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Efe Ajagba interview: “I Can Beat Anthony Joshua With My Skills”

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“Skill would beat Joshua, not power”

Efe Ajagba is an unbeaten Nigerian heavyweight
Anthony Joshua’s long-held dream of fighting in Africa could be aided by the rising threat of another Nigerian heavyweight who plans to knock him off his perch.

Efe Ajagba has already plotted how he would dethrone Joshua, whose pride for his African heritage is worn in the form of a tattoo on his arm.

“The people would support Joshua because he is the heavyweight champ,” Ajagba tells Sky Sports but he is quickly establishing himself as a dangerous contender with vicious KO power who could become the perfect foil for Joshua to stage a fight against in Nigeria.

“Skill would beat Joshua, not power,” said the undefeated Ajagba. “Me and Joshua both have the power. But skills control the power.
“I have more skills.”

Surely Joshua, an Olympic gold medallist and two-time heavyweight champion, has his fair share of skill?

“I don’t think so,” Ajagba says. “The best weapon of Joshua’s is the left hook and right uppercut. He doesn’t have a good jab.
“I respect him. He is the heavyweight champion. I respect everything about him – his talent and his potential. He is a humble guy.
“People are saying that I talk Joshua down. But I don’t want to do that.
“Joshua is from Nigeria so he is a part of Africa, too.”
Joshua was inspired to reclaim his IBF, WBA and WBO titles from Andy Ruiz Jr last year after a trip to the Makoko slum in Nigeria, the African nation where his parents are from.
“They told me: ‘Make sure you go get those belts back’,” Joshua told Sky Sports at the time. “That is massively inspiring.”

He hopes to one day emulate Muhammad Ali by fighting in Africa but it is logistically difficult despite the clear interest. Ali beat George Foreman in ‘the Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire in 1974.

The emergence of a challenger like Ajagba can only benefit Joshua’s dream.
“Absolutely in the future,” Ajagba says of facing Joshua on African soil. “It would be perfect. Two Nigerian warriors fighting in a title fight.”
Heavyweight prospects are defined by their power but Ajagba, more than most, is carving out a reputation as a wrecking ball.

He is unbeaten in 13 and the only opponent to go the distance was Ali Eren Demirezen. That fight was Ajagba’s hardest examination so far – Demirezen had a better record, unbeaten in 10, before they met.
Curiously he plays down his knockout power insisting it is nothing special.

“I don’t think so. It’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about the way I throw my punch and how my opponent feels it.
“It’s not about power. Power comes from how you throw the punch, and how you land the punch. Move your legs into the punch, that’s where the power is.”

Ajagba is the youngest son of a boxer who initially discouraged him from following the same path. But trouble became too easy to find for a young and feisty Ajagba.

“I discovered boxing in Nigeria. I would fight on the streets and I always won,” he says. “So I started boxing.
“Fighting on the streets is different to boxing. I had natural power. I wasn’t fighting a boxer, I would fight bodybuilders. I wasn’t a boxer, he wasn’t a boxer. So I hit them, they fell. Boxing is different because fighters train everyday to get in the ring.”
At first he did not enjoy the discipline that came with boxing.
“No, not immediately. I had to take my time and think about it.
“When I started boxing they taught me foundations – how to move my legs, how to throw combinations.”

He was Nigeria’s only boxing representative at the 2016 Olympics and was eliminated by Ivan Dychko of Kazakhstan, who is now 9-0 as a pro but with none of the clamour attached to Ajagba’s rise.
He was scouted at the Olympics and brought to Houston, Texas, a city with a large Nigerian immigrant population to base his professional career.

Was it a hard transition?

“Not really. The environment is very different. I saw a different life when I came to America, a different community.
“The environment in America is beautiful. Nigeria is beautiful too, but America is a different culture.”

He worked with Ronnie Shields, who had previously trained Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, and the opponents soon began to fall. Seven of his first eight fights were finished in a single round.
One of those remains among the strangest results in boxing history, although Ajagba does not find it funny.

His 2018 win against Curtis Harper was officially clocked at one second. The opening bell rang, Harper calmly exited the ring and walked backstage, never to be seen again.
The clip went viral, viewed millions of times in the days afterwards. It emerged Harper was protesting against his own promoter.
“I was mad and confused,” Ajagba says. “I didn’t know what was going on. Why did he walk out of the ring”

Anthony Joshua: only skills can beat him, says Ajagba


“I didn’t see him after the fight. But before the weigh-in, his girlfriend came to me and said: ‘Are you fighting Curtis Harper?’
“I didn’t know why she was asking me questions.
“She said: ‘You have the talent, you have the skills’.
“She came to me to ask me to take it easy in the fight!
“I can’t do that.
“Why did she ask me to take it easy?
“So when Curtis Harper walked out of the ring, I was mad and confused.”

