'I want to be the Arab Pacquiao' - Saudi boxer 'Zizo'

Ziyad 'Zizo' Almaayouf makes a heart sign with his hands after a fight
Ziyad 'Zizo' Almaayouf has won five pro fights with one stoppage [Getty Images]

Psychology student Ziyad 'Zizo' Almaayouf closes the door and flicks off the light switch. A YouTube video titled 'stadium crowd shouts and chants' plays on his phone.

It's August 2022 and in a matter of days the Saudi fighter will be making his pro boxing debut on the undercard of Oleksandr Usyk v Anthony Joshua in Jeddah in his home country.

"I'm one of the first ever Saudi fighters. There's so much hype, all the media have their eyes on me. The Saudi Ministry of Sport are really believing in me," Zizo recalls.

Nerves are really starting to kick in. Zizo shuts his eyelids.

"I'm looking at the fans. I'm smiling. I'm joking. I've done my ring walk and I'm now talking to the ref and giving him my hand, showing him my mouthguard."

Zizo plays out every scenario. He gets knocked down and back up. He wins on points. By stoppage. In Zizo's mind, his debut even ends in a devastating loss.

"Visualization is so important to me," Zizo adds. "It means I'll stay calm no matter what the outcome and what I'm presented with in the fight."

In reality, though, it was the perfect start - a first-round knockout victory against his Mexican opponent.

The 23-year-old has now extended his record to five straight wins. As he continues to fly the flag for Saudi boxing, his aspirations know no bounds.

"In the Philippines they talk about Manny Pacquiao like he is some kind of prophet, as if he's come from the sky," Zizo says.

"Well, I want to be the Pacquiao of the Arab world.”

From USA to the Middle East and back

Zizo throws a left jab at an opponent on his boxing debut

Born in America to a Saudi father and Egyptian mother, Zizo's early upbringing saw him move between the two Arab nations.

A budding tennis player, it was during a warm-up on the running track while living in Saudi Arabia that he first laid eyes on the sport he would grow to love.

"I saw a boxing coach training people on the mitts. He walked up to me and asked me to give it a try," Zizo says.

"But as one of nine siblings, my mum and dad didn't want one of the younger ones to go round punching the others."

His father insisted if he really wanted to box, Zizo should give it his all and outlined a regimented sleeping, training and diet plan.

Zizo moved to Los Angeles to study in 2019 but his plans to seriously pursue boxing suffered a setback as Covid lockdown forced the closure of amateur gyms.

He was then taken to the pro gym of former two-weight world champion turned elite coach Buddy McGirt - a fighter Zizo idolised.

Being a fanboy earned him no special treatment, as Zizo was introduced the harsh realities of boxing pretty quickly.

"I was sparring pros and was getting my behind handed to me on a silver platter ever single session," he says.

"But I learned so much from the experience - like throwing the perfect body shot, which I had no idea of before."

'I want to be a spokesperson for Saudi'

Zizo's dedication - and a solid jab - caught the attention of McGirt, who soon became Zizo's head trainer.

When stablemate Callum Smith signed to fight on Anthony Joshua's undercard, the stars aligned for Zizo to go full circle and make his boxing debut back where it all began.

Emulating the great Pacquiao - who won world titles in eight different divisions - will take some going for the light-welterweight, but he feels he can have a similar impact as the Filipino outside of the ring.

Zizo says - as an English speaking Saudi fighter - he can bridge the gap between Western and Arab cultures.

"I don't want to just be a boxer but a spokesperson where I could change the perceptions and the conceptions that people have of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi people," he adds.

Energy-rich Saudi Arabia has quickly become the hotspot for elite level boxing but it is criticised by those who point to the Kingdom's poor human rights record.

"That's all they are, accusations. And these accusations are going to be made and many of the people who make these accusations haven't been to Saudi yet," Zizo says.

"And every single country in the world has a lot of stuff that they need to work on.

"Saudi is not only the centre of sports, it's not only the home of events, it's the centre of peace and unity and that's what I truly believe."

More boxing from the BBC