

Whatever happens, Potter needs to coax more from a crop of attackers who have scored four goals between them in Brighton’s last eleven matches. Before the Palace clash the manager told the assembled press that they needed to stop fixating on Brighton’s lack of a victory in 2020 and quit peddling the same narrative. Still, as Palace tasted victory at the AMEX for the first time since 2013, the story continues and Brighton are staring at a return to the Championship.

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more 

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Lampard pays for over-reliance on Abraham against Leicester City

By Alistair Hendrie

No, Frank Lampard said, Tammy Abraham had not recovered from a knock to his ankle but on the other hand, he added, the Chelsea forward was fit enough to start against Leicester City on Saturday. Lampard grinned with admiration for Abraham, just about stopping short of donning pigtails, pom-poms and a skirt. In the end he had to thank his German centre-back Antonio Rudiger who scored a brace of bullish headers to help Chelsea to a 2-2 draw which both sides could have gained more from.

You might ask what Lampard would have thought from the touchline watching Abraham huff, puff and just come up short until he was substituted for Ross Barkley on 82 minutes. The England man is far from the finished article and although he didn’t seem compromised by any injury on Saturday, he rarely looked like improving on his latest record of two goals in his last nine Premier League matches. His promise is also negated by the fact that only one of his 13 goals in the league this season have occurred against a current top six side. That was in August against Sheffield United when Chris Wilder’s side were adjusting to their new surroundings.

Leicester, of course, were far more formidable opponents. As Chelsea dominated the first 45 minutes Abraham misfired on a cross from Mason Mount and also appealed in vain for a penalty when he tumbled over, attempting a cutback while under pressure from Caglar Soyoncu. As Rudiger opened the scoring, later equalising after Harvey Barnes and Ben Chilwell put the home side in the driving seat during a frantic second half, Abraham turned in a disappointing shift and couldn’t tune his radar to any of Pedro or Callum Hudson-Odoi’s deliveries behind the hosts’ backline.

Lampard will defend his striker to the end though. From day one he has championed academy talent and you feel that the former Derby County boss is attacking his first big assignment as a manager with a sense of wide-eyed wonder. He sometimes appears out of his depth but he’s enthusiastic enough to make the bold decisions.

He did exactly that by putting his faith in Abraham, leaving Michy Batshuayi on the bench. Olivier Giroud didn’t even make the list of substitutes. Lampard’s selection reinforced his absence of confidence in Batshuayi, who has only been on the pitch for 139 minutes this season in the league and is yet to start in the competition. The Belgian striker, tall and powerful in the air, would have surely fed off Mount’s set-plays better than Abraham did against Leicester. It was telling that at 2-2, when Chelsea were chasing the game, Lampard would rather bring on Barkley, Mateo Kovacic – two players who rarely gel – and Willian instead of opting for more of a target man.

Lampard’s decisions could also speak to his disillusionment with Chelsea’s January transfer window business. They missed out on Dries Meterns from Napoli. They also let Edison Cavani, the Paris Saint-Germain striker, slip through their fingers. Neither could they shift Batshuayi or Giroud. As such, Lampard sent a message to the board telling them to act in a more clinical manner in future windows.

It’s clear that Lampard would have also kept an eye on Abraham while managing Derby in the Championship last season, as the spidery forward netted 26 times on loan at Aston Villa in the same division. He is a Lampard player. Batshuayi and Giroud aren’t. The former seems particularly unsettled and Maurizio Sarri, Lampard’s predecessor, was also unconvinced by him.

Saturday’s setback was emblematic of Lampard’s lack of choice of a traditional striker. Although Mount, Pedro and Hudson-Odoi created havoc on the left none of them could fashion a clinical moment. The manager even gambled on playing the lightweight Willian as a false nine as the match dwindled out. Abraham was ineffective and Batshuayi, the substitute, was pictured hunched forward with anxiety, covering his face with his bib. Lampard will hope to put less emphasis on Abraham in the future.

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more 

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Liverpool's young pups earn a dose of reality against Shrewsbury Town

By Alistair Hendrie

Liverpool’s Yasser Larouci learned a lesson as his side blew a two-goal lead against Shrewsbury Town on Sunday, leaving them with an FA Cup Fourth Round replay against Town on Tuesday which further bloats the Premier League leaders’ fixture list. After the French 19-year-old poked a toe across Joshua Laurent, hauling the Shrewsbury midfielder down for a penalty kick, Larouci discovered that mistakes cost games, outcomes turn in an instance, and moments like these shape careers. Jason Cummings scored the penalty and later equalised for Shewsbury. Knowing he was at fault, Larouci couldn’t protest when the referee pointed to the spot a moment earlier.

The France under-19s full-back is a prospect to be reckoned with and as Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, opted to rest his first team marathon men who are on course for the quintuple, Larouci was the next best option. He was one of four teenagers who Klopp selected on Sunday, along with midfielder Curtis Jones, 18, full-back Neco Williams, 18, and forward Harvey Elliott, 16.

