Khalid "Kal" Yafai may only be 5’4" tall, but his lack of height doesn’t stop him from having lofty ambitions.
The super flyweight—the eldest of three boxing brothers from Birmingham, England—has needed to practice patience in the pros. Injuries, coupled with a dearth of willing opponents, have stunted his progress.
However, on December 10, the 27-year-old finally gets the chance he’s been waiting for.
After 20 straight wins, 14 of them coming inside the distance, Yafai’s next outing will be for a world title when he challenges WBA champion Luis Concepcion at the Manchester Arena.
British boxing doesn’t have a huge tradition (pun intended) of small men making waves in the lighter divisions.
That doesn’t mean Yafai has gone unnoticed since turning pro in 2012, but he’s perhaps not received the kind of attention someone with his talent deserves. Fast and full of power, he has already claimed the British and Commonwealth belts.
The problem isn’t with Yafai—it’s in the lack of well-known names he’s come up against to date.
The Yafai Brothers backstage in Birmingham! @iam_yafai fights next on Sky Sports 2! @Gamal_yafai @galal_yafai #skyboxing #GavinEggington pic.twitter.com/56vPKTrTeR
— Sky Sports Boxing 👊 (@SkySportsBoxing) October 22, 2016
He’s often appeared on shows with another former member of Great Britain’s amateur squad with an unbeaten record in the paid ranks: Anthony Joshua.
The little-and-large act are back together on the same bill in December. Heavyweight Joshua has his hands on a world title already—he will defend the IBF crown in the main event. Yafai, however, could end up stealing the show.
Concepcion will be a tough nut to crack. The champion from Panama dethroned Japan’s Kohei Kono on points in his opponent’s backyard in August. He also went the distance with Carlos Cuadras in Mexico in 2015, so he’s unlikely to be worried about fighting on the road.
Yet for Yafai, it is time to swim in the deep end of the division.
"It’s been difficult finding a match for Yafai, but he wants to get in the mix with the best now. Now it’s time to find out if he is the real deal," his promoter Eddie Hearn told Sky Sports (h/t Matt Horan of SkySports.com).
Yafai has a habit of winning in a hurry.
Had circumstances worked out differently, Yafai may have already fought for a major belt.
After a fast start—his first 10 fights spanned less than 18 months—injuries held up Yafai’s progress. A torn bicep sidelined him for a lengthy period, while brittle hands that bothered him back in his amateur days have also caused problems.
In truth, he’s had more setbacks out of the ring than he has had in it. Everth Briceno and Jason Cunningham managed to last 12 rounds against him, but both were comprehensively beaten and ended up on the wrong end of landslide decisions.
Since going the distance with Cunningham in October 2015, Yafai has blown away three opponents in a hurry.
Unlike Dixon Flores and Jozsef Ajtai, Johnson Tellez managed to make it out of Round 1 against Yafai last Saturday, lasting until the third before the rather inevitable stoppage arrived at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham.
It wasn’t quite the night Yafai had hoped for on home turf. The initial plan had been to fight IBF holder McJoe Arroyo, only the champion lost his title to Jerwin Ancajas last month instead.
At least Yafai came through the Tellez bout with a clean bill of health. His opponent’s use of the head in Round 1 was his biggest concern in a one-sided contest—now is the not time for another injury to hold him back.
A left hook to the body ended the bout. It is a trademark punch for Yafai, one he also used to dismantle the overmatched Flores back in March (fast forward to four minutes in to see the stoppage in the video below):
The same shot secured the Commonwealth strap a year earlier, with poor Yaqub Kareem on the receiving end on that occasion:
Yafai is a brutal body puncher. His desire to load up with power punches occasionally leaves him open for a counter, and that could be an issue when he steps in with a better standard of opposition.
But there is no disguising the fact the Brummie can bang. He has a 70 per cent knockout ratio and has registered nine of his pro victories inside two rounds.
Concepcion is unlikely to crumble quickly, although he has been stopped twice before in his career. Hernan Marquez floored him three times at flyweight and then the same number of times again in their rematch.
Yafai—who competed at the 2008 Olympics but missed out on qualifying for the 2012 Games in London—has nothing to fear. In fact, fighting for a world title might well inspire him to produce something special.
"I think a tough fight will bring the best out of me," he told Mike Lockley of the Birmingham Mail. "In my past fights, if I didn’t get them out, I tended to go through the motions."
The talent has been obvious for years—now Yafai finally has a stage to prove he belongs at the top table.
In a division that boasts big names such as Roman Gonzalez—who The Ring magazine ranks as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world—and Naoya Inoue, British boxing should embrace a diminutive star of its own.