Ahead of a fight, most boxers will proclaim that their preparations are going great and that they are in excellent shape. Yet, in defeat, the real story emerges.
The “best camp ever” was, in fact, a nightmare. Injuries, misjudged weight-cuts and simply outgrowing the division are often cited as mitigating circumstances for a loss. While these tales are invariably true, they tend to fall on deaf ears. The classy Kal Yafai makes no such excuses.
Yafai (26-1, 15 KOs) was the last British fighter to compete in a world title bout before the Covid-19 outbreak put the sport on hiatus. In the sixth defence of his WBA super-flyweight title, Yafai faced the great Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez. Beforehand there was speculation that the four-weight world champion was a faded force and that two gruelling contests with Srisaket Sor Rungvisai had taken the last of his prime in 2017. Yet Gonzalez was anything but finished as he dropped Yafai twice before obliging the referee to halt the contest in the ninth round.
When Yafai spoke to Boxing Social,he was refreshingly honest and had nothing but praise for his opponent.
“I never want to take any credit away from ‘Chocolatito’,” said Yafai. “I wouldn’t do that to him because he’s a great fighter and a great person outside the ring as well. Sometimes things just don’t go your way and they never went my way. I couldn’t use my feet, I couldn’t box, I couldn’t hit and move, so I had to sit in the pocket with him and that’s one of the worst things you can do against him.
“I’m not one to make up excuses. I’m not going to go, ‘This didn’t happen because of this or that’. I took the loss like a man. He beat me fair and square on the night and that’s where it matters. If I can’t perform to the best of my ability, that’s my problem to deal with. That’s why I didn’t come out with no excuses after the fight. One, no one wants to hear them and two, it doesn’t change anything,” Yafai said with a laugh.
Afterwards, Gonzalez demonstrated that he is equally as classy outside the ring as he is within it. As Yafai attempted to come to terms with the loss of the title he had held for over three years and his first defeat as a professional, the Nicaraguan sought out his opponent to offer encouragement. Given the reverence Yafai has for the new champion, Gonzalez’s words offered some comfort.
“He’s a great fighter and he’s someone I’ve looked up to for a long time,” said Yafai. “Even after the fight, he came in to see me and gave me some gifts and stuff like that. He gave me his headband that he wears to the ring and his cap. It’s gone in the memory box with all my valuable stuff from the Olympics and stuff like that. He told me I was a talented fighter, I can come back no problem and that I’m a strong fighter. His manager actually messaged me off Gonzalez’s Twitter the other day and asked for my address to send me a gift. I look forward to seeing what that is,” once again Yafai laughed, as he has no idea what will arrive in the mail from Nicaragua.
While Yafai refuses to use it as justification for his loss, his immediate decision to move to bantamweight was telling. In the final 18 months of his title reign, the 31-year-old fought in a vastly different style than he had demonstrated in earlier defences. The work-rate he displayed against Suguru Muranaka (W12) where he threw in excess of 1,200 punches was gone, as was the punch power he showed by knocking down David Carmona three times, forcing his opponent to retire at the end of the seventh round.
When pressed on his battles with the 115lbs divisional limit, Yafai admitted the effort to make weight was gruelling. Still, he refused to discuss the impact that had in the ‘Chocolatito’ fight, instead focusing on his last two successful defences against Israel Gonzalez (W12) and Norbelto Jimenez (W12).
“Making weight is a big issue for me,” he said. “It has been for the last two or three fights. Realistically, I had no choice, I had to move up.
“The Carmona fight was the last time I made the weight comfortably, after that it was an absolute nightmare. I was speaking to a friend of mine and he said, ‘It’s crazy because you can really punch, but in your last couple of fights it’s like all your power has gone’. My physical strength stays, but my punch power disappears, especially after four, five rounds. It just goes out the window because I haven’t got the energy, and I’m trying to conserve energy throughout the fight, when I know I’ve got a terrific engine.”
Had it not been for the world title, Yafai revealed he would have moved to the bantamweight division in 2018. However, he has no regrets. That belt facilitated the sort of purses that are hard to come by in the lower weight classes. It afforded him the opportunity to box in the majestic surroundings of the Casino de Monte Carlo, large venues such as the Principality Stadium and the chance to face a legend of the sport.
Losing the final few pounds was painful, losing his title even more so, but both were worth it.
“Would I have changed anything,” Yafai posed himself the question. “Probably not, no. No chance in hell will I ever vacate a world title. I want them big-money fights and holding that world title has helped me secure my future and earn big money with world title defences. I owe Eddie Hearn a lot for that, he’s got me to where I am. It is what it is.”
When Yafai was asked to assess his run as a world champion, rather than having a sense of pride in his achievements he characterised it as one of missed opportunities. On two occasions, he believed he had secured the unification bout he desperately coveted.
Perhaps with time, Yafai will look back on his reign more fondly, but at present, with the pang of defeat still raw, his time as a champion is tinged by frustration.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I wanted them big fights earlier, but they just never came off. After I fought Carmona, I was meant to fight Jerwin Ancajas [IBF champion] and that never came off. After that, I was just chasing the big fights. Early in 2019, I was meant to fight Donnie Nietes and then I was out with a hand injury. We thought that could be postponed by five, six weeks, but the WBO decided to make him fight his mandatory and then he decided to vacate his title. Then I had my mandatory. It was never meant to be. When I look back, I just think, ‘Whatever is meant to be, will be’.”
While Yafai currently has a positive outlook for the future, this has not always been the case. Since the night of the Gonzalez defeat, he has oscillated between positivity and pessimism. While he has put on a brave face for the sake of those around him, in the quieter moments defeat has been a bitter pill to swallow.
“I was down, then the next minute I was optimistic,” he said as he recalled the post-fight atmosphere in the changing room. “I just thought, ‘You’ve got to get on with it. If I sit down and mope around all day, it’s not going to do nothing for me’. Travelling home, I was with my brother and the team, so I put a smile on and got on with it because I didn’t want them to worry about me. When I got home, after the lockdown kicked in, I started thinking, ‘Fucking hell. This is depressing’ and it became more and more depressing. Then I snapped out of it, I thought, ‘Take it like a man’. I decided to enjoy my time off, get some stuff sorted at home and get ready to get back on it.
“I count my blessings. I made those defences, learnt a lot along the way and got experiences under my belt. At this time in my career, I’m in a good space financially, especially for a super- flyweight. There’s more I want to achieve. I’ve not got a lot of miles on the clock. It’s not like I’ve had a horrible painful career where I’ve been put down god knows how many times and been in wars non-stop. Apart from my last fight, I’m very fresh.
“Sometimes I look at the [situation] and think, ‘Fucking hell, I lost,’ but when you think of it like that, it’s a good position to be in. I’ve just got to get back on the horse and see what the next few years brings. I’m hungry for success, I live the right lifestyle and hopefully I can get another shot soon. Now, I can move onto phase two of my career and look to become a two-weight world champion and achieve a lot more.”
Yafai’s route to a second world title will not be easy. At present, Naoya ‘Monster’ Inoue holds two belts and could soon be in possession of a third if a unification with WBO title-holder John Riel Casimero can be rescheduled. The WBC strap is in the possession of the undefeated Nordine Oubaali, while Guillermo Rigondeaux holds a secondary WBA title.
Despite the magnitude of the task ahead, it is one Yafai relishes.
“That’s a good thing,” he said of the top-heavy bantamweight division. “There’s loads of big, exciting fights to be made. That’s what it’s all about. It looks like everybody wants to fight each other. It’s exciting times and I’m happy to be involved in that division. “