The next stage of Ajagba’s development will be promoted by Bob Arum’s Top Rank. He has changed trainers to Kay Koroma, who also works with Shakur Stevenson and Jarrett Hurd, meaning he will be based out of Virginia.
Aged just 26 and with all of his fights coming in the USA, he is still a prospect being carefully managed through the heavyweight division.

There are issues to iron out – last December he was floored by Iago Kiladze, an opponent on a four-fight winless run, but recovered to avoid catastrophe. Earlier this year he needed nine rounds to get rid of Razvan Cojanu, who was beaten inside two rounds by Daniel Dubois.

Ajagba is hoping to make his Top Rank debut in September and promoter Bob Arum said: “He has immense physical tools and a great work ethic. I have the utmost confidence that we’re looking at a future heavyweight champion.”

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Connected By Fate, Separated By Death : The Sad Tale Of Two Nigerian Strikers

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Late Nigerian Striker, Thompson Usiyan
         By Segun Odegbami

The elements are at work again, playing games with the affairs of man. This is an unlikely tale of two of Nigeria’s greatest football strikers .

Whenever my telephone rings at an ungodly hour, it bothers me, because, often it is a harbinger of sad news.

This past week I received two such telephone calls, one day apart, from two friends in the very early hours of each of the days. Both calls were spirit dampeners.

Godwin Efejukwu called me before 6 O’clock in the morning last Tuesday.

I picked up the call because it was Godwin. He is a retired police officer. He left the Police Force as a Chief Superintendent many years ago. We were, for a brief period, between 1977 and 1978, colleagues in the national football team of Nigeria. He was a goalkeeper and was invited from the Nigerian Police Machine FC, a team that regularly produced great football players in those days and was in the top echelon of Nigerian football. Because of the time of the call, I assumed already that it would be bad news. There is too much of it blowing in the air these days.

“Oyarekhua is dying, please you must do something to help him”. He gave it to me upfront and bluntly, not mincing words and without any pretentious niceties.

Of course, I know Sunday Oyarekhua. I never played with him if my recollection is correct. Nigerians know him as a mercurial Centre-Forward for the Police Machine FC and also for Green Eagles in the early 1970s. I had also recently read somewhere that he was bedridden as a result of Stroke and was living in pain at his home in Lagos. Godwin’s message is painful: Sunny is now unable to walk or talk audibly, and is slowly being drained of life. He needs help.

Sunny Oyarekhua, as he was better known before and during the Second All-Africa Games in 1973, was at the top of the goalscoring chart when Nigeria won the Gold medal at the Games in Lagos. He was Nigeria’s most prolific goalscorer in the national team for the years that he was there. He had pace and power, always at the right spot at the right time in the box, pouncing on loose balls and ’burying’ them behind opposing goalkeepers. He was so consistent that many football fans described him as a goal-scoring machine. He had the nose for ‘smelling’ and scoring goals. By the time he was done with the national team in 1976, he had amassed a goal-chest of 17 goals in 28 international matches for Nigeria, the highest by any player at national team level up to that point.

Unfortunately, by the time the national team returned from Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, in 1976, venue of the African Cup of Nations, where Nigeria won her first Bronze medal in AFCON, Nigeria had identified a fresh pair of legs  to strike for the national team. That trip marked the end of Sunny’s career and reign as the Green Eagles’ hit man. That young man, was Thompson Usiyan.

But back to Sunny for a moment. Unlike most retiring athletes that suffer and languish in despair, neglect and penury after their sports careers are over, Sunny Oyarekhua returned to his primary constituency, the Police Force after retirement. For the next 3 decades, or so, he served the Force with dignity and honor, just as he served Nigerian football with distinction.

A couple of years ago, by the time he finally retired from the service of the police, he rose to the position of Assistant Commissioner of Police. This is a position from which he should NOT now be counted amongst former athletes neglected and languishing in their aging years.  Apparently, for whatever reason, he is, hence Godwin’s call, as well as social media reports calling for help for him.

My response to Godwin is that we must first know exactly what Sunny needs to alleviate his situation, and then we can jointly raise the issue with appropriate authorities that can help, including the Nigerian Police and the Nigerian sports and football authorities.

I was still trying to digest Sunny Oyarekhua’s situation when another call came the following morning.

