• Steve Bunce

Defining days for young Kal Yafai

Steve Bunce January 22, 2013

We don't need to fix fights in the boxing business - that sort of thing only happens in Hollywood movies. Instead, we have matchmakers who arrange fights so that there's only going to be one winner, with the idea being that while a fighter is picking up his 'wins' he learns something each time he steps into the ring. If he doesn't learn something from those easy fights, often called mismatches, at the start of his career, it's too late down the line when he needs to draw on what he's meant to have learnt.

So it was good to hear Khalid Yafai's comments after he took his unbeaten record in the professional ranks to seven fights when Gonzalo Garcia retired before the fifth in Wolverhampton at the weekend. The 23-year-old Brummie described his performance as "average" and "sloppy at times," admitting an injured knuckle hampered his build-up to the fight and vowing to "work on my defence a bit more, working behind my jab."

"The next fight," he added, "will be ten times better than that."

It may not necessarily have been one of his best performances, but it's worth remembering that he is being matched severely - he is being pushed. And rightly so. He's been at the top now for about five or six years - he's met the best Russians, the best Ukrainians, the best Cubans, the best Americans, and beaten almost all of them. Ironically, his greatest rival over the last two or three years has been the great Welsh amateur Andrew Selby. He's the guy that gives him the hardest time.

People forget that in Liverpool in 2005, when he boxed for Birmingham City, Yafai became the first British boxer to win an international amateur boxing world title ever - any age, any weight, either sex - when he was crowned U17 amateur world champion. It was a sensational, staggering achievement, one that has only been repeated a couple of times since.

Of course, he was emulated just 90 minutes later by one Anthony Ogogo, recently seen in his budgie-smugglers on ITV's Splash. Imagine that - you wait all those years for a British amateur champion and suddenly two come along in one day!

So after boxing with Team GB at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and missing out on London Olympics 2012 when he had to withdraw from a box-off with Selby, he's decided to go pro. I think it's a sensible move - and he is cruising, looking absolutely fantastic. I like Kal. He'd give any super-flyweight or bantamweight in Europe trouble, and I think he'll be a fringe world-title prospect inside 12 months. There is always a vulnerable champion just waiting to get picked off!

The problem that his promoter, Matchroom, and the sun-tanned one himself Eddie Hearn face is similar to the situation that Mickey Duff found himself in with flyweight Charlie Magri in the 1970s - they've got to get some rounds for their little bangers.

In some ways the dangerous punchers at flyweight and bantamweight face similar problems to the heavyweights and super-heavyweights when it comes to getting time in the ring. A good heavyweight banger is the hardest person to match - when he's smashing his way through his early matchups, how do you get him the rounds he needs for when he finds himself among the title contenders?

It's the same with a small guy. If he's a destructive puncher it's really hard to get him the rounds. It's easy to get him the fights, but he could have 12 fights and not have been pushed - and you can't then suddenly go into a world title eliminator or a European title fight against someone who's not only there after five rounds but is still pushing you when you get there. You're suddenly in a strange place. It happens to heavyweights, and it happens to the flyweights and bantamweights, the two extremes of the scale.

Eddie knows he's got to get him some rounds, because Kal's good enough to go all the way - of the current crop of fighters with less than 10 fights in the UK, he'd be in my top three. That's why he is keeping him on course for 12 fights in 12 months this early in his professional career. He's cruising through these fights, and you can go for a fight a month when it's going your way, that's great.

But if by April he looks a bit tired he's got to have a break. Because it's not just the fight each month, it's the training that goes into it. You're limiting your downtime, and as the fights get harder the theory goes that you need more preparation. But as an amateur he had an awful lot of contests. He would bounce from Europeans to multi-nations and back again - and some of those are hard. I don't know the total number of bouts he had in any given year, but I would be stunned if it was consistently less than 25.

In the professional ranks he is not fighting three-threes and there's more preparation involved in longer fights; I think a fight a month is certainly doable, especially against the type of people he's taken care of. But he can't do a hard fight a month.

One of things that might be happening with Kal, looking at some of the things he said after beating Garcia, is that perhaps he's taken his eye off it a little bit. A lot of hype has built around him quite quickly - he's been touted and pushed while it's suggested he can walk through everybody. That's what beats most top amateurs when they go pro and they don't make it. People ask why it didn't it happen for boxer X and it's quite simple - they believed in the publicity, they believed that all of these guys were going to fall over, and they believed all they had to do was show up, put the bandages on, sign a few autographs and be cuddled by their promoter. It's not that simple. There are far more superstar amateurs who fail to make the grade than those who make it. That's the reality.

But Kal is right. He needs to remember that he's got to do the work, and that these guys coming in - whether it's the No. 1 guy from Chile or the No. 2 guys from Spain - they're proud little fighters, and every now and again one of them won't fall over, won't be bothered by being hit in the liver.

British bantamweight champion Stuart Hall would be the next big fight on his agenda for me. You've got to push Kal - what he said on Saturday night shows you he knows he needs a bit of a challenge. Soon he will need to know he's going in for a British, European or Commonwealth title fight, and that it is not going to be a romp.

He's still got a good way to go, but he'll get there.

Also, you will notice that I now have an ESPN podcast. Without banging the drum or being too big-headed, it's already the top boxing podcast in the UK - so you'd better have a listen. The inaugural episode includes Carl Froch talking about the snow and Martin Murray on the tango in Argentina. As you might expect, it's something a bit different from yours truly...

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.