SINCE landing the vacant WBA super-flyweight title in 2016, Kal Yafai has become one of the forgotten men of British boxing, someone whose title run has been constructed on undercards to little or no fanfare. He has remained unbeaten, making five successful defences of his current belt, yet done little to strengthen his claim to the number one spot at super-flyweight.
This Saturday (February 29) in Frisco, Texas, however, things could be about to change.
For so long treading water, Yafai has at last landed the fight he has been looking for in the shape of a WBA title defence against former three-weight world champion Roman Gonzalez. Undoubtedly it is the challenge Yafai needs, one long overdue. It could drag him out of the shallow end and create greater opportunities down the line. It could be just what is required to highlight his talent and bring out of the best in him.
Yet there is of course danger here too. The flipside to the excitement is that choosing Roman Gonzalez, affectionately known as ‘Chocolatito’, could be a decision Yafai later comes to regret if – and it’s a big if – the former champion remains fresh enough to drown a current champion still wet behind the ears.
No stranger to big fights, Gonzalez won his first world title, a WBA minimumweight belt, back in 2008 and has been a world champion on and off ever since. Other titles, like the WBA and WBC belts at flyweight, and the WBA belt at super-flyweight, were later added to the collection, and so too were the scalps of men like Juan Francisco Estrada, Carlos Cuadras, Brian Viloria and Edgar Sosa.
But then in 2017 Gonzalez was suddenly made to look human when his WBA super-flyweight title reign, a short-lived one by his standards, was ended by Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in one of the fights of the decade. The loss showed Gonzalez to be slipping, for it was a fight most expected him to win, but the manner of it wasn’t enough for him to be written off completely.
No, that moment arrived in the pair’s rematch, when this time Gonzalez wasn’t outpointed by Sor Rungvisai but instead dramatically knocked out in the fourth round. Forget losing speed and sharpness. The fear now was that Gonzalez’s punch resistance was also on the wane.
Still, that was the knee-jerk reaction. The considered, objective one could be this: Sor Rungvisai has gone on to prove his capabilities as a world champion, despite recently losing his belt to Estrada, and is a better fighter than most gave him credit for going into his first fight with Gonzalez. Moreover, Gonzalez, since brushing himself down following that second Sor Rungvisai loss, has returned with solid victories against Moises Fuentes and Diomel Diocos, both of whom were stopped inside schedule.
None of this is to say Gonzalez is back, or even dispute the theory that he is shop-worn, but what it does suggest, having lost only to Sor Rungvisai in a 50-fight pro career, is that the gifted Nicaraguan is an ideal test for an unproven world champion like Yafai at this point in time.
Admittedly, if Gonzalez, 48-2 (40), was close to his best, few would back Birmingham’s Yafai to take rounds from him, much less beat him in a fight. It would be deemed a mismatch and Yafai deemed another Brit thrown in the deep end against a pound-for-pound talent stateside. But one thing we can say for certain is that Gonzalez, in 2020, won’t be at his best. Which is why the timing, given the fight takes place this weekend, not in 2016, could be just right.
Yafai, at 30, doesn’t have too much time on his side as a smaller man, as Gonzalez, 32, can attest, but is the fresher of the two and certainly buoyed by the momentum and confidence of a champion yet to suffer a pro defeat. He is busy and aggressive. He will be physical with Gonzalez in moments when a 32-year-old with wear and tear would rather he gave him space and time. He will attempt to make the older man feel like he has reached the end.
The fact that five of Yafai’s last six fights have gone the full 12 rounds suggests a lack of punch power at the top level but, equally, indicates very good fitness levels, which could come in handy if it is his intention to outwork Gonzalez and break him down as the fight progresses. Should this be the case, he will need to be wary of Gonzalez’s famed counterpunching ability when opening up. He will need to be active but not overzealous. He will need to think as much as fight.
Because if he gets it wrong, and if Gonzalez retains a decent-sized portion of what got him to the top of some people’s pound-for-pound lists only a few years ago, this could very quickly become a high-risk, high-reward defence for Yafai, 26-0 (15).
Yes, it appears set up for the champion to win – the timing of both his ascent and the fight, not to mention the gradual deterioration of Gonzalez – but until Gonzalez’s demise is signified by more than just a couple of defeats to Sor Rungvisai, a dangerman two or three levels above Yafai’s recent opposition, there’s an argument to be made that it has been greatly exaggerated. It’s not a strong argument, nor is this pick a confident one, but I suspect Gonzalez, someone whose technique and talent is matched by only a handful of boxers in the modern era, might possess enough of the old magic to edge a close fight on the cards.
Also on the card in Frisco, Julio Cesar Martinez defends his WBC flyweight title, a belt formerly owned by Britain’s Charlie Edwards, against Wales’ Jay Harris.
Harris, 17-0 (9), rose to prominence in 2019 when outpointing Angel Moreno to lift the European flyweight title in Cardiff. He then followed this with a fourth-round stoppage of former amateur star Paddy Barnes, which proved to be Barnes’ final fight as a pro.
Martinez, meanwhile, has ended each of his last nine fights inside the distance – not including a controversial No Contest when a third-round stoppage of Edwards was overturned – and has quickly become one of the most feared little men on the planet. Having his current title with a nine-round stoppage of Cristofer Rosales in December 2019, the excitement surrounding Martinez, 15-1 (12), is only tempered by him posting a failed performance-enhancing drug test for traces of clenbuterol that same year (a trace considered so small the WBC bizarrely decided against taking any action).