The world famous Iraqi kickboxer, Riyadh Al Azzawi, has just returned from his long overdue trip to Iraq. It was the first time he has returned home since leaving as a youngster. He travelled as part of KGP: Baghdad, who organised a massive event in Al Shaab Stadium. Plenty of UK based athletes traveled to Baghdad in order to perform in front of an entire stadium. Over 18 different nationalities were present, which helped make it a memorable and historical event for all those involved. IraqFootball.me’s own Hassanane Balal was involved as part of Riyadh Al Azzawi’s team and was lucky enough to experience the whole event. He sat down and interviewed Riyadh after the event had taken place.
– The Journey To Stardom –
I left Iraq when I was only 17 years old. I made my way to London in order to find a better life for myself because the situation back home was becoming more difficult by the day. I was succeeding as a kickboxer before I left but it was always my dream to fight abroad and prove myself against the very best in the world.
To leave Iraq and not be back for 20 years is difficult but there are certain factors that made it difficult for me to return. When I first arrived in the airport once the plane had landed, I immediately felt at peace. To leave my home as a kid with a big dream, then to return back and find your picture in the airport, with everyone asking you for a selfie with them – it made me realise just how far I had come. I owe this all to God.
The reaction from the people is what made me most happy. Everyone was welcoming and delighted to see me. It made the struggle I endured over the last 20 years worthwhile. It’s not easy to leave home at a young age and pursue a career as a kickboxer but people often forget this and only focus on your success. I left home as a kid and went without seeing my parents for a really long time. I had to cope with training, injuries, studies and other problems all on my own. It was particularly tough for me as a spoilt child, to suddenly be thrown into the deep end, where you’re expected to do everything for yourself. I had no family in London and my brother Mohammed only moved there three years after.
– Training & Preparation For KGP Baghdad –
I felt in the best shape of my life going into the fight despite my age – I hadn’t felt this good since I was 18. We’d changed my training completely, with much more focus on explosive exercises, speed and military training. I went on a strict diet to help me shed 10KG for me to be at optimum weight. I was leaner, faster and stronger than ever before.
There were obviously difficulties due to me having to juggle training along with coordinating and organising this massive event in Baghdad. Ahmed and Mohammed, my brothers, were away in Iraq in order to arrange everything – stadiums, tickets, media, etc.
I usually trained with Mohammed but since he was away, I trained with my friend Ali, who wasn’t a specialist at kickboxing. Despite this though, he managed to get me in great shape. Along the way, you obviously pick up niggling injuries but I was able to overcome this in time for the fight. Everything went perfect and I wouldn’t change anything in terms of how we prepared. I knew I was ready in the changing room and all throughout the preparation.
– Organising The Event –
It was my idea to come to Iraq and host this event because I wanted to give something back to my people. KGP were amazing too and were able to bring the best kickboxing and Muay Thai fighters in the UK to Iraq. They were excited when I proposed the idea to them and I’m really happy that they helped make this dream happen.
Of course there were problems in organising and preparing the event, including some last second drop-outs, issues with bookings and getting the visas for everyone to fly over to Baghdad in time. Managing an event in Baghdad, this size, from London was always going to be difficult. However, despite all this, we were still able to make it happen and succeeded against the odds.
– KGP Baghdad –
I was confident going into the fight. The hardest part for me was saying farewell to my mum prior to leaving the house. She prayed for me and I kissed her hand before heading to the Al Shaab Stadium. It was an unbelievable event and I was amazed at the atmosphere created by the fans. They didn’t stop singing and cheering the entire duration of the event. The fans were also extremely respectful towards all the fighters, including to those who fought the Iraqi players. KGP told me that this is the best show they’ve ever had.
The fights that took place were of high quality. I’m glad to have won and made my country proud. Some of the fighters were still being talked about long after the event had ended and the players had flown home to England. Charlie Boy, Carlton Lou and Jay Whelan were particularly impressive and have big futures ahead of themselves. Likewise, Ameen Alkailani is an amazing fighter but was just unlucky on the day. He has all the right tools to be the best but I think he felt pressured since it was also his first time fighting in Iraq. This was the first time ever where he’s had this much media attention on him and he tried to put on a show for the fans rather than play his natural game. I’m sure he’ll learn from this experience and go on to do big things in the sport. If Ameen was to have a rematch, I have no doubt he would win.
– A Story Of Success –
The money made from the fight was donated to charity. On the last day of the event, we also gave out plenty of free tickets to fans. We also included a special VIP invitation to an orphanage to get all the children to come and join us at the event.
The main thing I was interested in is giving back to the Iraqi people. I feel that this event will improve the image of Iraq and show that we can be the same as every other country. All these athletes and coaches who we flew to Baghdad will now go back and tell their friends and families what an amazing time they had. All of them kept going on about how fun their experience in Iraq was and how they were shocked at what they saw. They said that the media made Iraq look a certain way but it’s completely different to what Iraq is really like. Now we can show the world that.
Iraqis themselves started to thank me for making this event happen. They stopped me in the streets to tell me that I helped show them that Baghdad is safe. That they have nothing to be afraid off since we have brought an entire coach of 40 people prepared to perform in front of an entire stadium.
Hopefully this will open up future doors for Iraq in terms of potential tourists and investments. We’ve shown that Iraq is safe and that we are a country moving forward. Moreover, it’s opened up huge possibilities for Iraqi athletes, who can now expect more events to take place over the next few years. Iraqi athletes dreamed of being able to fight in Europe. We’ve gone one better and brought the Europeans to Iraq!
Ideally, FIFA too can look at this event and appreciate what a success it is. We managed to organise this with only one major sponsor and KGP working alongside us. FIFA need to lift the ban on Iraq and allow the country to host football games again. We have proven that we can do it and that the Iraqi national team deserves the opportunity to prove itself too.
This country is full of history. Civilisation started here. Iraqis are a passionate people who are creativity and educated but need support from others so they can share their love with the world. We need to paint a different image of Iraq for the world to see, which differs from the current image that people have of Iraq.