Again, the time was ungodly – before dawn. This time it was from my friend and fellow Green Eagle member, ’Franco Nero’, Francis Moniedafe, from his base in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.

Francis calls me at all hours, so I had no apprehension when I picked up his call. He broke the sad news to me – Thompson Usiyan was on his death bed. Thompson’s wife had just called him a few minutes before calling me that her husband who had been receiving treatment for Colon Cancer in a hospital in California, and had been receiving treatment in the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital, had been discharged. His case was terminal and there was nothing more the hospital could do. So, he was to be taken home to spend his final hours, or days, as the case may be, with his family. That was shattering! Francis was calling me to tell me to get Nigerians to pray for Thompson as nothing more could be done for him.

It was very frustrating to realize the fragility of life and the futility in struggling to live ‘forever’ when ‘it’ will inevitably come when ‘it’ will come.

Two hours later, another journalist called asking if I had heard the news of Usiyan’s death. Then the calls started to rain. Thompson Usiyan had died in his home with his family around him!

That really hit me hard. For once, I realize how completely helpless we all are against the elements. This catastrophic event is a recurring decimal in life; that death will come to everyone, one by one, turn by turn.

I am thinking of Thompson and seeing the connection with Oyarekhua. Uncanny.

I remember my years with Thompson as if they were yesterday.  In 1976, I made my second appearance in the Green Eagles squad. I had been invited to the squad in December of 1973 as a result of my performance during the first National Sports Festival, in Lagos. I left the team in 1974 to return to my studies and to club football only in Ibadan for the next 2 years.

In 1975, during the Second National Sports Festival, Thompson Usiyan appeared flitingly like a meteor on the scene as a member of the Academicals team of Mid-West/Bendel State. He played only one match, the final match against a star-studded Western Academicals team that had Tunde Balogun, Taiwo Ogunjobi, Zion Ogunyeyimi, Christopher Okolo, and so on.  Thompson came in a sub, tall and gangly, and with only a few touches on the ball, a clever goal scored with his head, and some intelligent movements and dribbles, he had won the hearts of the full-house of spectators as well as the national team handlers scouting for young talents.

With one match, Thompson moved into the National squad of Nigeria.

He was the player the coaches had been looking for, a player with the ‘nose’ for goal scoring, who would succeed the aging Policeman, Sunny Oyarekhua, Nigeria’s highest goalscorer at national team level up to that time.  That’s the uncanny connection between the two strikers, because 36 years after that period, the two names have surfaced together again, in the past one week, on the plate of Nigerian football.

Thompson joined the national team immediately after the festival, travelled with the team to East Africa on their way to the 1976 African Cup of Nations in Ethiopia, had his debut during that tour against Kenya on February 7, in Nairobi, scored his first goal in that match, and never looked back again until he migrated to the USA on the eve of Nigeria’s last World Cup qualifying matches against Tunisia in 1977. In less than two short years, he became one of the greatest strikers in Nigerian football history.

Thompson played in all the matches in Ethiopia except against Guinea, scored three goals in all and, by the time the team returned to Nigeria, had permanently ‘retired’ Sunny Oyarekhua from the Green Eagles. So, Oyarekhua indirectly handed the baton to Usiyan.

After that, Thompson led Nigeria’s attack to defeat the strongest team in Africa at the time, Morocco, and qualified for the 1976 Olympic Games of Montreal, Canada.

It was after all these in June of 1976 that I returned finally and fully to the national team having graduated from school, and was doing my National Youth Service with the Green Eagles. There could never have been a happier and luckier Youth Corper than I in Nigeria’s history.

When I played my first official match for Nigeria against Sierra Leone in Freetown in 1976 I played on the right side of the attack mainly because Thompson Usiyan was now fully established as Nigeria’s number 1 hitman.

Thereafter, the young man who rose from the national Academicals, started to mesmerise the whole country with his goalscoring skills and ability. Although Sunday Oyarekhua was also in the same 1976 national team squad, and played some of the matches in Ethiopia, it was as a substitute to Thompson.

With Thompson’s rise, Sunny Oyarekhua packed his bags from the national team for the last time. By the time I came and joined Thompson and Kunle Awesu, the best left-sided winger in Africa from Dire Dawa, Oyarekhua had become history in the national team.

Thompson left Nigeria hurriedly in 1977. He abandoned an uncertain career in football in Nigeria for the assured greener pastures of America, following in the footsteps of the pioneers of that cross-Atlantic movement – Andrew Atuegbu, Tony Igwe, Dominic Ezeani, Sunny Izebigie, Taiwo Ogunjobi, Tunde Balogun, Yomi Bamiro, and many others.

