Kal Yafai: true believer

John A. MacDonald
09/05/2017 7:40pm

Kal Yafai defends his WBA super flyweight title on Saturday against Suguru Muranaka and certainly doesn’t lack for self-belief. He showed he’s an elite fighter when beating Luis Concepcion and now, he tells John Angus MacDonald, he craves the chance to test himself against the very best at 115lbs...

This interview was first published in the February issue of Boxing Monthly

When Kal Yafai defeated Luis Concepcion last December, he fulfilled a life-long dream of becoming a world champion.
Having reached the pinnacle of the sport, some find their motivation significantly diminished. There is nothing left to achieve and the rigours of training loses appeal.

This isn’t the case for Yafai (21-0, 14 KOs), who believes that capturing the WBA super flyweight title was not the culmination of his career but just the beginning, as he has his sights firmly set on fights against some of the best fighters in the division.

“I’m even more motivated. I was hungry before, but now I’m starving,” Yafai said with a laugh as he spoke to Boxing Monthly over the phone from his Birmingham home. “I’ve had a taste of it. I know there’s big things ahead so I want it even more. I want to headline shows in Birmingham. I’ve never had the opportunity to do that but now I can.

“I’ve always wanted to do things like that; defend world titles, unify divisions. These things are possibilities now I’ve won the world title. Once you fight at that level, and you know you can do it, it gives you that extra bit of belief.”

Self-belief has never been an attribute the 27-year-old has lacked inside the ring. From the beginning of his career, Yafai has had a swagger that stems from a resolute confidence in his own ability.

This belief was evident when he chose to go ahead with the fight despite the fact that Concepcion weighed in at 117.7lbs, well above the divisional limit of 115lbs and just within the limit for the weight class above. The champion was given time to try to lose the required weight but was only 0.3lbs lighter at the second attempt. Afterwards, it was feared the fight might be called off, but for Yafai that was never an option as he wanted the prestige of defeating an accomplished champion — even if the title was only on the line for the challenger — rather than fight for a vacant title months down the line.

“I was told: ‘You don’t have to fight, you can fight for the vacant title in April against the next challenger in line,’” Yafai recalled. “I said: ‘I’ve trained all this time for this fight, I’m not going to let it pass by now.’ So I went ahead with it and did what I had to do.

“He’s [Concepcion] no mug, everyone knows how explosive he is, how exciting he is to watch. He came in at just under the bantamweight limit, so it’s like fighting a bantamweight world champion really [laughs]. Giving away the weight and everything, it was very satisfying, but it was more satisfying [due to] the way I did it. I could see the frustration on his face, and I could see how I never really let him get into the fight.”

Despite mixing in world class for the first time as a professional, the 2008 Beijing Olympian showed great maturity in diligently sticking to the game plan. This task was made easier by the great respect he has for Concepcion, having studied him to the point of obsession. He knew that if he fought his opponent’s fight, he’d be in for a tough night.

“The way [the fight] turned out is what we expected it would be if I followed the tactics I was given,” Yafai said. “Personally, I thought to myself: ‘There’s two ways this fight can go. I can either win it how I did, or it could be a really tough night and I could just get through it and win in a really, really close fight.’

“He can end a fight at any time. I’ve watched a lot of his fights. I was absolutely sick of watching him. He’s dangerous all the way throughout, he’s knocked people out early, he’s knocked people out late — I knew I had to be careful.”

The only negative Yafai had to endure was a recurrence of hand injuries. The Birmingham fighter has been blighted by hand issues since he was in his teens and has had to have operations to correct damage in the past.

As early as the second round against Concepcion, Yafai started to experience pain in both hands. He didn’t suffer any breaks but had to contend with severe swelling as a result of his opponent’s concrete-like cranium.

“I was thinking to myself: ‘I hit heads for a living, but this geezer’s head is very hard,’” Yafai said with a laugh. “He was just very solid. He’s a hard man. My hands were very sore and very swollen after. I had them X-rayed and the guy that
[X-rayed] them came to me afterwards and said: ‘I’ve never seen hands so severely swollen.’”

With the Concepcion fight being his first foray into world-class boxing, Yafai knew that he would learn a lot about himself as a fighter.

“I found out I can actually fight,” Yafai said. “You get a lot of people that tell you that you’re good and that you’re this and that, but it’s all right beating the kind of kids I’ve been beating, even though I’ve been doing it in good fashion.

“Obviously, I knew I was good because I spar with top-class fighters, I train around really good fighters, and trainers, they all tell me I’m really good, but to actually go in there with a world-class fighter and do what I did tells me I’m up there with them.”

If capturing a world title is supposed to change your life, then Yafai is yet to see any evidence of it. With the exception of being able to treat himself to a Porsche it has been business as usual for Yafai, although he has been overwhelmed by the new-found recognition and support he receives from the people of Birmingham.

