Kal Yafai – In The Prince’s Footsteps
When one thinks of former unified featherweight champion Prince Naseem Hamed, the tendency is to recall the flamboyant and the outrageous. The extraordinary confidence, the extravagant ring walks, the signature front-flip over the top rope and, when the bell rang, prodigious punching power.
What is often ignored is the enormous influence Hamed, a Brit of Yemeni descent, had on a younger generation that grew up marveling at both his audacity and his talent.
Khalid Yafai, who also has a Yemeni background, was one of those kids.
“Naz was every Yemeni’s hero,” recalled Yafai, who is commonly known as Kal. “He was on all the Arabic channels and he started fighting on Sky Sports (U.K. channel) when I was growing up. I was probably about 7 or 8 years old. We would beg our mum to order the boxing (on pay-per-view) but she knew we’d fall asleep, and that’s what happened in most cases. We’d watch it on repeat the next morning but Mum would always pay for it. We watched Naz all the time.”
As it turned out, those late-night fistic adventures with “The Prince” were just the start of a special journey. Yafai, a 28-year-old resident of Birmingham, is now the WBA junior bantamweight titleholder and one of the most technically gifted fighters in the U.K. And, fortunately for him, he resides in one of the hottest divisions in the sport.
As an amateur, Yafai won a reported 152 of 175 bouts and represented Great Britain at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He turned professional in July 2012 to considerable acclaim and, so far, things have gone smoothly.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Yafai’s ancestral home, which in sharp contrast is the stuff of nightmares. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has been stricken by military conflict, famine and cholera, leaving almost 20 million people in dire need of humanitarian aid.
“It’s not good to see the homeland, the way things have turned out,” Yafai said after a thoughtful pause. “My mum was brought up in Yemen. And even when my grandmother passed away last year, there was no way my granddad could go back. He’s got houses over there and I have uncles and other family members who live there too. It’s like hell on earth right now. It’s unsafe and all we can do is donate to as many charities as we can.
“My mum came over to the U.K. when she was around 14 years old. She lived in Wales originally, because my grandparents came to Cardiff first. My granddad worked in the mines and on the docks in Cardiff. My mum was raised there. Then she came to Birmingham and that’s where she met my dad. They got married and I was their first child.”
Kal wasn’t the last. He has four brothers and two sisters. Gamal, an unbeaten junior featherweight, is already Commonwealth champion and on the rise. Galal was competing in the World Amateur Championships in Hamburg, Germany, at the time of this writing. Mikyle is only 7 years old, but a very proud Yafai is convinced that boxing is his destiny. It truly is becoming a family affair.
The comfort of family is reflected in Yafai’s personality. He has a warm, genuine and almost wholesome demeanor. Underneath that, however, is the self-confidence one would associate with a successful prizefighter. Extravagant ring walks or acrobatics aren’t for him, but he certainly carries Hamed’s self-belief.
Yafai and his head trainer, Max McCracken, were coached by Frank O’Sullivan at Birmingham City Boxing Club, as were McCracken’s brothers, Robert and Spence. All three boxed professionally. Robert, probably best known for training Carl Froch and Anthony Joshua, was a capable middleweight/junior middleweight who won British and Commonwealth titles before falling short against then-WBC 160-pound titleholder Keith Holmes.
It is Max, however, who has guided Yafai’s professional ascent, and he believes that his fighter has the potential to do great things.
“Kal is improving all the time; he’s good technically and he’s got a great boxing brain,” McCracken said. “He’s coming on in each fight and gaining plenty of experience. He’s defensively sound and cute in the ring and you rarely see his head getting knocked back by punches. Kal is always switched on to what’s coming back after he’s put his shots together.
“He’s a unique kid and you won’t get many like him. Kal is a great role model and he doesn’t mess about. He’s always in the house at the weekend with his girlfriend, resting after a hard week in the gym. Very rarely is he out and he just lives and breathes boxing. He always wants to learn and do new things. He’s got a brilliant attitude.”
Eddie Hearn, managing director of Matchroom Boxing, was also drawn to Yafai’s personality. After making the decision to turn professional, Yafai jumped in his car and drove approximately 150 miles to the promoter’s state-of-the-art headquarters in Essex. He arrived alone and the pair thrashed out a deal that would lead him to a world championship after just 20 paid outings.
“I’d met Kal at the Team GB training base in Sheffield a couple of times and he had a really good way about him,” Hearn said. “He was full of energy, he had a great smile and he could really fight. I remember the Filipino team were over to spar with Team GB and I watched Kal have this absolute war with one of the Filipino internationals. We talked after that and once he made his decision to turn pro, he came down to see me.
“I like where his head’s at. He seems to have a good balance mentally and emotionally about where he is and what he wants to achieve. He’s full of confidence and he believes that he can go on to unify the division, and I believe that as well.”
Yafai had a relatively dominant and uninterrupted run in his first 19 professional bouts, the only setback being a biceps injury that kept him out of the ring for seven months in 2013. The eager young prospect has mixed handspeed, punching power, punch variety and accuracy to dazzle his opposition. He won the Commonwealth championship in his 11th fight before going on to establish himself as the WBA’s mandatory challenger at 115 pounds.
Then came his big opportunity. Yafai faced veteran world titleholder Luis Concepcion on December 10, 2016, in Manchester. Concepcion failed to make weight, meaning the title was on the line for the home fighter only. And Yafai didn’t disappoint. From ringside, I found it difficult to give the Panamanian a single round as Yafai tagged him repeatedly with withering combinations to the head and body, which earned him a landslide unanimous decision.
