Meet Khalid Yafai, British boxing’s longest reigning world champion too long overlooked
A long way from the brash big men of British boxing and the other loudmouths, fools, charlatans and fakes of the ring, there is a small man from Birmingham with a world title and five defences to his name.Khalid Yafai is eight stone and three pounds on the fighting scales, won the WBA super-flyweight title in December 2016 and has been on the road for nearly two years, ending the considerable ambitions of some good men in defence after defence. He retained his title over 12 rounds on Saturday night, an ugly brawl at times against his mandatory challenger on an undercard in Rhode Island. Five of Yafai’s six world title fights have gone the full 12 rounds.He has slowly broken the hearts of boxers from Mexico, Panama and Japan, a trio of nations with a rich history of great little men, in Monte Carlo casinos, on stacked undercards where everybody other than the giants in the main event are invisible and in other out of the way venues. He has battled his way to 26 wins in 26 fights, never insulted anybody or complained about life on the edge of the glory. He is currently Britain’s longest reigning world champion.In the 70s, 80s and 90s some of British boxing’s biggest names, most iconic figures and wealthiest boxers biffed and bashed their way to world titles, attracting attention with each fight. The public knew their names, overlooked their flaws and remember now just the disjointed glory of so many spectacularly short periods as world champion. They get introduced nightly as world champion, legend and British great – mostly true – but there is seldom a sobering reminder of their tiny time under the spotlight.In the Seventies when John H Stracey and Alan Minter traveled far and wide to win their world titles, entering alien rings with hostile crowds, tricky referees and officials, they always had a devoted press pack in attendance to help make the fights unforgettable. No video, just words and a fight public desperate for news of the latest risk by the latest star. Minter and Stracey won their titles, iced their bruises and landed back in little Britain as boxing heroes. Then, the harsh, bloody, shameful, hurtful and neglected stuff happened: Minter managed one defence and lost his title after six months, Stracey also had one defence and lost his title after seven months. They were never the same again.A decade later it was Barry McGuigan’s time in boxing’s brutally brief spotlight, a time when each passing hour seemed to have a new McGuigan yarn on Ceefax or in a paper or on a television screen near you. He managed two deafening, tearful defences and then fried one afternoon in the Las Vegas sun when he lost his beloved title. Wee Barry, with the thousand-yard stare from the Las Vegas misery and a history nobody will eclipse, was world champion for just twelve months. It seemed like a lifetime, it has been a lifetime of telling, retelling, inventing (not by the fighter, but by the fans in moments of emotional recall) and celebrating since losing the title. Yafai has been champion nearly three years and made more defences than Stracey, Minter and McGuigan combined.Life for British world champion’s was a bit easier by the Nineties when the proliferation of sanctioning bodies, competing television companies and rival promoters did their best to maximise their assets, protect their fighters and keep their unbeaten world champions, their cash cows, unbeaten. Stracey, McGuigan and Minter with their popularity and their talent, and free of ordered defences or defences against unknown fighters, would rule for five years or more now. Modern boxers are, trust me, smarter and men from the Seventies and Eighties simply had fewer options. Saying that, Yafai could operate in any modern epoch, throw punches in any foreign ring against any of the sport’s nasty men at his weight.Little Yafai now wants a unification fight or a showdown with one of the sport’s better known small men. There are good fights out there, fights that would be much higher profile than his last six world title fights. “I deserve it,” he said and he is right. The wanted list reads like an ancient scroll of eight-stone legends, men with flattened boyish faces and evil in their hearts and eyes: He wants Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Nicaragua’s Chocalito Gonzalez and why not add in Jerwin Ancajas from the Philippines. A win against any of the above would be stunning and after nearly three years as champion, five defences, a win must surely now be a possibility. Yafai is indeed travelling in rare and extraordinary company; he is the most overlooked world champion in Britain for a very long time and he just might be the best right now.