Boxing: Size isn't everything if Yafai can box clever in Beijing

Britain's tiny flyweight will find it tough in Beijing but he is up for a fight – as his brother can testify. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online

Pieces of eight traditionally have a golden ring about them, and even amateur boxing is now a thing of booty. The British squad heading for Beijing certainly hope so, with eight of the nation's finest gloved up and determined to plunder piratically the bullion in the Olympic boxing tournament.

Their mere presence is described by the former sports minister Richard Caborn, who is now president of the Amateur Boxing Association, as one of the great success stories of British sport, considering that Amir Khan was the only home British boxer to qualify for Athens four years ago.

An increase in funding as a consequence of Khan's silver medal and the fostering of a team spirit uncommon in such a highly individual sport by the head coach, Terry Edwards, accounts for much of the buoyancy. But there is also genuine quality about the class of 2008 who, thankfully, have not yet been purloined by the pro game.

No one expects all eight to come back with gold, or even a medal, but three or four podium places is not a pugilistic pipedream given a decent draw and unbiased judging, the two imponderables of the competition.

Last year's World Championships, where Khan's lightweight successor Frankie Gavin struck gold, followed by a fistful of other victories at international level, has shown that Britain does have talent, from the 6ft 7in super-heavyweight David Price to the 5ft 4in flyweight Khalid Yafai. It is Yafai, the smallest member of the team, and at just 19 the second youngest after the welterweight Billy-Joe Saunders, who perhaps has the biggest task in a prolific division dominated by Asians, Africans and Latin Americans.

A medal around his neck would be a real bonus, as originally he was pencilled in only as a prospect for 2012. But his performances this year have seen him gatecrash the Beijing party, earning comparisons not only to Khan but also to Naseem Hamed.

Like Hamed, Yafai is the son of Yemeni parents, and there is more than a hint of the young Naz about the quicksilver punching skills of the kid they call "Kool". Little he may be, but he is certainly large on personality and self-belief. Bright and pencil-slim, the only thing thick about him is his Brummie accent.

Even before Khan won the world juniors, Yafai had become the first Englishman to win the cadet (under-17) World Championship, and was the youngest-ever senior ABA champion at 17. In common with Khan, he also has a younger brother, Gamal, tipped to be one of the stars of 2012. In fact it was Gamal, now 16, who got him into boxing.

"He was a bit of a tearaway and my mum took him to a local gym to sort him out," Yafai says. "When I went down to see him I was surprised how good he was and I started punching on the bag myself. I thought, 'I wouldn't mind a bit of this'. The first fight I ever saw – I think I was about seven – was when Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield's ear off. I thought, 'Bloody hell, you're not allowed to do that, are you?' I started boxing myself when I was 11 but I wasn't any good, in fact I was rubbish. I got beat in my first bout and quite a few more and then I moved to a new club with my present trainer, Frank O'Sullivan. I won my next 20 fights on the trot.

"Frank spent a lot of time with me and taught me things I'd never been shown before. I owe so much to him."

Yafai has had almost 100 fights, qualifying for the Olympics at a tournament in Italy earlier this year. "This time last year I had never even dreamed of going to Beijing, it was 2012 that was on my mind, when I will be just turned 23 and peaking."

Yafai says his brother, who is also a flyweight, is "catching me up bit by bit", so there is the possibility of Britain having to choose between them for 2012, although it is Khan's brother Haroon who could emerge as the real rival, because Gamal, himself a national junior champion, seems more likely to box at bantamweight.

"Fortunately he is already a bit bigger than me and may move up a division," says Yafai. "Actually it's great because I have a ready-made sparring partner. We have a few good tear-ups in the ring. Our mum gets really worried. She says, 'You're brothers, you shouldn't really be doing that to each other.' We even have a bit of a scuffle over the remote control for the television that usually ends in a punch-up."

