Former world titleholder Kal Yafai reflects on younger brother Galal’s Olympic triumph
Kal Yafai was a decorated amateur, a highly sought after professional prospect and a junior bantamweight world titleholder, but younger brother Galal becoming Olympic champion has elicited more emotion from the Birmingham man than anything he has ever accomplished in his own career.
Southpaw Galal took flyweight gold in Tokyo on Saturday. His overall performance throughout the tournament was exceptional and culminated in a 4-1 victory over Carlo Palaam of the Philippines. As he’d done in four prior bouts, Galal closed the gap effectively in the final match and released sharp combinations, one of which decked Palaam in the opening round.
“That knockdown calmed me down a bit,” said Kal in a recent interview with The Ring. “I’d said to him in the morning of the fight not to take his foot off the gas the way he had in the semi-final. He went walkabout in the semis when he should have kept the lead. Against Palaam, he scored the knockdown, kept the pressure on in the second round and, realistically, the kid couldn’t do anything with him after that.
“It’s been such an emotional and crazy time. From the moment Galal qualified [for the final], that day I didn’t get to bed until 2:30-3:00 in the morning. I’d been doing all sorts of interviews, then I’m up at 6:00 a.m. to watch him. When he won, from 15 minutes after he’d won gold, I was lined up to do interviews all over the place. It’s an amazing achievement and it’s been such an emotional rollercoaster.”
Galal appeared to be carrying some magic dust from the beginning of the tournament. He halted Armenia’s Koryun Soghomonyan in his opening bout and really came into his own as the tournament progressed. The 28-year-old sparkled in decision wins over Zambia’s Patrick Chinyemba, Cuba’s Yosvany Veitia and Kazakhstan’s Saken Bibossinov before getting his hands on Palaam.
“Galal’s just got a ridiculous amount of heart and he won’t be denied,” said Kal, who took silver at the European championships in 2010 and was a member of Team GB. “On this occasion, he was so hungry for success, so determined, and he obviously has a lot of ability.
“His main attribute inside the ring is his relentless pressure and he has an incredible engine. He also has a very professional style. If you watched Galal and 10 other boxers on the bag [at Team GB headquarters] in Sheffield, he’d stand out because he’s the one that’s always punching in close. He can go a walk and box at long range, he has great feet, but he likes to fight.”
And it’s a family affair all round. As well as Kal and Galal, middle brother Gamal is a former European junior featherweight champion who has won 18 of 20 professional bouts. All three men have supported each other throughout their respective journeys and the Tokyo games was as big as it gets for them.
“I talked to Galal every day without fail,” said Kal of their frequent Facetime exchanges. “I’d talk to him the night before the fight, then I’d be up at six in the morning to watch him. He obviously has his coaches, but I have a lot of amateur and professional experience and it’s good to have that kind of thing in the family.
“It’s the little things. He’d boxed in the quarters or the semis and had a tiny bit of swelling under one of his eyes. We were talking after the fight and I said to him, ‘Have you had your ice bath? Have you done your recovery?’ He said, ‘Yep!” I said, ‘Have you had your shake?’ He’s like, ‘Yep, done!’ I said, ‘Have you iced your face?’ He said, ‘No, I haven’t!’ I’m like, “Why? Ice your face, get the swelling down a bit. You’ve got two days before your next fight – every little bit helps.’”
It’s often mentioned how difficult it must be for a parent to watch their child box. Kadega Yafai is mother to five sons, three of whom are currently in the hurt business, and the youngest, Mikyle, 11, may also be destined to lace up the gloves. Watching your kids absorb punches would challenge anyone’s emotional resilience, but Galal’s gold medal has made it all worthwhile.
“It’s beautiful for my mum,” said Kal following a brief pause. “She’s seen us all go through it; how hard we’ve worked for boxing. We live for the sport. We’re not ones for going out all the time and we lay pretty low. We’re a tight-knit family. We just want to train and be as successful as possible. For my mum, it’s great, especially with Galal. It hasn’t even hit her yet, she’s just exhausted.
“I actually didn’t watch Galal’s fights with my mum, and there’s two reasons for that. First, I live a bit further out and it’s hard enough for me to get up at six in the morning (laughs). And second, everybody’s there, and I get pissed off when people are talking and making noise. I don’t want to miss anything. I just sat in bed and watched Galal’s fights because I didn’t want to be disturbed by anyone.”
Outside of family and the exceptional coaching squad at Team GB, there’s one man that Team Yafai will always feel indebted to and that’s local boxing legend Frank O’Sullivan. The Irishman moved from Cork to the U.K in the 1950s and founded the Birmingham City Amateur Boxing Club.
This is where Kal, Gamal and Galal started and O’Sullivan means the world to them.
“Bloody hell, what a guy he is,” laughed Yafai. “He once boxed and was looking to turn pro, but I think he failed the eye exam and that was it. He immediately went into coaching when he was still very young, but he’s 84 now and still going. It’s funny, he looks just the same as he did 20 years ago.
“I hadn’t been down to the gym for a while… in fact it would have been way before my last fight [against Roman Gonzalez in February 2020]. The day after Galal had qualified [for the final], I went down to do an interview with Good Morning Britain and one of the coaches said, ‘Come and look at the changing room, we’ve had some boxing gloves sprayed on the wall.’ Well, all the legends of the gym, their names were on each of the gloves: Robert McCracken, Tommy Lynch, Paddy Lynch, then they had me, Gamal and Galal. I’m looking at old pictures on the wall of us as kids and I’m welling up. I’ve probably welled up and cried more in this last week than I ever have in my life.”
With Olympic gold banked, Galal will now turn professional and the sky is the limit.
As for big brother Kal, the former WBA 115-pound titleholder is planning his own ring return. A ninth-round stoppage defeat to Gonzalez in Frisco, Texas was a bitter pill to swallow, but some time way from the game and a projected assault on the bantamweight division has rekindled his desire for combat.
“To say I was struggling at the weight is an understatement,” said Kal (26-1, 15 KOs) with a deep sigh. “Everyone could see how much it was taking it out of me and that’s been a few years now. I made my U.S. debut in 2018, on a Top Rank show, and that was the last time I made weight anything close to comfortably. It was still difficult, but making weight after that… I was just feeling like death.
“For the Chocolatito fight, I couldn’t recover after the weigh in. Making 115 had taken everything out of me, but that’s taking nothing away from him. I never made excuses for the loss, and I give him all the praise because he was terrific that night. I was just a shell of myself. I couldn’t move my legs, I didn’t have my reflexes, and I just couldn’t do anything. People who know boxing know that if you don’t have your reactions early in a fight you’re in trouble, and you’re really in trouble against someone like Chocolatito.”
Kal is hoping for a 10-round bout before the end of the year and promises to keep Team Yafai in the win column.
Tom Gray is Managing Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing
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