Some boxers can only dream of what it would be like to fight in front of nearly 80,000 people in one of the most iconic soccer venues in the world. Gamal ‘The Beast’ Yafai experienced this in just his second professional fight.
The super-bantamweight prospect who is now 4-0 with two knockouts, had his pro debut just 10 days before he found himself on the undercard of the May 31 rematch between Carl Froch and George Groves at Wembley Stadium. It was a fight and a night that will be long remembered by many, and in particular by the 23-year-old from Birmingham.
“I wasn’t always going to be on that card, that’s the thing,” said Yafai when recalling that spring evening.
Yafai was depending on early finishes so that he and Jack Heath could have their own little bit of spotlight over six rounds. James DeGale’s unexpected four round demolition of Brandon Gonzales ensured that Gamal got that knock on the door.
“DeGale finished early so they came in and said, ‘You’re boxing. Get the gloves on.’”
Yafai eagerly climbed through the ropes, thrilled and a bit overwhelmed to have his fight shown on UK pay-per-view and with one of British boxing’s most massive crowds ever watching on. Perhaps not surprisingly, the occasion got the better of him and a somewhat ragged performance ensued, something that can be forgiven due to the unique and overwhelming circumstances.
“I was just really nervous but I wanted to fight. It was a bit mad coming out there with 80,000 people. It’s crazy. Something I’ll never forget and I still got the win. I’m lucky and I can’t thank [promoter] Eddie Hearn enough for making it happen. He’s been good to me. He’s got me on telly, boxing on Sky Sports on good shows. I can’t thank him enough.”
Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing also looks after the interests of Gamal’s older brother, Kal. The Commonwealth and IBF Inter-Continental super flyweight champion, with a record of 12-0 with 9 knockouts, has come into his own in 2014 by picking up his first two pro titles and looking impressive in doing so. With few domestic opponents to seriously test him, it may not be long before the 2008 Olympian is pushing his top 15 ranking towards the red belt that South Africa’s Zolani Tete currently possesses. Gamal believes that by this time next year he will be celebrating his brother becoming a world champion.
“I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother. He really has got every tool in the box to be a world champ and I think he’ll be one in 2015. If he doesn’t become world super flyweight champion he’d kick himself forever. How can he not?”
Up until that point and beyond, Gamal will share every punch that his brother takes and receives while developing his own raw, explosive talents. The word ‘explosive’ isn’t hyperbole. It’s widely known that the younger Yafai has TNT in both of his fists and is working to find the balancing act of knowing when to use his KO power and when to reign it in. Yafai admits that is a challenge in itself.
“It is hard but my hands have been hurting as well, even when I’m not putting power into my shots and when I don’t need to. I know I’ve got the power but the thing is not to always go looking for the knockout. When it’s there, take it. Get the opening first of all, instead of trying to finish them straight away. One thing I’ve learned about the pro game is you’ve got to open them up, set it up, moving those little shots up and down. Left hook to the head and then bang, a straight shot and bang, a left hook to the body. When I know I have to use my power I grit down on my gumshield and go for it. I know I can test any super-bantamweight with my power. It’s just about getting the experience and learning my trade.”
With his career still in the baby-steps phase, it’s a bit worrying to hear the young prospect mention his hands are already giving him problems. Hurting hands in a hurtful business. But it shouldn’t be a surprise and it doesn’t worry Gamal as it’s something he has ‘always’ had to deal with.
“I’ve always had bad hands. They always hurt. Before I was always causing pain in my hands but now when I’m training, I’m not just looking for power. I’m boxing and getting the technique because the power’s never going to go away. All I’ve got to do is stick to my boxing, learn my trade in the pro game and I should be alright. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Having just turned 23, Yafai is adamant that he’s not in a rush. Like every young boxer, he wants titles but, forgive the cliché, he’s taking it one fight at a time. Self-belief isn’t a problem, but as he says, it’s the experience he wants and that he believes will make all the difference.
Maybe it’s his youth talking, but Yafai even told me that at this stage he’s not interested in the money. He wants titles, badly. He wants to win them, defend them and show he’s a league above his rivals. He has a decent amateur career behind him, and he’s sparring with the likes of WBA super-bantamweight champion Scott Quigg, and studying his great rival, IBF 122lb champion Carl Frampton.
He reflects on his position and then challenges himself: “Why can’t I be as good as them?”
— Shaun Brown