For all the victories that were achieved across a wide swath of athletic endeavors, the Muslim sports community suffered one tremendous loss in 2016.
On June 3, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s syndrome.
Ali’s legacy and impact on the world — not just the sports world — cannot be understated. Some consider him to be the greatest athlete of all time. Others would call him the most famous athlete of all time. He might have been both. And it seems that anyone who came to know Ali thought of him as a better person than athlete. His status as a champion for freedom and equal rights is just as important to his life’s story as the championships he fought for in the ring.
After Ali, the biggest Muslim sports headline-makers in 2016 included NFL players Aqib Talib and Ryan Harris, who helped the Denver Broncos win Super Bowl 50; soccer star Paul Pogba, who commanded a world-record transfer fee of more than $112 million to play for Manchester United; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the retired NBA legend who spoke at the Democratic National Convention and was chosen to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Bernard Hopkins, who at 51 years old finally decided to end his Hall of Fame boxing career; Mo Farah, who added two more Olympic gold medals to his already bloated trophy case; and Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won a fencing bronze medal at the Olympics and made history as the first Olympian to represent the U.S. while wearing a hijab headscarf.
What to look forward to in 2017?
The track, wrestling and weightlifting stars who won Olympic gold last year will have a shot at World Championship gold this year. Contenders in boxing and MMA could claim world titles. One young giant may enter the NBA. And another Muslim NFL star will play in the Super Bowl.
Here are 17 Muslim athletes to watch in 2017:
Mohamed Sanu, 27 years old, football
Sanu turned out to be one of the most valuable free-agent signings of this past NFL offseason. The former Cincinnati Bengal filled a crucial void for the Atlanta Falcons as their new No. 2 wide receiver, providing a big (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) target for star quarterback Matt Ryan and clearing up some space for No. 1 receiver Julio Jones.
With Sanu catching a career-high 59 passes for 653 yards and four touchdowns, the Falcons fielded one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses during the regular season. Sanu caught a touchdown pass in Atlanta’s NFC divisional-round playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks, and caught another TD pass in last week’s NFC Championship game rout of the Green Bay Packers.
Now Sanu and the Falcons will play for the franchise’s first league championship when they face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5 in Houston.
Dalilah Muhammad, 26, track and field
Going into the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was one of the most talked-about athletes on Team USA, as she would become the first woman to represent the country in Olympic competition while wearing hijab. She wound up winning a bronze medal and is rightfully regarded as a hero and role model.
Meanwhile, Dalilah Muhammad quietly arrived in Rio as just another 400-meter hurdler. Mostly because she doesn’t compete while wearing hijab, it was not common knowledge that she is also Muslim; that was not widely reported until after Muhammad won a gold medal in her event. While the recognition came late, she is also now rightfully regarded as a hero and role model.
Muhammad enters the 2017 track season as the odds-on favorite to win gold at the IAAF World Championships in London. In addition to her Olympic victory, she also had the world’s fastest time last year in the 400-meter hurdles when she clocked 52.88 seconds at the U.S. Olympic trials in July.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, 28, mixed martial arts
The most popular and profit-generating male MMA fighter in the world is UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor. The No. 1 ranked contender for McGregor’s title is Nurmagomedov, a native of Russia who is also No. 14 in UFC’s official pound-for-pound ranking.
At the UFC 209 pay-per-view show on March 4, Nurmagomedov is scheduled to fight No. 2 lightweight contender Tony Ferguson, with the winner presumably getting a title shot against McGregor.
An expert in several fighting styles, from judo to sambo (two-time world champion) to wrestling, Nurmagomedov is 24-0 as a pro in MMA, with eight wins by knockout and eight by submission.
Dennis Schroder, 23, basketball
Last summer, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks traded All-Star point guard Jeff Teague in order to promote Schroder from backup to starter. Then, on the eve of their 2016-17 season opener, the Hawks reaffirmed their commitment to Schroder by signing him to a four-year, $70 million contract extension.
Since then, the former first-round draft pick from Germany has shined in his first full-time campaign as an NBA starting point guard. Schroder is averaging 17 points and six assists per game (through Jan. 25) and has led the Hawks to the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference.
This season Schroder has had six double-doubles (double figures in points and assists in the same game) and scored 31 points in a head-to-head matchup with league MVP favorite Russell Westbrook on Dec. 5 in Atlanta.