All of whom are embedded in the Liverpool DNA, conditioned to Klopp’s philosophy of passing and moving and exploiting gaps down the flanks. That said, what they have in talent is offset by a lack of experience as the Club World Cup champions aim for a second shot at Shrewsbury. 

After streaking to a 2-0 lead with √©lan and professionalism, Larouci’s error was the catalyst for Liverpool’s downfall. As Laurent bore down on goal, twenty yards out with only Adrian between the sticks to beat, Larouci arrived too late on the scene, a passenger in the pivotal act.

He dangled a boot across his opponent and given the speed of the coming-together, plus Laurent’s unobstructed path forward, a penalty was inevitable. Without VAR, replays showed that the collision happened a yard outside the box, but Larouci found out how cruel first team football can be.

And though there is much to like about Williams, who also started the third round success over Everton, he nearly let in Shaun Whalley before Shrewsbury roared back. The Welshman was off the pace, too casual, as he allowed Callum Lang’s cross to bounce across his body for Whalley to shank wide. He should have rippled the net.

Then there’s Elliott, who in 2019 become the youngest man to play in the Premier League when he ran out for Fulham against Wolves at 16 years and 30 days. On Elliott’s day he can dazzle with creativity, fizzing past markers with the fearlessness of Joe Cole in his West Ham pomp.

Against Shrewsbury, though, he looked below par, unable to read any of Pedro Chirivella’s balls over the top. He seemed a little lost to be frank, and looked more than a little disconsolate as he sulked off to be replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Still, for the first hour these youngsters had the beating of Shrewsbury and we saw how they can grind out results when they beat Everton, even though the chips were down and they didn’t create much throughout the 90 minutes.

Williams, for one, is confident on the ball and looks a carbon copy of his first team counterpart, Trent Alexander-Arnold, with his limitless energy and ability to bend crosses invitingly towards the penalty spot. Elliott has already showed his mettle too, helping the England under-17s win the Syrenka Cup in September by scoring in a penalty shoot-out.

Chirivella, who is one of the older reserves emerging at 22, displayed style and nous against Shrewsbury. He looked assured as either a water carrier or a playmaker in midfield, arcing balls towards Elliott which, not through lack of conviction, just evaded the forward. Playing 31 games in 2017-2018, on loan at Willem II in the Dutch Eredivise, will have done him the world of good. He combines the efficacy of N’Golo Kante with the all-action drive of his compatriot, Cesc Fabregas, when he first emerged at Arsenal.

While Liverpool’s cubs will look to make amends against Shrewsbury in the replay – Larouci in particular – they are in safe hands with Klopp. The German is revered for prioritising academy development whether at Mainz or Borussia Dortmund. He studies every age group down to schoolboy level, ensuring all of the club’s prospects are adhering to the same blueprint.

Interestingly, Klopp may not be in the country to see if Larouci and his teammates can mop up their spillages from the weekend. The replay occurs during the Premier League’s winter break and so the manager has hinted that he will take his first team on a training trip abroad, leaving under-23s boss Neil Critchley in charge.

There’s another school of thought that the weekend’s collapse could be exactly what Klopp’s kids need. A reality check. A dose of what professional football is all about. The new breed coming through look skilled enough to live up to the legacies of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Steven Gerrard, but do they have the maturity to get by Shrewsbury at the second time of asking? It will be fascinating to find out.

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more 

Friday, 3 January 2020

Manel Kape stuns Kai Asakura, sparking mayhem in Rizin bantamweight division

By Alistair Hendrie

By running through Kai Asakura at Rizin 20 on New Year’s Eve, Manel Kape shook up the 135lbs division, scuppered an all-Japanese rematch between Asakura and Kyoji Horiguchi and also scooped the vacant Rizin bantamweight title. The Angolan celebrated his round two TKO by dashing towards the injured Horiguchi, who was working as a ringside commentator, and planting a kiss on his former vanquisher’s temple. He’d announced himself as a major player and sealed it with a kiss.

Kape, 27, is now slated to defend against Hiromasa Ogikubo, who edged a slugfest against Shintaro Ishiwatari earlier in the event to add further intrigue at 135lbs. At the same weight Patrick Mix, visiting Japan as part of the Bellator roster, looked outstanding in taking out Yuki Motoya inside a round with a vicious guillotine choke from a mounted position. Bearing in mind those victorious fighters – not to mention Asakura and Horiguchi – fans of Rizin can now anticipate a series of thrilling rivalries in the promotion’s marquee division.

Kape walks the walk and talks the talk, after all. He gave himself the moniker “Mr Mother******* Champion” during his post-fight interview and also added that he now feels Japanese, having built a 6-3 record in The Land of the Rising Sun while competing on Rizin cards. Not a bad way to endear yourself to a packed-out Saitama Super Arena.

Read the rest of the article at Fighters Only

Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more