With the first defence of his WBA super flyweight title on Saturday at home in Birmingham, Kal Yafai tells Chris Williamson how it felt to win a world title
The three words every title challenger dreams of hearing have become one of boxing’s cliches; indeed, a master of ceremonies will often shorten or alter the words. Still, they can propel him through the strain and sweat of training camp and if uttered can change his life:
“And the new!”
WBA super flyweight champion Kal Yafai (21-0) tells Slip & Counter that he fought last December’s title-winning twelve round battle with Luis Concepcion (35-5) unaware T-shirts with those words freshly printed lay folded beneath the ring canvas.
“I didn’t know about them!” Kal reveals. “It was my brother who approached Sophie (Whittam) at ‘The Fight Label’, who make my shorts. She brought them to the weigh-in and the team waited until I was picking my shorts up at the rules meeting [before handing over the T-shirts to the team]. Then they hid them under the ring in the corner,” he laughs.
Concepcion had relinquished the crown the day before the bout having scaled two and a half pounds over the 115 lb limit, something Yafai says he’d gleaned a hint of shortly before the weigh-in. “I heard something an hour before,” he reveals. “Eddie Hearn said ‘he’s struggling’. I thought ‘how has he not made it?’ He’s come up to super-flyweight and he’s not huge. He’s muscular but not massive. He’s never struggled with the weight before. I always thought he’d make weight. When I saw he’d weighed 117 and a half (pounds) I thought ‘you haven’t just missed it; you’ve gone up another division!'”
Once clear the excess weight wasn’t being shed, Kal was presented with a number of options. Although widely reported that as Yafai wasn’t mandatory challenger he wouldn’t be in line to challenge for the now-vacant belt, this was an option, although Yafai was determined to fight an overweight Concepcion. “Eddie (Hearn) dealt with it. I was given the option of not fighting. I was told I could fight for the vacant title in the new year (but) I concentrated on myself and my (post weigh-in) recovery program.”
With Yafai in the curious position of ‘challenging’ the former champ, he underlined the legitimacy of his new status with a superb performance. Where ‘El Nica’ was battle hardened through several wars and two ‘world’ title campaigns, Yafai had strolled to British and Commonwealth titles in a relatively barren local weight division.
Many of us suspected the jump in class would prove too much, as it had for countrymen Liam Smith and Charlie Edwards earlier in the summer. No chance, says Yafai. “When you see lads making the jump [in class and losing] there’s usually something missing,” he says. “My (extensive) amateur boxing background has helped a lot and I have good feet, which really showed (against Concepcion). I like to think I’m pretty sound in all areas. I can box on the back foot; I have fast feet, fast hands and I hit hard.”
Indeed he does. The way Yafai floored and dominated Concepcion was reminiscent of how Naseem Hamed rose to his first professional test in 1994 as ‘The Prince’ controlled veteran EBU champion Vincenzo Belcastro while reveal substance lay beneath the flash. Yafai says the bout played out as envisaged. “This is how we (the team) all pictured it to be,” he explains. “I knew it would go one of two ways: either he would drag me into a slugfest and I’d stand and trade (which isn’t what my training team wanted), or I’d outbox him and not let him work on the inside.”
Team Yafai planned to ensure the latter plan prevailed by following a strategy worked on over several weeks leading up to the fight. “We sat down as a team in the beginning after the fight was confirmed. We watched tapes [of Concepcion] and agreed on the plan,” Yafai states. “I kept it at long distance, caught him with lots of jabs and tied him up when he got inside. I kept making him reset and prevented him from getting into a rhythm.”
Although Concepcion carries a reputation for roguish unpredictability, the bout was largely fought with good sportsmanship. Kal says he never felt uncomfortable and the only real source of wonder was an inability to adjust on the part of the Panamanian ex-champion. “Nothing surprised me. It was purely business. I was surprised at how many times he took my left hook to the head to be honest,” Kal reveals. “Someone of that experience should be defending them after a while. He took them flush.”
Yafai is now Britain’s first world champion in the 36-year history of the super flyweight division and first at any weight for 109 years to hail from Birmingham. Having won the title seven weeks after Sam Eggington and Frankie Gavin waged their fight-of-the-year contender in the city, Kal is excited to bring a world title back to the ‘second city’. “It’s very important,” says Kal of the light he’s shining on his home city. “I’m the first world champion in over a hundred years (since Owen Moran) and it’s great to bring (the title) back to the city. I plan to keep winning.”
Yafai defends against Japan’s Suguru Muranaka in Birmingham on Saturday and can look forward to an exciting future. The current WBA number one contender is Muranaka’s countryman Sho Ishida, unbeaten in 24 contests, all fought in Japan and whose last two opponents have bizarrely both been debutants.
Having won a version of the title with the quality win over Concepcion, it feels crude but necessary to ask Yafai how he’d approach a bout with his peers at what is a superb weight class, including the outstanding WBC champ Thai Sor Rungvisai, WBO boss Naoya Inoue and former champ Roman Gonzales. “If I fight them I’d do exactly the same (preparation as for Concepcion). If those fights are offered and made, I’ll sit down with the team. We’ll start by watching tapes of them on TV and make a plan from there.”
It’s seems likely that Yafai will remain down to earth and he makes a point of thanking his closest supporters. “My whole team has stuck by me. I’m really close to my family and my partner obviously. Max (McCracken, trainer) has been a massive asset, as has my strength and conditioning coach, Des Whitter. They’ve all been vital. It’s been a great journey so far; four and a half years as a pro. I thank Matchroom and Eddie Hearn too; they’ve been absolutely brilliant.”