Paul Pogba, 23, soccer
One of the most smooth and athletic players in the world, Pogba is still talked about in soccer circles as a strong candidate to assume the title of best player on the planet once he enters his prime and mainstays like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo inevitably decline with age.
In his four seasons with Juventus in Italy’s Serie A league, Pogba helped lead the club to four league championships and two Coppa Italia crowns. He is also a standout on the French national team.
Last August, Pogba left Italy and transferred to Manchester United in England’s Premier League. The $112 million transfer fee was the highest in the sport’s history.
Playing under the high level of pressure and expectation that comes with such a high monetary figure, Pogba has six goals and four assists in 29 appearances with Man U (through Jan. 25) this season, but he still generates a lot of criticism by fans and media who constantly want more.
Amir Khan, 30, boxing
As much as he tried to talk his way into it, Khan never got his chance to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. before the undefeated icon retired from the sport. The one time Mayweather’s camp did seem open to putting their man in the ring with Khan, they insisted on a September date that Khan wouldn’t take because it conflicted with his ability to fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
But Khan did land another lucrative opportunity in May 2016, when he moved up from welterweight to challenge middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez. Khan was an underdog against the naturally bigger and stronger Alvarez, and it wasn’t much of a surprise when Khan was brutally knocked out in the sixth round.
The loss snapped a five-fight win streak for Khan, whose pro record is 31-4 with 19 knockouts. The former light-welterweight champion and Olympic silver medalist could have another big fight in front of him in 2017, however, as there have been talks of Khan squaring up with fellow British star Kell Brook.
Outside of the ring, Khan has for years been a shining example of a Muslim athlete who uses his fame and fortune for good, such as speaking out publicly against religious extremism, and opening a boxing academy in Pakistan. But the married boxer’s reputation recently took a hit when he became involved in a sex-tape scandal that is making the rounds in British tabloids.
Nazem Kadri, 26, hockey
Kadri is believed to be one of just three Muslim players to ever play in the NHL, and one of just four players of Lebanese descent to play in the league.
The 7th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, he has developed into a productive center for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This season Kadri has scored 20 goals to go with 13 assists (through Jan. 25) and is helping his team stay in contention for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Kadri recently reached a career milestone by scoring his 100th NHL goal.
Kadri has also played for the Canadian national team, winning a silver medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships.
Tacko Fall, 21, basketball
Standing 7-foot-6, Fall was a high school basketball project when he first moved from Senegal to the U.S. as a 16-year-old, but now he is rounding into a legit NBA prospect. The basketball scouting website DraftExpress.com predicts Fall will be a second-round choice in the 2018 NBA Draft.
As a sophomore at the University of Central Florida, Fall is averaging 13.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game (through Jan. 25) and is making an outstanding 78.5 percent of his shots from the field.
Which might be a little less impressive when you consider that Fall doesn’t even have to jump to dunk the ball.
Mahmoud Dahoud, 21, soccer
Born in Syria but raised in Germany after his parents fled the country’s political strife during the 1990s, Dahoud was a soccer phenom who became a pro at just 14 years old.
Dahoud is in his third season as a midfielder with Borussia Gladbach in Germany’s Bundesliga league, and is considered one of the most coveted young players in the country.
He is reportedly being targeted for a transfer by wealthy English Premier League clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester City, as well as powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain of France’s Ligue 1 league.
Hassan Yazdani, 22, wrestling
Yazdani’s last-second, come-from-behind, upset win over Russia’s Aniuar Geduev in the 74-kilogram men’s freestyle wrestling gold-medal match was one of the most dramatic moments of the Rio Olympics.
While the favored Geduev couldn’t stop bleeding from a cut on his head that required several stoppages in the match to dress and re-dress, Yazdani fell behind 6-0 with just one minute remaining. He rallied and scored the winning takedown with five seconds left to claim the gold.
Representing Iran, Yazdani will look to defend his No. 1 global ranking at the United World Wrestling championships in Paris in August.
Ameer Abdullah, 23, football
In 2015, Abdullah began his NFL rookie season as a backup running back for the Detroit Lions, but eventually worked his way into the starting lineup and rushed for 597 yards to go with two touchdowns on the ground and another TD as a receiver.
In 2016, what was supposed to be Abdullah’s breakout season ended in Week 2 when he tore a ligament in his foot.
