“The biggest by far,” Kal Yafai, WBA junior bantamweight titleholder stated to the BBC upon being tasked with the assignment of defending his crown against Roman Gonzalez.
“The biggest, the toughest, but the most exciting.”
To the average person walking the streets in the United Kingdom, the name Kal Yafai won’t mean an awful lot. This humbling admission is easy to understand when you consider the plethora of talent our country has produced across a multitude of sports, but less so when you consider Yafai’s achievements in boxing.
The 30-year-old former Olympian is unbeaten as a professional since turning over in 2012, enjoying five successful defences of his WBA crown since scooping the vacant title against Luis Concepción in 2016.
His defences have come against an array of limited opposition. Still, the Brummie with Yemeni heritage currently stands as Britain’s longest-reigning current world champion but struggles to receive the acclaim that should be associated closely.
It’s the double-edged sword that is handed to each fighter in the lower weight categories. Respect and admiration from the boxing community are dwarfed by ignorance from the wider general public. Opportunities to make life-changing money are few and far between in the 115-pound division, with his former Olympic training partner Anthony Joshua’s career exploding in the antithesis of his own.
To the watching eye, you’d be forgiven for making the assumption that Yafai would demonstrate bitterness towards other fighters who have enjoyed a more drastic “rags to riches” story. Still, his humility and pure love for his craft overshadow any such feeling.
“I’m actually very grateful for the position I’m in,” Yafai stated, as he looks forward to Feb. 29 in Frisco, Texas. “I know if it were 10, 15 years ago, I’d probably have to to go and look for a job as well. I can’t really complain now. Thank God I am in a good position. I’ve made some good money from boxing, and I’m still not done — don’t feel sorry for me too much!”
Yafai spoke with a refreshing sense of balanced understanding. There was no obscene aura of self-importance or arrogance that many fighters develop throughout their career, just a family man whose passion lies solely inside the ring.
“I don’t really do anything else,” Yafai admitted candidly. “I just live for the sport. We all take things for granted. I’ve done alright through boxing; I’m blessed in that way. That’s why I continue to train because I want more.”
Alluding to the car and house that boxing has allowed him to purchase, there was a sense that Yafai believed he had already won the lottery in life; had already achieved far beyond what was deemed possible when he laced up his first pair of gloves.
“We were very poor growing up,” Kal continued. Speaking of a childhood where he would share a bed with his two brothers — Gamal and Galal — his family values shone through, as did his love for his Yemeni background.
“It’s heartbreaking as it doesn’t get anywhere near the media attention that it should,” Yafai expressed, speaking of the crisis in Yemen. Following a revolt against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen has suffered from poverty, unemployment, water shortages and corruption — this has been compounded by the outbreak of a civil war in 2015.
“It’s crazy. There are hundreds of thousands of people dying, and it’s just sad. I’d love to try and get out there some more. I like to do my bit for charity but like to keep it quiet.”
Yafai seems adamant on letting his actions speak louder than words, a trait representative of his family as a whole.
“We are quiet, humble people and just get on with our business,” the champion explained. “My Grandad was a coal miner in Cardiff when he came over and just got on with his business; my Mum is the same, so are my brothers. We are just quiet and get on with our work. A normal, quiet family.”
Naseem Hamed played a massive role in Yafai’s upbringing and his desire to become a professional fighter.
“Naz was the biggest impact,” he spoke of his idol. “Without Naseem Hamed, I wouldn’t fight. The main thing was that he was Yemeni; all the Yemeni’s would adore him. I met him for the first time at Froch–Groves and got a picture with him and my two brothers”.
However, this adoration for such an influential fighter wasn’t enough. Yafai would have to put the hours in the gym as a child but found the “sweet science” a gruelling subject to learn as he clambered his way up the ladder.
“As a kid, I was the worst fighter you’ll ever lay your eyes on. After 13 amateur fights my Mum even told me to stop boxing, I was that terrible. I’d lost seven fights in a row! I couldn’t tell you what kept me going!”
This resilience would be rewarded as Kal was invited to train at Stratford Road Birmingham City Amateur Boxing Club where drastic improvements were made to his game. He’d go on to win his next 16 fights, laying the groundwork for a successful amateur career which saw him win silver at the 2010 European Games.
“I want to prove I am an elite fighter and make a name for myself,” Yafai confirmed as we begin the countdown to his career-defining fight against Gonzalez.
The Nicaraguan, former pound-for-pound great, has suffered just two defeats at the hands of Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in his 50-fight, 16-year career which has seen him become a world champion in four different weight classes.
“He’s a legend in the sport; he’s one of the guys I would watch on my way up and idolise. He’s unbelievable,” Yafai confessed.
His admission to admiring Gonzalez from afar, seated high inside the Inglewood Forum in 2015 underlined the champion’s humility and understanding of greatness in the sport. Gonzalez would beat Edgar Sosa by TKO that night to retain his WBC flyweight title.
Yafai has been an easy target over the years for not progressing quick enough as a champion and struggling to nail down certain names in the division. However, a victory over Gonzalez next month would once again prove that his actions speak louder than his words.
On Feb. 29, idols become rivals. A win over “Chocolatito” won’t be enough to turn the head of passers-by in Birmingham City Centre, but he’ll gain the overdue respect of the spectators that matter.
Not that that bothers him.