GRADUATION NIGHT FOR KHALIF YAFAI — A fascinating meeting between old-guard and new will unfold in Manchester, England this Saturday night (Dec. 10) as British hope Khalid Yafai meets Panamanian Luis Concepcion on the Anthony Joshua-Eric Molina card. Concepcion’s super flyweight strap, and a whole lot more, will be on the line.
Yafai, like his hero Naseem Hamed, is of Yemeni parentage but plies his trade out of Birmingham, a West-Midlands base from which he has been generating no small amount of hype. Smooth, quick, powerful, with a visage untouched by the more brutal aspects of his chosen profession, Yafai is unfortunate to be fighting at 115lbs. With his looks and skills he would likely already be a marquee name had he been lucky enough to wield this combination at, say, middleweight.
As it is, he has plenty to work with. Yafai first stirred interest in the paid ranks in 2014 when he annexed the vacant Commonwealth title with a third round knockout of Yaqub Kareem. He stopped his Nigerian opponent with what was to become a signature body punch, propelled with the torque of the true speedster. In British boxing there is unending respect for what is known in the local parlance as “doing it properly,” by moving up in levels through the Commonwealth and British titles to world-level, but the truly gifted tend to pass up on such rites of passage. Yafai, who unquestionably qualifies as gifted, has found the middle ground, winning the Commonwealth title and then without defending it moving on to the British. Yafai threw the Lonsdale belt aloft late in 2015, outpointing the tough but limited Jason Cunningham in what, by the end, was a glorified spar.
Seemingly poised on the precipice of something special, Yafai moved past the niceties of the local scene and signed to meet Puerto Rican beltholder McJoe Arroyo. Before the two were due to meet, Arroyo lost his title to Jerwin Ancajas out in the Philippines, as Yafai predicted he would, and Yafai was forced to continue to tread water on dead wood in the shape of professional loser Johnson Tellez, who he dispatched in three via his patented left-hook to the body. His ledger now stands at 20-0.
That left hook is something special. Yafai is nothing like the showman Naseem Hamed was, but nor is he a technical conformist. Too controlled to be labeled wild, there is nevertheless something of the barfight in his winging right hand which isn’t a punch that appears in any boxing manual. Because he is so quick, Yafai has escaped punishment for this transgression but he boxes with all the arrogance of the untested. There is a specific disease fostered upon under-matched British fighters who box their learning contests in a carefully supervised sandbox where they are presented with little in the way of a challenge. Whether feasting on cheap imports bought by starry-eyed promoters or battering willing but over-matched local opposition, world class talents schooled in the UK can find themselves left wanting tactically when they make the step up.
And Yafai is stepping up. His best opponent to date is probably Cunningham; the first and only serious test he has faced since turning professional in 2012 is a legitimate one. Luis Concepcion has been boxing as a professional for more than a decade and a partisan British crowd will hold no fear for him.
His seemingly perennial quest for a strap ended in August of this year when he traveled to Japan to unseat Japanese tough Kohei Kono. While Yafai has been grubbing around with, at best, middling opposition, Concepcion has been boxing some of the best, fighting consistently against ranked and made men with expectation of victory. Kono was the latest in that line and despite boxing more than 8,000 miles from his Panamanian home, Concepcion made all the early running against the Japanese.
Some savage exchanges passed between the two but it was not the brutal encounter expected by many; Concepcion has learned the hard way how to limit his time in the danger-zone. He brings a steady pressure that becomes excruciating for those unable to control him with movement or keep him off with hard punches but I don’t think he puts his body on the line in the way he did in his two 2011 contests with the once terrifying Hernan “Tyson” Marquez. He and Marquez put on one of the best fights of the decade so far in the first of those contests, Concepcion bowing out via eleventh round TKO. The rematch was even more shocking, Marquez barrelling Concepcion to the canvas three times in the first round for a stunning early knockout. They remain the only two stoppage losses of his career.
So against Kono, Concepcion boxed a more disciplined, mature performance, failing to panic when Kono began to force his way back into the contest in the final third with his own swarming attack, taking a narrow and deserved win on the cards. Looking back on 2015 we see the size of the job at hand for Yafai. In December of that year, Concepcion avenged himself against a faded Marquez over twelve in Panama City. Unable to stop his old foe, he turned the next best trick, staging a shutout on two of the judge’s cards on his way to a huge points win. Prior to that, he traveled to Mexico where he twice dropped the ranked David Sanchez, forcing his retirement at the end of the tenth.
Yafai is unranked and has never defeated a ranked opponent.
On paper, then, Concepcion is to be favored. Of course fights are not won on paper. In truth, watching the two men box for the purpose of writing this article I have been struck at the difference in speed between the two men. Yafai is much faster and I suspect he will also appear to be much bigger. Taller, he appears a weight-class stronger than many of the opponents he has outclassed while he learned his way around the ring and Concepcion is a flyweight who moved up to 115lbs only in 2014. He was found out by the superb Carlos Cuadras (who recently extended pound-for-pound #1 Roman Gonzalez the full distance, running him close) in April of last year by well justified wide scores. Cuadras is also a big superfly and also a quick one; that fight was contested, but not close. Yafai has plenty to draw upon in studying those twelve rounds of film.
He also has plenty to draw upon from his own locker. His speed is matched by his stamina and his power, perhaps a little overstated given the level of the opposition he has been banging out, is good. I think it’s possible he will throw more punches than Concepcion and if that happens, there is no way for the Panamanian to win. Toss in that speed advantage and allow the fact that Concepcion is probably going to meet him ring center and all of a sudden the Englishman feels like a favorite.
Where this fight will be decided is in how Concepcion decides to neutralize these advantages. Beautifully balanced, Yafai won’t be thrown by his neat footwork and will be quite happy to match the Panamanian’s use of angles with his own unexpected punches. Concepcion, though, is no soft touch and he won’t wilt when Yafai hits him – he will look to hit him back, harder and more often. Yafai is there for the counter I think, if the opponent can stand the heat, and I’m going to bet Concepcion is equal to that particular task.
What this adds up to is a fight that is likely to put the Joshua-Molina contest in the shade, both for action, and for quality of competition. I think we will probably see a passing of the torch here. If Yafai outclasses Concepcion like he has Cunningham and Tellez then Britain has another prospect on her hands, one as promising as Joshua but I would be very surprised to see that. Instead, presuming that Yafai has the heart and the chin to work in this type of class, we will see the twenty-seven year old outlast his more experienced thirty-one year old opponent to make the fight unreachable down the stretch.
Really though, anything could happen – which is more than we can say for Joshua’s impending knockout of Eric Molina.
Graduation Night for Khalid Yafai / Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel