ROMAN GONZALEZ is a legend for a reason. In February Kal Yafai discovered exactly why in a gruelling nine round fight for his WBA super-flyweight title.
“He was an elite fighter. The little things that he does, 99 per cent of the time if I see that left hook to the body and I’m able to land, I’m going to land it. But with him he’d leave the opening there and by the time I’ve seen and I’ve thrown it – I’d throw it and he’s open – but then when it comes to landing, it’s landing on an elbow, because he just moved his elbow an inch and deflected the shot,” Yafai tells Boxing News. “He was just a quality operator. Everything I done on the night he had an answer for.
“When I look back on the fight, I think, ‘Yeah you f**ker, that’s good, man’.” But he does not regret it. “Some people ask me why did you chase the fight? Why did you want that fight so much? One, I always thought I could win the fight. I always knew it would be a tough fight and I knew it would probably be the toughest fight in the division because of his work rate and his inside work. But I also knew he was the biggest name. There’s a lot of rewards in the fight. I beat him, I’ve beat a legend. There’s a lot of money involved. Winning that fight would obviously take my profile right to the top and take me to the next level,” Kal continued. “You make memories for life. The whole experience it was brilliant to be out there… You’re at the Dallas Cowboys and there’s my bald head on a big screen. It’s unreal. I’m here to do big things in boxing. From that it’s made me even hungrier than I was before. Even though I lost the fight, I learned a lot and it’s going to take me to the next level, I believe, in boxing.”
Yafai is adamant that he can improve from that salutary experience. “The whole thing. He was a class act, there’s no doubt about that. Was I at my best? I don’t think so,” he said. “There’s no point making an excuse for getting beat and losing, it doesn’t change anything… He was just an elite fighter. I should have obviously boxed a lot more but when your legs don’t want to do it, you can’t do it.”
“The main issue I had with that fight was I stayed at the weight too long. I’d outgrown the weight. But I still thought I’d be the bigger man and stronger man and be able to handle him. But taking nothing away from him,” he continued. “I took the big fight, I took the risk, it didn’t pay off that night but it’s paid off in experience. So I’m looking forward to coming back heavier [and] not having to worry about if I can do 12 rounds, use my strengths, use my legs and be able to move without them cramping up, being able to use my physical strength as well.
“I learned a hell of lot of that night. I just can’t wait to get going again.”
Yafai got his big fight in at the end of February, just before Britain went into a nationwide lockdown. It forced a long break on Kal, his first sustained rest from the sport in more than a decade. “Don’t get me wrong, boxing is my life. There’s not a day that’s gone by where I don’t think about boxing. This is my life. Without boxing I can’t do any of what I’ve done. It’s done wonderful things. But my body really needed a break,” Yafai said. “I’ve been boxing at a high level, not only as a pro, but as an amateur, since let’s say Beijing [the 2008 Olympics] to now. That’s 12 years, non stop, going and going. Don’t forget I’ve done pre-Beijing, trying to get there, got there and stayed amateur for another four years and done all the tournaments leading up. And it’s not only the tournaments, it’s the training as well. Because it is gruelling training three or four times a day.”
“When I turned pro it was hectic, it wasn’t like some prospects you them fight every two or three months, I boxed seven times in my first six months as a pro. I was on the go constantly. That stood me in good stead,” he adds. “I won the world title and had my defences and then after the Gonzalez fight I had time to actually rest, let my body recover and now I’m ready to go.”
He needed it. He has brittle hands, the tools of his trade can leave him in pain long after each contest is done. “I’ve tried near enough every glove. My last fight Grant made me a good pair of orthopaedic gloves. I basically had to send them out a wrap of both hands well in advance before the fight and they made gloves to them wraps and they were bang on. It solved a problem because I had no issues really,” he said. “Probably because I didn’t land that many shots!”
It was an opportunity for reflection too. “There’s fighters out there who are having to wait a long time, who haven’t that big fight or don’t get them kind of purses and it’s hard. I feel for every fighter that’s having to stay in the gym, struggle, work. It’s not nice to see. I’m lucky and I’m thankful. Having that big fight, just before, which was by far my biggest pay day. It was great to get that in and it means I don’t have to rush,” he said.
A tumultuous year but it has been a successful one for his two boxing brothers. Galal Yafai became a two-time Olympian when he won a place at the Tokyo Games at the European qualifier in March and on December 17 Gamal Yafai became the European champion.
It was Gamal, whom as an over active seven-year-old, was first taken by their mum to a boxing club. Kal followed too. “I stuck at it. I was s**t, lost loads of fights, I went to Frank O’Sullivan’s gym when I was about 12, he just completely changed me, taught me how to box,” Kal remembered.
“I was on my way then.
“I wasn’t the most talented kid when I started boxing, anybody will tell you that. I was diabolical. But by the time I was 14, 15 I was maturing and starting actually being successful at Junior ABAs and stuff like that. Then by the time I turned 17 I won the ABA title and I was on my way then.”
Qualifying for an Olympic Games at just 18 years old was a significant achievement. “To qualify I boxed this guy from Moldova who was a solid man who was in his 30s, going to his third Olympic Games,” Yafai said. “I watched him fight in Athens in 2004 and he lost his fight against Yuriorkis Gamboa, who went on to win the gold medal, and it was like a mad scoring fight, like 49-36 on computer scoring.”
“I had to box this geezer and I thought, bloody hell. I was seven points down going into the third round, I’d had two public warnings for slapping, my bicep had bust inside and it was black by the time I left the ring and somehow I managed to claw it back, give him a standing count and won by two points.”
He and James DeGale both qualified at that tournament, celebrating their momentous achievement by getting on MSN messager on the wifi in their hotel’s reception. “That was a lifetime ago,” he said. “Back then that was like the best night of my life.”
Twelve years on he has had a moment of pause. As he lived a normal life, without the constant grind of training and competition, that gratitude for where he is now can be well understood. When he was young they’d never had much at all. “My mum done the best she could but it makes you appreciate everything you have and that’s important. My mum didn’t struggle to bring us up to watch us make a lot of money then [waste] it. It’s good to just live the way I have done,” Kal said. “Some of the areas we lived in and stuff like that, they’re not nice areas.
“By the time we were 14, 15, you stay away from all the s**t because you’re too interested in going to the gym and back after school, things like that. That keeps the discipline and keeps you interested in something.”
The brothers grew up in Birmingham. Their grandfather had been a miner in Wales. His mother moved to Cardiff from Yemen when she was young (which is why she has a Welsh accent) and they still have family in Yemen.
“I had uncles over there but they’ve passed away now. We’ve got our aunts, their wives, and cousins. It’s hard for them over there right now. All of us over here as a family we just try to support them,” Kal said. “You’ve got to do that. We’re lucky in a way because we live over here. It’s a completely different world, that’s why in a way I’m grateful for what I have. [I would be] if I worked in a newsagents or I worked in McDonalds or whatever, there’s nothing wrong with them jobs at all. But I’ll always be grateful because I could have been living over there. I could be fighting for my life every day, trying to find something to drink or eat. We’re always grateful for what we have.”
“It gets forgotten,” he adds. “I think for everybody over there, you just don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know. Anybody can get shot there or anybody can get their house blown up. They could be standing on the spot and just get blown to pieces without even knowing what’s coming. Getting food, getting clean water, there’s a lot of things to worry about. But it’s mad how you see some people over there and they’re just living their lives as normal, taking each day as it comes. There are kids over there starving. I think it takes a really strong mindset and personality to try and live. I don’t know what I’d do.”
As punishing as his fight Roman Gonzalez was, for Kal Yafai it’s a matter of perspective. He’s lost, he’s learned and he’ll be back in 2021.
“I’ve had one nose bleed in all my fights and that was against a Japanese kid in the World championships in Baku in 2011,” he said. “I feel fresh now.”
“See where we’re at early next year and see how I feel and see how I perform,” he concludes. “Expect to see me around for a long time.”