High-flying Khalid Yafai
There are not many world-class European boxers below the bantamweight limit, which makes WBA junior bantamweight champion Khalid Yafai an intriguing outlier. There are only three boxers from Europe rated in THE RING Magazine’s Top 10 lists below bantamweight and none other Yafai hold a world title. The divisions below 118 pounds are dominated by boxers from Asia, Central America or from Southern Africa. The junior bantamweights have rarely been more popular in America, with Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez establishing a television beachhead that Naoya Inoue, Wisaksil Wangek and Juan Francisco Estrada are sure to build upon, since HBO aired the exciting foursome’s recent fights. A new interloper could be Englishman Yafai, the semi-main event on today’s undercard of IBF/WBA heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua’s title defense against Carlos Takam. Obviously influenced by Prince Naseem Hamed (not as flashy but of Yemeni heritage with solid power and slick movement), Yafai’s objective is to crash the party and announce himself in a big way on today.
The unbeaten 28-year-old Birmingham product (first champion since Owen Moran in 1909) is making the second defense of his title in his second straight fight against a Japanese challenger. An excellent amateur, Yafai topped out at the Olympics, where he lost to Cuban Andry Laffita in the second round. Showed professional grit immediately, fighting through a torn bicep that required surgery in his eighth fight. Announced himself as a contender, outclassing world title challenger Everth Briceno, knocking Briceno down three times over the 12-round distance. A constantly evolving gym rat, Yafai described his boxing technique as having “mad style, to be honest with you. I hold a tight guard because of the scoring. I like to attack the body with a left hook. I press forwards but I like to box on the back foot once I’ve got my lead, then counterpunch.” This is how Yafai dismantled Luis Concepcion, winning 10 of 12 rounds, to win the WBA title last December.
Yafai is not disregarding lanky challenger Sho Ishida but does not deny seeing a bigger future by dispatching his mandatory challenger. “I know what I’m up against and have to do on Saturday. I try not to think about possible big fights in America at this stage. I know they are within touching distance but I have a job to do beforehand, which is my obvious priority. I’m excited to fight on such a huge card and show my skills. I can’t wait now. I’ve put a lot of work into my training, as always. I’ve been training for about 12 weeks now.” Yafai is looking with one eye on what lies beyond Ishida, “HBO have invested in the super flys and look set to continuing doing so. I’ve always wanted to fight in America. I’m potentially just one fight away from doing so now. I live the life and I’ll be doing everything in my power to retain my title.
Those preparations, according to Yafai, have been ideal, “Camp has gone great; we’ve had some quality work. It’s been gym, eat, sleep and repeat, so we’re fully focused on the job at hand. We had Stuart Hall in at the start for his height and Andrew Selby a few times.” Hall was an obvious necessity, given Ishida’s elongated 5-foot-8 frame, which they studied at length. “I’ve watched quite a bit of Ishida and he’s a good fighter. I think he’ll look to use his height and reach to try and keep me at bay. I think he’ll look to box off the back foot. He’ll be cagey early on. I expect to find my range quickly. Despite the height, I’ve just trained as normal. I never take fights lightly but this looks like one where I’ve got to be at my very best. Once we get in there, he’ll see I’m pretty good at taking a fighter’s strength away from them.”
Defeating another Japanese foe, Suguru Muranaka, in his most recent outing, may give Yafai a sense of security. Yafai is not taking anything for granted but hopes the big fight atmosphere (75,000 fans are expected to sell out Principality Stadium, in Cardiff, Wales) rattles his challenger. “Every fighter will react differently to the big event atmosphere. Look at my last opponent; he was loving it. Muranaka was very tough but I was glad the way it went. It was solid rounds in the bank. I think I could have varied my punches and combinations but it was 12 good rounds in. I learned a lot from it.” One lesson is to press advantages, as Yafai knocked Muranaka down in the second round but was unable to hurt him again. Yafai had a point deducted for low blows in the eighth round as well, wisely moving his concentration of punches to the head after the infraction.
Khalid Yafai was called out by former pound-for-pound entrant Roman Gonzalez, last week, after he was installed as the No. 2 challenger by the WBA. Gonzalez was overjoyed by the news, “I am grateful to WBA President Gilberto Mendoza for this opportunity. If Yafai gives me the opportunity, I will not miss it.” Roman told La Prensa, “I already saw Yafai’s fight with Luis Concepción, also the one he did with Cristofer Rosales. He knows how to move. He has his thing, like everyone else, but he is the most accessible (in terms of securing a world title opportunity). I’m just resting, engaging with people who support me and I hope to return to the gym in November. I would be delighted to face the English champion Khalid Yafai but there is also a possibility to fight with WBO champion Naoya Inoue.”
Even given the two damaging losses Gonzalez suffered, Yafai would need to be at his best against the former champion. He could not enter such a fight with anything less than one-hundred percent focus and health. The latter has been a problem, since Yafai suffered bruised bones again, in both hands, as the Muranaka bout wore on. Yafai revealed to SkySports that this is an ongoing problem, which has prevented his maturation. “I’d love to fight four times a year but, with my hands, it’s very unlikely for me to do that. It’s just one of those things I have to deal with. Ishida will only be my second fight this year but next year we are aiming for three.”
Sho Ishida is an exceedingly tall 25-year-old, holding a four-inch height advantage over 5-foot-4 Yafai. He has been embraced by Japanese fans, despite boxing out the upstart Ohashi Gym. Has an underdog image, though boxing since age 11, Ishida spent as much time in the kickboxing circuit as boxing rings, thus is without an extensive amateur pedigree, or familial links to boxing, like many other Japanese prodigies of recent vintage. Ishida turned pro at 17 and has rounded into a complete and physically mature boxer-puncher. Uses his freakish height and timing to frustrate foes, not relying on pure speed or reflexes. Ishida’s feet set him apart, gliding from rope to rope, setting up weigh stations from which to potshot foes who follow his tracks into traps.
It will be interesting to see how Ishida handles boxing outside of Japan for the first time. This is an issue for Japanese boxers, since only eight have wrested a title away from a reigning champion. Ishida left Osaka last week, saying he had put in over 100 rounds of sparring and was in top shape. “I have no problem with the scale. I enter my first world title fight with great and positive enthusiasm in my heart. I am ready and alert and will be sure to succeed by demonstrating all my boxing abilities. I live my life as a dedicated boxer, so that I am able to return to Osaka with a world championship belt.”
Ishida’s manager and trainer is Kazunori Ioka, also the father of current flyweight champion Kazuto Ioka, who has every confidence in his boxer. Ioka points to Ishida’s quick bursts of punches, and how he measures distance as clear advantages. He said his son has been sparring with Ishida regularly and that Ishida is motivated by the possibility of adding his name to the small roster of Japanese boxers who won their world titles overseas. The first of which was Shozo Saijyo, who dethroned Raul Rojas in Los Angeles, back in 1968. The others are Kuniaki Shibata, Shoji Oguma, Tadashi Mihara, Yasutsune Uehara, Katsunari Takayama and, most recently, Sho Kimura, this year in China.
Khalid Yafai does want his name added to that short list and enters the fight as a considerable favorite with the oddsmakers. Yafai sees this fight as the vehicle to give him the exposure needed to fight the other, more globally recognizable champions in the division. “I want to be in the mix as well. There’s a lot of people talking about this card but there are plenty of people over in America who don’t know about me. I want to get my name out there and get my name right in the mix for the super flyweights. It’s become a massive division now. Before, there was hardly any good champions but now every champion is a top, top fighter. I’m looking to put on a very skilled and composed, aggressive performance with a lot of speed and hopefully a knockout.”