Is Khalid Yafai sharing a bill with a future foe?
People tell me England presented a royal wedding to American audiences last weekend; more importantly England is giving us a world championship title defense on American shores today, at Fresno, California’s Save Mart Arena, via the ESPN+ streaming service app (9:30 p.m. ET, while our English cousins have to wake up at 2:30 Sunday morning). No, regrettably, it is not unified heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua but someone at the other end of the weight classes. Consider this the formal introduction of WBA junior bantamweight champion Khalid Yafai 23-0 (14), whose big plans are best accomplished with the aid of American fans who already appreciate and support Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman Gonzalez. An eye-catching debut is essential for Yafai, who has a unique fan-friendly style in a division full of dangerous Hispanic foes. David Carmona, 21-5-5 (9), is probably not one of those dangers, losing three of his last five fights, so Yafai should make an impression worthy of his lofty ambitions.
There are not many world-class European boxers below bantamweight, making Khalid Yafai an intriguing outlier. There are only three boxers from Europe rated in THE RING Magazine’s Top 10 below bantamweight; the divisions south of 118 pounds are dominated by boxers from Asia, Central America or Southern Africa. Another reason for Yafai wanting to break into the American market is that lower weight boxers such as Carl Frampton, Jamie McDonnell and Lee Selby have already paved the way with victories on American soil. Yafai can be a new interloper, obviously influenced by Prince Naseem Hamed (not as flashy but of Yemeni heritage, with solid power and slick movement), whose objective is to crash the scene and announce himself at the American party in a big way.
The unbeaten 28-year-old Birmingham-born boxer-puncher (the first British champion since Owen Moran in 1909 at the weight) is making the third defense of his title. An excellent amateur, Yafai topped out at the 2008 Olympics, in which he lost to Cuban Andry Laffita in his second bout. Showed professional grit immediately, fighting through a torn bicep that required surgery in his eighth fight. Announced himself a contender, outclassing world junior bantamweight 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.” That is how Yafai dismantled Luis Concepcion (overcoming the Panamanian, despite his weighing two-and-a-half pounds over the limit, the day before the fight), winning 10 of 12 rounds, to win the WBA title.
Yafai won’t be overweight, training for the last three weeks at Robert Garcia’s talent-laden gym in Oxnard, California, sparring with fellow Englishman and former bantamweight titlist Jamie McDonnell before traveling to California. Yafai has a solid following in England and respect inside the game, even called out by former pound-for-pound entrant Roman Gonzalez after he was installed as the No. 1 challenger. 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 Concepcion, 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 would be delighted to face the English champion Khalid Yafai.”
Even this physically prime version of Yafai could not enter a fight against Gonzalez with anything less than 100 percent focus and health. The latter has been a problem. Yafai suffered bruised bones again, in both hands, as his most recent title defense, last October, against Sho Ishida wore on. It is an ongoing problem, which has prevented Yafai’s boxing 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 but this year we are aiming for three.” Yafai sees the Carmona fight as the vehicle to give him the exposure and become a globally recognizable champion. “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.”
In his two title defenses, Yafai has not looked scintillating, not only because of injuries, as the opposition made for ugly fights, employing a lot of infighting/grappling against notoriously tough and stubborn Japanese challengers. Yafai still dominated on the cards; the closest score was 116-112 but the fights lacked drama. They did nothing for Yafai’s standing in a British boxing market filled with talent and personalities. It looks like the next step is a title unification bout with IBF titlist Jerwin Ancajas later this year. The ultimate goal is a complete unification against WBC beltholder Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, who is in the midst of a personal crisis, preventing him from making a title defense for the rest of the year. Fans can make a direct comparison between Yafai and Ancajas today, since Ancajas takes on fellow Filipino Jonas Sultan in the main event of the card featuring Yafai’s title defense.
Before any of those possibilities can materialize, there is the not insignificant matter of David Carmona, with whom Yafai must contend. The Mexican says he will not give ground to Yafai and will ruin the Englishman’s plans, “I am going to go out and push for the knockout! If it is given, I will look for it but I will make it clear, in the 12 rounds, that I will be the winner.” A dubious claim since Carmona only has a 29% kayo ratio, stopping nine of 21 victims, but it is an attitude expected of successful challengers. Carmona said he is exiting training camp in his best physical shape ever, “I’m going to go out and push for the knockout. What better way than crowning yourself as world champion with a knockout?” However we know boxing is equally reliant on mental preparation and it seem Carmona lacks a championship mentality, losing two previous title challenges.
To his credit, the 27-year-old Carmona has only lost to the best, aside from an early career setback and somewhat inexplicable KO loss to Daniel Lozano last year. Even in losses, Carmona carried himself well, even going the distance against dreaded Naoya Inoue in Japan. Just over a year ago, went 10 rounds with former titlist Carlos Cuadras and only Argentine trickster Omar Narvaez stopped Carmona, when the Mexican was still maturing and not ready for such a step up in class. Carmona thinks everything is in place this time, “I prepared myself to go out and do my job. We’re going to base ourselves on attacking him, on hitting him, on pressing him all the time and not letting him do his strategy.”
The odds and eyeball test favor Yafai, who perceives Carmona as a pothole to avoid on a highway to greater glory. Yafai told SkySports, “I’m very excited about fighting in the USA; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. This is an opportunity to showcase myself in front of a huge audience. Although the most important thing is to beat him, of course I want to look good!” Yafai is alert to the pitfall Carmona presents but has ambitions beyond this challenger, “I’m facing Carmona, who is a tough opponent. It’s never an easy fight against these kind of guys. He’s durable and knows what he’s doing in there. I will fight anyone and I want to establish myself as the man in the division. I’m ready for the other champions. I will be more than ready and happy to take them out, one after another.”