'Chocolatito' goes from idol to rival for title hopeful Yafai

Kal Yafai will defend his WBA world junior bantamweight title against Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez on Saturday in a fight to change his career and follow in the footsteps of his heroes. Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Kal Yafai was late and speeding as he raced north on the express lane of the I-5 from San Diego to Los Angeles on a journey to see his hero, Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez.

It is May 2015, and the Englishman has interrupted a vacation to pay and see Gonzalez make a brief WBC world flyweight title defense against Edgar Sosa at the Forum in Inglewood, California.

"I was late for the show, and I was flying in an express lane on the freeway," Yafai told ESPN.

"When I got back home, I got a ticket for it. But it was worth it, though, to see him in the flesh -- even if I only got to see him in action for two rounds. I was sat up in the gods as well at the arena, in the cheap seats. I remember thinking then, 'He is incredible.'

"I drove to Los Angeles for the fight at the Forum to watch him. My holidays always end up being expensive, and it was about a three-hour drive, but I had to make the trip to L.A. to see him, as I was out there.

"I didn't get to meet him, as I was too far away, up in the gods, and I was a nobody at the time."

Chocolatito (48-2, 40 KOs), 32, who trains in California, has gone from being Yafai's idol to rival, and from dominant champion to challenger.

Yafai (26-0, 15 KOs) makes a sixth defense of his WBA world junior bantamweight title against the Nicaraguan -- who will be attempting to revive an ailing 15-year career following two defeats in 2017 -- at The Ford Center at The Star, the Dallas Cowboys' training facility, in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday.

Yafai insists he will not be overawed by meeting former pound-for-pound No. 1 Gonzalez, who has won titles in four different weight classes from 105 up to 115 pounds and is one of the best boxers in the smaller weight divisions in recent history.

"I've got huge admiration for him, but I want to make a name for myself," Yafai told ESPN.

"It feels great to be fighting him. I'm excited and will put a career-best performance.

"No doubt about it, this is the biggest fight out there for me. I'm really excited about it. He's the best I've ever fought. He's someone I've watched for a very long time. He's an all-time great in my eyes. I've watched him since I turned pro."

Gonzalez, 32, suffered back-to-back losses in junior bantamweight world title bouts to Thailand's Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in 2017, including by brutal fourth-round knockout in their rematch. A knee injury that required surgery then kept Gonzalez out of the ring for 15 months, until he returned on Dec. 23 with a second-round knockout victory over Diomel Diocos.

But Yafai, 30, from Birmingham in England, is assuming Gonzalez is still the same fighter who won world titles at strawweight, junior flyweight, flyweight and junior bantamweight.

"It's difficult what to take from Gonzalez's last two performances in the last couple years," Yafai told ESPN.

"He hasn't been as active, he's not fought anyone great in the last two years, but he has disposed of them pretty easily and he's only lost to one man, who could be his boogeyman, but he didn't look right walking to the ring for me.

"I'm preparing for the best Chocolatito, the one I saw, but it's got to catch up with you at some point, and it may have caught up with now. But then he could come out and look as sharp as a razor.

"I've not really done anything different. It's been a bit more intense. I'm excited to be fighting him, I'm buzzing about the fight to be fighting someone as good as him. I'm more enthusiastic about doing things."

Yafai is Britain's longest-reigning world champion, but he does not have anything near the profile of heavyweights Anthony Joshua, the WBA-IBF-WBO world champion, or Tyson Fury. But victory over Gonzalez will earn Yafai more attention and another big payday in a division that also features the likes of Mexico's Juan Francisco Estrada, the WBC titleholder; Rungvisai; Filipino Jerwin Ancajas, the IBF king; and now English rival Charlie Edwards.

Seeing others in the bigger weight divisions earn bigger paydays without enjoying the same success at world title level can be frustrating, but Yafai is not complaining.

"It is a bit frustrating sometimes, but I've not had it too bad. I've never had to get a job alongside my boxing," Yafai told ESPN.

"I live in a nice house in the countryside, drive a nice car and this fight will secure me for life, so I've not got much to grumble about. But if I was a middleweight, I would have earned a lot more.

"If I was around 10 or 15 years ago, though, I wouldn't have done as well as I have. I would have to get a job and get £30,000 for fighting for a world title. So I'm grateful."

It is the start of a big month for Yafai and his two younger brothers, junior featherweight Gamal (17-1, 10 KOs), 28, and amateur Galal, 27. Next month, Gamal challenges Italy's Luca Rigoldi for the European title, while Galal competes in an Olympic qualifying event at the Copper Box Arena in London in March.

Like Naseem Hamed, who ruled as world featherweight champion between 1995 and 2000, the Yafais have parents from Yemen. The Yafai brothers, who slept in the same bed growing up in Birmingham, were inspired to take up boxing by the success and charisma of Hamed, whom Kal first met in 2013 at the first Carl Froch-George Groves fight.

From humble beginnings, idolizing the likes of Hamed and Chocolatito, Yafai stands on the brink of wider exposure at last.

"I know this fight will change a lot for me," Yafai said.