There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, where boat shoes and no socks would have earned you a beating in Glasgow. Now, it earns you a spot on the guestlist. Sometimes you can’t predict what people will deem fashionable. Trust me.
A sport dominated by the heavier athletes, the powerful and devastating punchers, boxing has recently altered its view on the smaller men. Lighter divisions and boxers such as Guillermo Rigondeaux, Chocolatito and Vasyl Lomachenko have caught the eye with each ounce of their smaller frames oozing flare and pizzazz.
On British shores, we’ve been fortunate enough to witness the birth of our own World champion; Birmingham’s Kal Yafai. From Yemeni descent and the eldest sibling of a boxing trio, Yafai has captured the imagination of fight fans on both sides of the Atlantic, capitalising on the thriving super-flyweight division as it reaches its peak. I caught up with Kal, relaxing on a rainy, miserable Saturday afternoon and awaiting his next official announcement. He told me about his next fight, edging closer as talks with his promoter develop.
“I had a week off and then been back in the gym, just ticking over. Nothing yet (for future dates) but I know Eddie is working behind the scenes; talking to HBO about fighting possibly on the Superfly card at the end of February.”
February 24th, to be specific, is the next date for HBO’s Superfly series which was something of an experiment. Throw three outstanding fights on the bill at a weight-class sometimes struggling for prominence. To say ‘it worked’ would be an understatement. Looking at the junior-middleweight card in October featuring champions Lara, Hurd and Charlo would suggest the concept has been infectious.
From the moment I watched Yafai make his professional debut (facing battle-hardened Delroy Spencer in June 2012), I had been impressed. Slick, extremely mobile and with vicious shots to the body for a lighter-weight fighter, it seemed almost inevitable he would challenge at the top of his chosen division.
One name still on Kal’s lips was; Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez. Previously viewed as the P4P #1, the little Nicaraguan had suffered defeat for the first (and devastatingly the second) time in his career to Thai sensation Sor Rungvisai.
I’d interviewed Chocolatito in September, where he commented on Yafai in particular. He said, ‘My manager has told me about him (Yafai) and we saw his last fight. I think he is an excellent champion and it would be a dream to fight in the UK!’. I had tagged Kal in the interview, prompting a response which welcomed the showdown. When talking to him now, with a devastating stoppage defeat on four-weight World champion Gonzalez’ record, I wondered if the Brummie belt-holder still fancied it?
“Just before the Ishida fight, I was getting called out by Gonzalez (Chocolatito). Straight after the fight, we had people talking about the fight and it’s still a fight to be made but you have other people out there. You have Cuadras, Ancajas and Brian Viloria or Inoue. There’s loads out there – it’s just whichever makes sense or whatever my team think is best for me at this time.”
An Olympian as an amateur, the pedigree hadn’t always been as evident. I was keen to understand whether he had led the way for younger Yafai’s; Gamal and Galal.
“Well, basically Gamal started before me. So, he was a bit of a hyper-active kid, always getting into trouble and stuff until my Mum took him down (to) the gym. Three or four weeks later, I went down to pick him up with my Mum and I had a go on the bags. I just fell in love with it really. I stuck at it, I weren’t very good. After my first ten-to-twelve fights you would have bet your house that I wouldn’t have achieved a thing in boxing! I stuck at it and became better and better. I was never a naturally gifted fighter, I just had to work hard for my talents.”
Birmingham’s answer to the Smith brothers, the progress of the two professional Yafai siblings had been impressive. However, the youngest, Galal, had been the most startling.
Appearing for Team GB at the Rio Olympics, he had dedicated himself to the sport at a time when others may have doubted it was his destiny. Proud, protective elder brother Kal told me about Galal’s rise to Olympic squad member as we discussed their family dynamic.
“Galal, he’s just came out of nowhere really. The last year to eighteen months. He was working at Land Rover, not thinking about boxing really. He’s been picked to go on an assesment with GB boxing and two months later he went to an Olympic qualifier and managed to qualify for Rio, so it’s been a bit of a mad eighteen months for Galal.”
The reigning WBA super-flyweight World champion spoke more about his siblings than he did about himself. It seemed family truly came first, as he gushed over Commonwealth champion Gamal’s progress in the paid ranks. Gamal himself, an established amateur with a medal from the European championships in Moscow. He had most recently displayed devastating power, when faced with his toughest test on a televised SkySports show.
“Gamal, he’s always improving. He’s only had twelve fights as a pro, but especially his last fight he boxed Sean Davis who was an undefeated fighter and he put him down six times! Really now, he’s just trying to build on that momentum. It’s been difficult because he’s been out for so long.”
Mixed reviews followed Kal’s latest defence on the undercard of Anthony Joshua v Carlos Takam. The chief support slot on a massive pay-per-view event meant that only the best performance could slither past the fickle fanbase that boxers have become so accustomed to. He looked a level above the unbeaten Sho Ishida, but detractors seemed unhappy the contest made its way into the sometimes precarious hands of the judges.
The conversation pre-Ishida had been post-Ishida. Looking past the task in hand, the media had run away with themselves, plotting Kal’s domination of boxing on a global stage. I wondered if this had been on his mind?
“Before the Ishida fight, there was talks of me fighting on the Superfly card on HBO and things like that. Obviously, I think that put a bit of pressure on the fight because I knew there were some big things ahead if I won the fight. That was the only little distraction I had, but other than that, everything else has been fine.”
As the car was pounded by wind and rain continually, we concluded our conversation. I thought it passed quickly, until transcribing and realising the intelligence and detail with which the champion spoke. He was aware of his importance in the division, though focused on the next task in isolation. Would it be Chocolatito? Would it be overseas?
Clearly, Kal Yafai fancied a stamp in his passport.
“Hopefully I can get on that Superfly card in February. We’ll see what kind of fights are available and if I don’t have a unification fight in February then I’ll one hundred percent be looking to have one in the Fall.”
Massive fights await the Superfly division in 2018, with Yafai hunting down his peers. Whether on home soil or under the bright lights of an HBO event in America, he is ready to cement his position at the top-table.
Exciting contests to come from a Yemeni/British boxer, campaigning in the lighter weight-classes; does that sound familiar…?
Written by Craig Scott