Yemeni name gave Yafai brothers reason to go the distance for Olympic gold

Years of scrapping with his older siblings - both tearaways turned title-holders - helped Galal Yafai top the podium for Britain and its most successful boxing family

Exasperated, Kadega Yafai hung up the phone after another call from her seven-year-old son Gamal’s primary school on the outskirts of Birmingham city centre.

Gamal was in trouble again for hitting fellow pupils and disrupting class, and Kadega, a young single mother of three, was at the end of her tether.

After enduring years of similarly uncomfortable conversations, she turned to Frank O’Sullivan, a former boxer-turned-trainer running a gym in one of the most deprived areas of Britain. Could he sort out her boys and stop them knocking seven bells out of classmates at school - and each other in her living room?

O’Sullivan could, he promised. He did better than that, setting all three on the path to representing their country.

It is a journey that led last week to the youngest, Galal, claiming a gold medal in boxing at the Olympics in a match keenly watched, blow by blow, by his two champion brothers.

The 28-year-old easily defeated his Filipino opponent, Carlo Paalam, to win Team GB’s first boxing gold at the Tokyo Games and one of six medals for the squad overall, their biggest haul since 1920.

For Kadega, now 50 and a mental health support worker, it was a moment to reflect on all the ups and downs that had occurred since her parents left Yemen to the family going on to turn out some of Britain’s finest sportsmen.

“When I think about it now, I don’t know how I did it,” she says.

“It was the level of determination I had and the love for my children that got me through. It’s been difficult for me and the boys but I think that is what made them strong.”

Galal wholeheartedly agrees: “My mum did everything on her own. She’s tough — I just hope I got those genes from her.”

The brothers grew up resolved to lift their prospects beyond one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Birmingham and make their mother proud.

All three made the Team GB squad. Galal, a former car factory worker, qualified for Rio in 2016 after just seven months’ training but was knocked out in his second fight. His result was a little more satisfying in Tokyo.

Khalid, 32, competed at the Beijing Games in 2008 and held the super-flyweight title for four years as Britain’s longest-reigning world champion.

And Gamal, 30, who was last year’s European super-bantamweight champion, is aiming for a world title.

They are remarkable achievements, making the Yafais the nation’s most successful boxing family.

While the suburb of Moseley in the south of the city now boasts hallmarks of affluence, it was in decline when the boys were growing up in the 1990s.

The post-industrial landscape looked bleak. Crime rates were soaring, drugs and prostitution were rife in the surrounding areas, and unemployment was as high as 20 per cent.

Kadega had moved there from Balsall Heath, the heart of the Yemeni community, but also a place notorious for gang violence, robberies and street crime, to give her children at least a slightly better chance in life.

The trio did not thrive academically. The older two were constantly in trouble at Robin Hood Primary School and Kings Heath Boys’ School, where they were more intent on getting into fights and “generally being a menace”, according to Khalid, known as “Kal”. They were thrown out without achieving qualifications.

At home, they would don gloves to mimic the jabs and hooks of their British-Yemeni boxing idol “Prince” Naseem Hamed — with Galal often on the receiving end.

“He was our hero growing up,” says Galal. “We would hurt each other all the time.

“I would go crying to my mum and she would scream at Kal or Gamal. She would be pulling her hair out.”

First Kal, then Gamal and Galal joined O’Sullivan’s Birmingham City Amateur Boxing Club.

“From the first time I went,” Gamal says, “I enjoyed taking out my anger on the punchbag.

“When Kal started to be successful and win tournaments, that made me more determined. I thought: ‘I have got to get up there with him.’”

Galal, however, preferred playing football to a semi-professional level — until realising that, at about 5ft 2in (158cm) tall and weighing only 49 kilograms, he had probably progressed as far as he could.

He returned to the boxing ring in 2011 at the relatively late age of 17 when Gamal said that it was his last chance to go to the gym.