Yafai had come of age.
“It was a really emotional night for me,” Yafai said. “That moment of actually winning a world title – when they raised my hand – if I were to watch that on my laptop right now it would make my eyes well up. It’s been a long journey and a lot of people might think I’ve had it easy but, believe me, there was a lot of work in there.”
McCracken constructed the game plan, his fighter executed it to perfection and everyone went home in a limousine. “I knew what Kal was going to do in that fight,” said the trainer. “A lot of people didn’t give him a chance because of the difference in professional experience. Concepcion was a two-weight world champion but the plan was just to fire combinations, shut him down and not let him find any rhythm. Kal frustrated him, beat him to the punch and tied him up when he had to.”
Yafai had become Birmingham’s first-ever boxing world champion, making his next move obvious. A homecoming title defense against Japan’s Suguru Muranaka took place in May at the Barclaycard Arena.
The new titleholder dominated the fight but the experience was far from comfortable for Yafai. Round after round, Muranaka soaked up inhuman amounts of punishment and Yafai damaged both hands on his way to securing a painful unanimous-decision victory.
“The overall performance was OK,” said Yafai. “When I watched it back, it wasn’t as bad as I initially thought. There were things I did wrong, that I would never do again, but that’s how I know I’m still learning and developing. I did things that were amateurish, but there were also some positives. I fought 12 rounds at a good pace and showed a good engine. The kid was no world-beater but he had incredible toughness, and no matter what you hit him with, he came right back. I learned a lot from the Muranaka fight.”
And Yafai will get the chance to show his new wares when he takes on Muranaka’s unbeaten countryman Sho Ishida on October 28 at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. That bout will take place on the undercard of Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight title defense against (Carlos Takam).
Ishida, Yafai’s mandatory challenger, could provide a stern test. He is unbeaten (24-0, 13 KOs) and freakishly tall for a junior bantamweight at 5 feet 8 inches.
However, Yafai is already looking toward matchups against the cream of the junior bantamweight division. The names are frightening but the fighter remains fearless: Roman Gonzalez, Wisaksil Wangek, Naoya Inoue, Juan Francisco Estrada and Carlos Cuadras are all on the Englishman’s hit list.
“Basically, I want to get this mandatory out the way and do a good job on Ishida,” Yafai said in earnest. “After that, I want to get in the mix with the big boys. That’s where I need to be. I’m not taking my eye off Ishida because I know how hard it was to get here and I know how hard it will be to keep my world title.
“But I’d like to fight one of these big names, either here or in America. If I could take on one of these guys on HBO or Showtime, that would be brilliant for my profile. That would get me right up there. If Gonzalez beats Wangek and we can get him over here, that would be massive.”
Trainer and promoter agree that it’s time for Yafai to be let off the leash. McCracken and Hearn both mentioned “Chocolatito” Gonzalez first in terms of future opposition, although the pound-for-pound star is sure to be tested by Wangek on the huge “Superfly” show that will have taken place by the time this issue goes to print.
“Kal is very blessed in that he’s in a division which, in the past, couldn’t have been less glamorous and now it’s one of the most glamorous divisions in boxing,” Hearn said. “You have a whole card based around it on September 9 and that’s unheard-of.
“Kal has the opportunity to be involved in real superfights. ‘Chocolatito’ is a fight we really want after Ishida. You have Naoya Inoue. Carlos Cuadras is a great fighter. And Kal is so lucky that he has the ability to fight these big names, particularly in the United States.”
One comes away from speaking to Team Yafai with a feeling that the confidence and ambition could not be more genuine. There are world titleholders who get themselves into position for unification fights but face daunting challenges when they eventually take one. With Yafai, there’s a sense of destiny. He remains unfazed by the prospect of meeting such formidable opposition.
“Kal’s ability to adapt is his number one asset,” said McCracken. “It doesn’t take him long to figure opponents out. He can mix it up and he’s a great counterpuncher. Fans have seen a lot of him going forward but they’ve yet to see him boxing off the back foot. You’ll see it when he’s moving on these top kids, picking them off and drawing them onto shots. He’s a great all-rounder and there’s not much he can’t do. You’ve still not seen the best of him.”
Tom Gray is a U.K. Correspondent / Editor for RingTV.com and a member of THE RING ratings panel. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing
YAFAI’S DANCE CARD
Kal Yafai is targeting the best fighters in the deep junior bantamweight division. Here are five potential opponents, keeping in mind that all of them were scheduled to fight on the same Sept. 9 card after our deadline for this issue.
Roman Gonzalez (46-1, 38 KOs): Former four-division world champion and pound-for-pound No. 1 was scheduled to face Wisaksil Wangek in a rematch on Sept. 9.
Wisaksil Wangek (43-4-1, 39 KOs): Upset Gonzalez via controversial unanimous decision. Has opportunity to prove it was no fluke in direct rematch.
Juan Francisco Estrada (35-2, 25 KOs): Former unified flyweight titleholder has stepped up to 115 pounds in search of more glory. Faces Carlos Cuadras on Sept. 9 card.
Carlos Cuadras (36-1-1, 27 KOs): Former WBC 115-pound titleholder gave Gonzalez fits in close decision loss. Victory over Estrada would elevate him to another level.
Naoya Inoue (13-0, 11 KOs): Unbeaten Japanese powerhouse has claimed two world titles at different weights and continues to improve.
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On the cover this month: Mikey Garcia