Thompson was part of the second wave of mass-migrants that included Adekunle Awesu, Ben Popoola, Muyiwa Sanya, Ogidi Ibeabuchi, Ken Ilodigwe, and so on.

After him, there was a third wave of Francis Moniedafe, Chris Ogwu, Damian Ogunsuyi, Sam Okpodu, Alfred Keyede, Ken Boardman, Segun Adeleke, Emmanuel Merenini, and a whole army of some of the best young and established talents in the country.

In the fourth wave were the Olukanni brothers, Tajudeen Disu, Arthur Egbunam, Paul Okoku, Humphrey Edobor, Nathaniel Ogedengbe, and so on.

Thompson’s departure on the eve of Nigeria’s final qualifying matches with Tunisia became a disaster for the country.  The man had set such a high standard in goalscoring that for almost one decade after his exit there was no a good-enough replacement until Rashidi Yekini came from Kaduna to the Shooting Stars FC, fell into the embrace of Chief Festus Onigbinde, and became the hitman of the national team from 1984!  Thompson was that good and that influential.

Thompson returned briefly in fits in 1978 and joined us at the All African Games in Algeria, but America had blunted his goal-scoring edge. He was not quite the same player any more.

But then, he had set alight USA Collegiate football. He became the most decorated African player in USA College football history. To date, no African player has matched Thompson Usiyan’s goalscoring records in American Collegiate football.

That’s why it was easy for him to get a professional contract in the USA and Canada when professional football was just struggling to take off in that part of the world. He was given American citizenship, and was even hired to be a part of the USA technical contingent to Nigeria ’99. 

Of the 1976 to 1978 members of the national team too many have passed on, each with their own painful story – Joseph Erico, Kelechi Emetiole, Ogidi Ibeabuchi, Alloysius Atuegbu, Adekunle Awesu, Mudashiru Lawal, Kenneth Olayombo, Samuel Ojebode, Haruna Ilerika…….and so on.

Thompson’s death is an addition, a reminder of our mortality, that life, really, is a route to death, containing all the basic ingredients of how, where and when the inevitable will happen.

In my humble estimation, Thompson was the most gifted striker in the history of Nigerian football. He was extravagantly skillful (like Jay Jay Okochabut more lethal), an excellent dribbler, and deceptively quick off the mark with very sharp reflexes. His greatest weapon was his ability to shoot or bend the ball from a standing position. Inside the box, with the ball at his feet, and from a ‘harmless’ standing position, surrounded by defenders, he could strike the ball with either of his feet, or bend it, with precision and power. He was an excellent header of the ball. He inspired me to learn how to head better than I did, and between us in the national team for a brief period, we were more than a handful for most opposing teams.

On the road to Montreal, Canada, during our tour of Europe, the Eagles were called the 3-5-10 Eagles, the numbers reflecting the number of goals Thompson and his striking partners handed out to the small club- sides we played against, as no European country would agree to play against an African national team at the time. They considered our standards too low.

The movement to America was ‘redemption call’ for Thompson, and for many Nigerian players that grabbed the opportunities of higher education that were offered at the time. Their action depleted the pool of exceptional talent in the Nigerian football firmament.

Thompson was a real ‘Warri boy’, streetwise, clever and with an infectious laughter that endeared him to everyone.  His greatest ‘friend’ and ‘foe’ at the same time was ‘Babuje’, Emmanuel Okala. Between them there was a daily duel of words outside the field and of a fierce competition inside it.

Thompson loved to score against Okala. He loved to see the ‘pain’ in Okala’s eyes, and would jokingly mock him, every time he managed to put the ball behind the ‘Man Mountain’. Oh, how Okala ‘hated’ those moments. It was as if only Thompson had his number time and again during training sessions. Most of us, forwards, were terrified to go near Okala when he was between the posts. Not so, Thompson.

During shooting practice sessions, Okala’s pleasure was humbling forwards. He succeeded against all except Thompson. So, it was a daily ‘war’ of friendly boasting and betting between them.

Nigeria would have, almost undoubtedly, gone to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina had Thompson not left the national team at the time he did for the USA with only the last two crucial matches to play with Tunisia. That team would have been the first Nigerian National Team to go to the World Cup, and with the abundance of exceptionally talented and expressive footballers in the team, would have made a great impression around the world of football. Thompson was the missing link in 1977.

His death is painful.

