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Sports stars who made 2020 tick

In a year that will be better known for the global Coronavirus pandemic and locally, for the EndSARS protest, some sports personalities stood out to make 2020 headlines. TAIWO ALIMI examines the iconic sports people of 2020.

Anthony Joshua (Heavyweight boxer)

2020 is the year of Anthony Joshua (AJ), world heavyweight boxing champion. The boxer born to Nigerian father and Irish mother in Watford-U.K, had produced a brilliant display against Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia on December 7, 2019 to reclaim the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO straps he’d lost to the Mexican-American in June.

AJ, however, chose this year to cement his greatness in the minds of boxing followers around the world.

If 2019 and the shocking loss to Ruiz Jr had created doubt about the Sagamu lad, 2020 erased any iota of hesitation that AJ can hold his own in the heavyweight class. It has also brought to the fore the unification bout about to happen between AJ and Tyson Fury. The ultimate megabuck and epoch fight is expected to happen in 2021.

This is made possible by AJ after dominating Kubrat Pulev in a ninth-round shut-out in which he dropped the Bulgarian four times on December 12, 2020.

In the presence of only 1000 ringside viewers inside SSE Arena, Wembley, AJ pummelled Pulev, who had no answer to the tirade of upper-cuts and jabs that rained on him all night.

Joshua was patient, methodical, and when openings presented themselves, he did not hold back. He pounded from ends to ends, making Pulev to commit boxing errors –like turning his backs- on at least two occasions.

Boxing buffs in Nigeria were especially grateful for the night that brought out again the resilience of Nigerians-don’t mind the fact that he was born and bred and taught the fine art of boxing abroad.

It is gratifying to note that AJ also made a massive homecoming campaign this year February. His Nigeria visit took him to the slums of Makoko, Afrikan Shrine where he joined Femi Kuti on stage during a performance and his ancestral home Sagamu where he sparred on the sandy streets with local kid boxers, reminiscent of 1974 Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle promotion in Kinshasha-Zaire.

All is set for Joshua vs Fury showdown which will determine the undisputed champion in boxing glamour division. Expected to happen in 2021, it will generate hundreds of millions of dollars. Guaranteed, AJ will stay in the news come 2021.

Israel Adesanya (UFC fighter)

The year 2020 has thrown up a new champion in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight division and he is a Nigerian by the name Israel Adesanya.

Kicking off his professional career in 2018, Adesanya was only on the lips of UFC diehards until his convincing dismantling of top contender Paulo Costa, on 27th of September, 2020.

Within two years he has fought 20 times and emerged winner in all.

Adesanya made his debut in UFC in February 2018 and quickly amassed an enviable record to become the UFC middleweight champion on the world in 2020.

The 31-year-old silenced his critics with a comprehensive second-round win over rival Costa, a formerly undefeated Brazilian, to keep his record clean at 20-0-0. He has never been beaten.

In-fact the story of the teenager from Lagos-Nigeria who refused to give up his fighting ambition from Nigeria to Kiwi country New Zealand, has become an inspiration among youths the world over.

Adesanya think himself a fighting machine from when he was able to run and jump.  In a recent interview, he said of his consummate ambition to become a professional fighter: “I was not afraid to tell them (his parents) that I won’t do any other thing but to fight. I’m obsessed with performing and tried my luck in dancing by joining a dance group. I switched to karate and joined a karate gym and started attending competitions.”

He went on to stockpile a terrific amateur kickboxing record. He went unbeaten over 32 fights before moving to China to reside and fight.

Israel Adesanya

Efe Ajagba (heavyweight champion)

While AJ and Israel Adesanya are becoming champions of the world, another Nigerian, Efe Ajagba, also made the big headlines in the heavyweight boxing division.

The Ugheli, Delta State born heavyweight boxer is only 26, but has done enough to get heads turning and tongues wagging about him as a leading contender and a potential champion.

The hard-hitter has scored big in 2020 twice outpunching his opponents to climb up the world title contender’s ladder and attract the attention of WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.

Tyson, in September, listed him among heavy punchers he would like to engage before retiring.

Ajagba knocked out Razvan Cojanu on 7th March 2020 in the 9th round at Barclays Center, New York, United States and won a unanimous decision over Jonathan Rice in Nevada, United States on 19th September, 2020.

He currently stands at 14 wins, 0 losses and 0 draws. Of those 14 wins, he has stopped 11 of his opponents, so his current knock-out ratio is 79%.  He’s boxed a total of 50 rounds, meaning his professional fights last 3.6 rounds on average and currently ranks 11th by the WBC in the heavyweight division.

The Africa games gold medallist and 2016 Olympics quarter-finalist is both tough and ambitious. “I want to get into the Top Five of world heavyweight boxing. I’m not scared. I respect boxers like Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and (Deontay) Wilder. AJ is successful but I’m the best heavyweight right now,” Ajagba said of himself. Boxing world will definitely hear more of Ajagba in the coming years.