“It’s quite old to start boxing,” Galal says. “I remember walking into this broken-down, old-school gym in the deprived area of Sparkbrook. It’s quite a hostile place and I was worried about getting the bus home at night. But from that day, I stuck at it.”

O’Sullivan, who at 84 still gets into the ring to do pad work with his proteges, says Galal’s years of scrapping with his brothers helped mould him into a boxer.

In joining his gym, Galal was following in the footsteps of Robert McCracken, the former head of the British boxing team and a coach to Anthony Joshua, Ricky Hatton and Amir Khan, all also coached by O’Sullivan during his 56-year career.

“Their mother, in her wisdom, wanted somewhere for the boys to go and did not want them to be street kids,” O’Sullivan says.

“There are two kinds of lads — the chump and the champ. Not everyone can be a champion but putting them through the processes that we do and teaching them about respect makes this great city of ours better by making them greater citizens.”

He quickly became a mentor to the Yafai boys. When Kadega could not afford to pay their £10-a-week (Dh50) club fees, O’Sullivan waived the cost until she could.

It wasn’t immediately apparent that Galal was destined for Olympic success, O’Sullivan says, but it was obvious that he was prepared to put in the work.

“When he joined Team GB in September 2015, he had no international experience at all,” he says.

“He only had 20 bouts at club level but by December that year, he had boxed in three multinational tournaments in Europe and won gold in all three.”

It was determination to change his destiny that drove Galal to train relentlessly for two hours a night, five times a week.

He had attended Light Hall School, a secondary in the more salubrious area of Solihull, where he now lives, but performed badly.

“I did terribly in my exams,” he says. “I could spell ‘fudge’ with the grades I got. I hated school. I was confident I was going to do something in sport all my life and did not try in my GCSEs.

“Even then, I was convinced I was going to be a superstar in something.”

He studied business at college and, after 18 months of being unemployed, joined the Land Rover factory, transporting car parts around the shop floor for the next three years.

“I think that’s what spurred me on,” Galal says. “I realised I needed to do something else with my life.”

For Galal, bringing honour to his family was paramount. “I want people to speak about how well we are doing when they talk about our family name,” he says.

That name was transported to Birmingham by Galal’s maternal grandfather, Mohammed Yafai, who left Makbana in Taez province at 17 and arrived in Britain in the 1940s in the postwar economic boom.

He first lived in Cardiff in Wales, returning to Yemen every year and eventually moving his family to the UK in 1972 while working for an aerospace firm.

Kadega Yafai was then six months old and had a strict upbringing, returning to Yemen for 18 months when she turned 14 and having an arranged marriage to her sons’ British-Yemeni father at 16. It did not last and by the time Galal was 18 months old, she was raising the boys with the help of her parents.

Family forms the backbone of the Yafais’ life. Kal and Gamal gathered at the house of Kadega and her husband, Mhamed Bouzir, 44, a Tunisian front-line manager at Land Rover, along with their half-siblings Adam, 25, Marcia, 24, Mikyle, 11, and Elissa, 10, to watch Galal winning gold at 6am last Saturday.

An overjoyed Kal tweeted: “Alhumdililah!!! My brother @galalyafai Olympic champion!!! I’m lost for words!!! Olympic champion!!!! Olympic champion!!!!”

They were at Heathrow airport in force to carry the returning hero aloft on their shoulders when he landed on Monday.

Galal, still pinching himself after his win, is now planning to turn professional.

“It was surreal and all happened so quickly,” he says. “Success means everything. It means people respect you and can be proud of you.”

O’Sullivan, who stayed up all night to watch Galal and do radio commentary, was back in his gym in Sparkbrook at 10am the following morning to devotedly coach the under-10-year-olds.

Whether the lads in that cohort turn out to be champs or chumps, only time will tell but they now have their pick of British-Yemeni boxing idols to mimic.

Updated: August 15th 2021, 1:07 PM
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