In 2017, Abdullah will likely enter training camp in a competition to earn his starting job back for a Lions team that made the playoffs in his absence and will be aiming to take the next step in becoming a serious Super Bowl contender.
Mosab Amrani, 29, kickboxing
A two-time World Muay Thai Council champion, Amrani is currently the 4th-ranked contender for the vacant GLORY featherweight world title. He boasts a pro kickboxing career record of 55-13-4 with 18 knockouts.
In late-2015, at the GLORY 26 event in his hometown of Amsterdam, Netherlands, Amrani won a one-night tournament to be declared the No. 1 contender for the featherweight title. But he has not won a GLORY match since then, losing his title shot against Serhiy Adamchuk and then losing his next fight in a close decision to Fabio Pinca this past December.
With the world title in his division currently vacant, the opportunity is there for Amrani to get back into the championship picture and win his first GLORY title belt.
Mo Farah, 33, track and field
Dating back to the 2012 Olympics in his resident city of London, Farah has gone four-for-four in major championship gold-medal sweeps. He won gold in the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races at the 2012 Olympics, the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, and the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Farah owns the world record in the indoor 2-mile race with a time of 8 minutes, 3.40 seconds. He also owns the European records in the 10,000 meters (26 minutes, 46.57 seconds), the 1,500 meters (3 minutes, 28.81 seconds), the indoor 5,000 meters (13 minutes, 10.60 seconds), the outdoor 2-mile race (8 minutes, 7.85 seconds) and the half-marathon (59 minutes, 32 seconds).
Already cemented as a legend in track and field, one of the greatest distance runners ever, and one of the best athletes Great Britain has ever called one of its own in any sport, Farah has announced that he will wrap up his career at the 2017 World Championships in London.
Ersan Ilyasova, 29, basketball
After spending the first seven seasons of his NBA career with the Milwaukee Bucks, Ilyasova proceeded to bounce around to four different teams over the next two seasons; he went from Milwaukee to Detroit to Orlando to Oklahoma City to Philadelphia, where he appears to have finally found his niche and a place to settle in with the 76ers.
Ilyasova began this season with the OKC Thunder, who traded him after just three games to the Sixers. It seemed like a demotion at the time, since the Thunder were predicted by many to win the NBA’s Northwest Division and the 76ers had been the worst team in the league for the past few years.
But Ilyasova has helped the Sixers turn into a surprise playoff contender, averaging over 15 points and six rebounds per game (through Jan. 25) while making 40 percent of his three-pointers.
Sadam Ali, 28, boxing
Ali won his first 22 pro fights (with 13 knockouts) before suffering a loss in March 2016, a 9th-round TKO at the hands of Jessie Vargas with the WBO welterweight title on the line.
Ali, a Yemeni-American who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., bounced back in September to defeat Saul Corral by unanimous decision.
Currently ranked No. 12 among welterweights by the International Boxing Federation (IBF), Ali has some more work to do if he’s going to get another championship opportunity in what may be boxing’s deepest and most talented weight class. Some of the world’s top welterweights are Vargas, Amir Khan, Kell Brook, Danny Garcia, Keith Thurman, Shawn Porter, Timothy Bradley and the legendary Manny Pacquiao.
Sara Ahmed, 19, weightlifting
Competing in a hijab headscarf and full-body suit that was approved by weightlifting’s international governing body just a few years ago to allow more Muslim women to compete, Ahmed captured a bronze medal for Egypt in the 69-kilogram division at the Olympics in Rio. Her total weight lifted was 255 kilograms.
Though she’s just a teenager, Ahmed’s 2016 Olympic bronze is the centerpiece of a collection that includes gold medals from the Youth Olympics, African Games, Mediterranean Games, Arab Championships, World Junior Championships and World Youth Championships.
She can add one more piece of hardware with a good showing at the 2017 World Championships in Anaheim, Calif., in November.
Mutaz Essa Barshim, 25, track and field
While he does own a gold medal from the 2014 World Indoor Championships, the big gold prize has proved elusive for Barshim in the major outdoor meets that are his sport’s signature events.
Representing Qatar, Barshim won bronze in the 2012 Olympics, and took home silver in the 2013 World Championships and the 2016 Olympics.
Along the way he has put up some serious challenges to the high jump world record of 2.45 meters — Barshim’s personal best is 2.43 meters — and he’ll get another crack at the record and a gold medal at the 2017 World Championships in London.