Efe Ajagba

Victor Osimhen (footballer)

The Nigerian football star rising profile hit a crescendo in 2020. His phenomenon rise began unfolding in June, 2020 when the Lille’s forward was named the Marc-Vivien Foé RFI-France 24 Prize for best African player in the French Ligue 1, the French football championship for the 2019-2020 season.

The former Nigeria U17 star was chosen by a jury of sport journalists specialising in French and African Football. He garnered a clear 284 points ahead of Ilam Slimani of Algeria and Monaco and Yunis Abdelhamid of Morocco and Stade de Reims, who got 95 and 89 points respectively.

The Nigerian international ended the Ligue 1 season with 18 goals and six assists in 38 appearances- a feat that earned him Lille’s player of the season award.

By July, 2020, his name was ringing louder than church bell and the media were   awash with genuine and fake transfer news for the Nigerian international. He was linked to nearly all the biggest clubs in Europe from Liverpool to Manchester United to Barcelona.

On 31st of July, Serie A club Napoli announced the signing of Osimhen for a club-record fee of 70 million Euros with add-ons, making him the most expensive African transfer to date. The five-year deal is about $94m with personal earnings to the tune of about $4.5m per season.

In his first major interview in Italy, Osimhen said; “my goal is to do very well and win trophies for Napoli and this is the most important thing for me.

“I have been settling down well here and it is important for me to continue from where I stopped at Lille.

“I am very happy to be in a great and big club like Napoli; and the fans, my teammates and the whole staffs at the club have been wonderful, which is important for a young player coming into a great team like Napoli.”

On October 17, 2020, Osimhen scored his first goal for Napoli in a 4-1 win over Atalanta and he celebrated by holding up a shirt calling for the ending of police brutality in his country-Nigeria.

Osimhen

Odunayo Adekuoroye (wrestling)

After years of consistent showing at the World and Africa championships, Nigeria top wrestler Odunayo Adekuoroye hit jackpot in 2020. The African title holder, who is repeating the feat for the sixth time, was rated world number 1 in the women’s 57kg category.

The title fetched her 18 points for her gold in Algeria plus 43 she has amassed to overthrow closest rival Risako Kawai of Japan, according to the United World Wrestling (UWW), in February 2000.

Adekuoroye, 27, started the year ranked third in the category before overthrowing Kawai and Rong Ningning of China after emerging winners again at the African championship.

The 2014 Commonwealth games gold medallist, who emerged Nigeria’s first ever silver medallist at the World Championship last year, is by this feat ranked among the world’s best.

Adekuoroye said of her record feat: “I feel so excited and happy I won my sixth and African title. This will only make me sit up for the Tokyo Olympic Games. It will make me train harder because every eye will be on me now as the number one wrestler in the 57kg.”

Odunayo Adekuroye

Diego Maradona

The world was jolted with the death notice of Argentine soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona on November 25, 2020. His demise at 60 was put at the doorstep of heart attack at the age of 60, though his fiery personality and excesses were of public knowledge. Notwithstanding, it sparked a global outpouring of grief and police enquiry. For days after his death leading on to his burial, thousands of fans and cult-hero worshippers stormed Buenos Aires to bid their hero farewell, while world leaders mourn the loss of a legend.

The 1986 World Cup winner for Argentina famous for his ‘hand of god’ genius goal against England en-route winning the Mundial, was by far the most popular footballer in the world, a flawed hero who stands in contrast to the athletes who often define the modern game.

Late Diego Maradona

Paolo Rossi

While the world was mourning Maradona, the obituary of Italian footballer Paolo Rossi filtered in. He died of lung cancer at 64 on December 9, 2020.

Rossi became a national hero in Italy after scoring six times in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, including a crucial first goal in the 3-1 victory over West Germany in the final.

Many fans shared pictures of Rossi alongside Maradona, who passed away about two weeks ago. The pair played against each other during the 1982 World Cup and Italy faced Argentina again during the following tournament’s group stage.

Italian newspaper, La Gazetta dello Sport described Rossi as “the one who beat Zico’s Brazil, Maradona’s Argentina and Boniek’s Poland, and in the final, the Germany of Rummenigge.”

Paolo Rossi

Kobe Bryant

Of the sports personality deaths that characterised the outgoing year 2020, that of NBA legend Kobe Bryant touched the heart of the world more. 2020 was just breaking like an early morning fog when news of the demise of the basketball great came in on January 26, 2020.

Kobe’s death shocked the world in that he died alongside his favourite, Gianna, 13, and eight others in a helicopter crash in the city of Calabasas, California.

The death of the NBA five-time champions sent shivers down the spine of many who sent their condolences through the social media in the wake of the announcement.

Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar posted a video to share his condolences via his twitter by saying “he will always remember him as a man who was much more than an athlete.”

Top athletes: Novak Djokovic, Christian Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Paul Pogba, Lewis Hamilton and Neymah also paid glowing tribute to him.

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