His sojourn in Nigerian football was short, very short – 2 years! Yet, those that saw him play will never forget his mesmerizing moves, his exceptional talent and, particularly, his goals.

As he transits to a higher realm, I pray that he travels peacefully to meet his Creator. On behalf of all generations of Nigerian footballers, I express sincere our collective condolences to the family of Thompson ‘Tommy Tay’ Usiyan as he ‘rests’ . Goodnight, my friend.

Meanwhile, we must not forget the living, the man Thompson displaced in the national team in 1976, the police Officer and Gentleman, Sunny Oyarekhua, as he lies on his sick bed in need of our attention and support to elongate and make his years here on earth happier and more comfortable.

Segun Odegbami

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Real Madrid tables €170 Million Offer For Mbappe

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Real Madrid have made a second bid for PSG star Kylian Mbappe and are optimistic their offer of €170 million (£146m/$200m) plus €10m (£9m/$12m) in add-ons will be enough to land the forward, Goal can confirm.

The Blancos made an opening bid of  €160m (£137m/$188m) earlier this week, which was rejected by PSG.

But after increasing their bid, the Spanish giants are growing increasingly confident they will be able to close a deal for the 22-year-old superstar.

The state of negotiations

Mbappe, whose contract expires at the end of the current season, has turned down no fewer than six contract renewal offers from PSG.

The forward has made it clear that his dream is to join Madrid and is willing to do what it takes to make the move happen.

PSG sporting director Leonardo admitted this week that Mbappe wants to leave the club, but hit out at Madrid for what he called “illegal” conduct in contacting the forward.

“In terms of our position on Real, it seems like a strategy to try to get a no from us, to show that they have tried everything and to wait for a year to get him for free,” Leonardo told RMC Sport.

“For the last two years, Real Madrid have been behaving like this, it is not correct, illegal even, because they contacted the player. It is unacceptable for us, because it is not correct.”

PSG have demanded up to €220m (£189m/$259m) for Mbappe, but Madrid are firm in their stance that they will not pay that amount.

Goal understands that PSG head coach Mauricio Pochettino, along with the club’s dressing room, have accepted that Mbappe will likely leave.

Mbappe at PSG

The 22-year-old has developed into one of the world’s best players after joining PSG from Monaco in 2017.

Mbappe has led Ligue 1 in scoring the past three seasons and has been named the division’s player of the year in two of those campaigns.

After Lionel Messi’s arrival, it looked like Messi, Mbappe and Neymar would form one of the strongest forward lines of all time but it now appears that dream is set to elude the Parisians. (Goal.com)

 

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Champions League opponents confirmed after group stage draw

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The draw for the group stages of this season’s UEFA Champions League took place in Istanbul today with Liverpool placed in Group B

Liverpool face trips to Atletico Madrid, Porto and AC Milan in the group stages of this season’s Champions League.

The Reds were placed in Group B during today’s draw which took place in Istanbul.

Atletico came in from Pot One, with Porto from Pot Three and AC Milan from Pot Four to join Liverpool in their group.

Jurgen Klopp’s men salvaged their place in this season’s competition with a strong end of season run which secured them third spot in the Premier League.

And after last season’s Champions League quarter-final exit to Real Madrid and last 16 exit to Atletico Madrid in 2020, Liverpool fans will be hoping for a return to the kind of continental form which saw them reach consecutive finals in 2018 and 2019, the latter of which saw Tottenham Hotspur beaten in Madrid to secure the club’s sixth European Cup.

The fixture means a reunion with Atletico for the Reds – and another encounter with former star forward Luis Suarez.

Elsewhere, PSG were drawn in Group A alongside Manchester City. It raises the prospect of a Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo showdown, should the Portuguese attacker join up with Pep Guardiola’s side with rumours of a deal increasing.

The Champions League group stage fixtures are due to take place on September 14/15 ; September 28/29 ; 19/20 October ; 2/3 November ; 23/24 November ; and 7/8 December.

Liverpool’s confirmed fixtures and dates are expected to be released in the coming days.

Champions League group stage draw in full:

Group A: Manchester City, PSG, RB Leipzig, Club Brugge.

Group B: Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, FC Porto, AC Milan.

Group C: Sporting Lisbon, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax, Besiktas.

Group D: Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk, FC Sheriff Tiraspol.

Group E: FC Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Benfica, FC Dynamo Kyiv.

Group F: Villarreal, Manchester United, Atalanta, BSC Young Boys.

Group G: Lille, Sevilla, FC Red Bull Salzburg, VfL Wolfsburg.

Group H: Chelsea, Juventus, FC Zenit, Malmo

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