“Someone asked me the other day: ‘I bet your life has changed dramatically?’ I still do everyday, normal things,” Yafai said. “I still go to the same shops to do my shopping. Yesterday I was picking up dog shit in my garden [laughs]. They are the normal things. The only thing is I do get recognised a lot, lot more. I was out earlier on and somebody in a queue asked if I was the world champion. I was like: ‘Yeah,’ and told them how proud I am. I ordered a pizza from Papa John’s the other night and the delivery man told me: ‘Congratulations,’ and I was like: ‘For what?’ And he went: ‘For your belt.’ He could barely speak English, but he knew who I was, and he asked me for a selfie.”

Having been a professional for four and a half years, undefeated in 21 contests, and the proud owner of a world title, it’s safe to say things have gone well for Yafai. But there have been obstacles to overcome too.

For Yafai, the darkest period of his career came in 2013, when he tore his left bicep against Michael Ramabeletsa. The injury required surgery and kept him out of the ring for seven months. The rehabilitation process was arduous. At first, he was unable to do simple tasks such as washing or dressing himself without the help of his partner. He also had to confront the possibility that his career may have been cut short in its infancy.

“It was a tough time really,” Yafai said. “There were people saying to me: ‘You might not be able to box properly again with that arm. If it doesn’t heal properly it’s going to be very weak.’ There’s all sorts going through your head. It took me a while to get to full strength but I got there. When I started punching again, I can’t even explain the feeling. To be able to do what you love more than anything else is just brilliant.”

The situation was worsened by the fact that Yafai had not been fiscally prudent. For the first time, he found himself not earning. As an elite amateur he would receive funding whilst recuperating from injury. This was not the case as a professional. The experience taught him a valuable lesson.

“I was a bit stupid at the time as well because I was fighting so regularly — I was fighting every three to four weeks — I was getting paid so often that I wasn’t looking after my money, I was going out and spending it all,” Yafai said. “When I had my injury, I never had no money. I was lucky that my sponsor — Luke [Chandler] from Elite Scaffolding — really helped me out there. I learnt a lot from that — I had to look after my money. That’s what I’ve done, and now, thank God, I’m in a really good position.”

Those challenging times were also made easier by the support of his family. The Yafai brothers all had a stellar 2016 as younger brother Galal won the European Olympic qualification tournament to secure his place at Rio 2016, and fellow-professional Gamal claimed his first professional belt, beating Bobby Jenkinson for the Commonwealth super bantamweight title.

While they are all incredibly supportive of one another, Yafai revealed that there are still certain activities that bring out sibling rivalry.

“The only time there’s rivalry is if we are trying to race each other in training, or something like that,” Yafai said, before recalling other situations. “Sparring can get very, very heated. With me and Galal, it doesn’t get heated whatsoever. It’s just if it’s me and Gamal. He’s just got that hot head on him. That’s the only bit of rivalry there is, or if we are playing each other on the PlayStation at FIFA, pads get thrown around!”

Last year was wonderful for Yafai but he is adamant that this year will surpass it. Super flyweight is currently one of the strongest divisions in boxing, with the four current world champions — at the time of writing Yafai, Roman Gonzalez, Naoya Inoue and Jerwin Ancajas — sporting a combined ledger of 104-1 [NB. Gonzalez has since been deposed by Srisaket Rungvisai]. Whilst records can be deceptive, it is certainly not the case here. As well as the champions, there are also elite contenders like former flyweight champions Juan Francisco Estrada and John Riel Casimero.

“They are all brilliant fighters,” Yafai said of his divisional rivals. “They are the kind of fights I crave really, with the likes of Gonzalez and Inoue. Even the ones who haven’t got titles like Estrada and [Carlos] Cuadras, there are so many good fighters there. I’m just happy that these kind of guys who didn’t know who I was will now know who I am and take notice. Whether they fancy coming to England or not is a totally different story [laughs]. I’ve got a title now, and with my promoter, there is a lot of power there, so if these fights can be made then great.”

Surprisingly, the fight that appeals most to Yafai is against Gonzalez. The Nicaraguan four-weight world champion is perceived by many to be the best in the world but it’s a challenge Yafai would crave. Yafai has demonstrated that he backs up his words with actions when he pushed for the Concepcion fight. He maintains he will do the same with Chocolatito.

“That’s what we are in the game for,” Yafai said. “It’s like the Concepcion fight. I know he’s a completely different fighter, but a lot of people were saying: ‘You are not ready for these kind of fights — you need to fight a couple of gatekeepers,’ but I wanted that fight. I knew it was the one that was available to me. I spoke to [promoter] Eddie [Hearn] and fair play to him, he got that fight made straight away.

“With the Gonzalez fight, right now when I mention that fight a lot of people laugh at me, but I’ve seen things that can be done in that fight. I know I’ll need a couple of fights before then, but I just think after seeing the Cuadras fight I think I am capable of doing things in that fight. That would be the one I’d relish down the line.”