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