The brothers live in Moseley, a Birmingham suburb, with their mother, Kadega, and their step-father. "Before funding from the Lottery and the BOA, it was costing my mum quite a bit, with me and my brother training every day. She supports us but she hates watching."

Although the family originated in Yemen, Yafai was born in England. He says he watched quite a lot of Hamed when he was young and likes his style. "I like Amir because he has been there and done it. He is a great role model." His real idol, though, is the man who broke Ricky Hatton's heart, Floyd Mayweather, "the greatest fighter I have ever seen".

Yafai promises: "I'll be hard to beat in Beijing. I like to box off the back foot but I know I'll have to change my style and be more aggressive. Even if I get a tough draw I think I can still come back with a medal. I'm not going there for a holiday."

He trains four days a week with the podium squad at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. "You'll see me every Monday morning dragging these big bags off the train, moaning like hell. But I know in the end it will be worth it."

Yafai says he will turn professional one day. "But that's at the back of my mind right now. At the moment it's all about the Olympics. I want to get that medal around my neck and then again in 2012,and we will take itfrom there."

Coach Edwards takes a realistic view of Yafai's chances. "He is obviously a tremendous talent and a fine prospect for 2012. It will be a bonus if he does something in Beijing but 2012 is really what we are looking at for him. Since he became a member of the elite group, his career has accelerated and he has the attitude of someone who is very mature for his years. He has the ability to come from behind and win – at one stage in a bout in the Olympic qualifiers, he was seven points down but he battled through.

"Kal's a member of the most talented group I have ever worked with and at his age he can only improve, which is why we are not putting too much pressure on him. He's a bright lad, a quick learner with a tremendous attitude."

So, no flies on this flyweight. Adds Yafai: "I don't think anyone thought we would have eight qualifiers for Beijing but I honestly think that we can all come away with medals." Britain's pieces of eight really do form a ring of confidence.

Message from an icon: Amir Khan

Khalid is going to be more nervous during the Olympics than at any time in his life. It's not the fear of getting beaten but it is such a massive stage for him, as it was for me, especially as he is one of the youngest members of the team.

But unlike me he has a full squad with him and he can pick off their experience. The other lads can help take your mind off the fights and keep you calm.

The main thing is to stay focused irrespective of what happens to your team-mates. An Olympic village is a big place and there are so many distractions – not least the variety of food available around the clock. You walk into the restaurant and you are greeted with this huge array of wonderful, tempting grub. You have to be very strong-willed, especially when you are making weight daily, as Khalid, Frankie Gavin and some of the others will be. It's not like when you are in training for just one fight and can have a bit of a blow-out after the weigh-in – you have to be on your limit, or thereabouts, every day of the tournament. You've got to be professional about it. At least Khalid is going to Beijing after doing what I did as an amateur, having won a world junior title, and I think he's got a great medal chance, although his is a particularly difficult division with the Chinese world champion Zou Shiming and the Russian George Balakshin. He'll also need to watch the Cuban Andre Laffita and there's a very good American, Rau'shee Warren.

I saw Khalid win his world title and I like him. He's quick and smart. The best thing he can do is relax and not think too much about what's ahead. He needs to get as much good sparring as possible, but the most important thing is making sure his weight is right. I watched mine in Athens very carefully, every day, and that might be one of the reasons I got so far. I saw some of the people I was due to fight going for a run on the day in a heavy tracksuit with sweat on their faces, and that give me a lift.

I would love to be there cheering the lads on, but it will be difficult as I will be preparing for my next fight [against an as-yet unknown opponent] on 6 September, but they know they have my support. They are all world-class boxers who have beaten world or European champions. They have a great coach in Terry Edwards and a terrific team spirit.

Britain's boxers are catching up fast with the Cubans and Russians and probably have overtaken the Americans. I put us right up there among the best in the world now.

Amir Khan, 21, won an Olympic silver medal in the lightweight division at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and is now the Commonwealth champion, unbeaten in 18 professional fights

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