The seed for Galal Yafai’s gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics was planted five years earlier. At the Rio Games in 2016, the British flyweight boxer lost in the second round. The defeat really hit him on the flight home: while Team GB’s medal winners, the likes of Nicola Adams and Mo Farah, were treated to first-class and business seats, the other athletes were “brushed to the back of the plane”. It was a feeling that Yafai did not want to relive.
“I was devastated,” he recalls. “I was devastated losing and then when I got on the plane, no one wants to take photos of you, no one wants to speak to you. And I remember thinking: ‘This is absolutely horrible. If I go to another Olympics, I need to be sitting at the front.’”
The 28-year-old Yafai arrived in Tokyo far from fancied, but over five contests in the Kokugikan Arena, he was precise, stylish and explosively powerful. In the gold-medal match, after he dropped his opponent, Carlo Paalam of the Philippines, to the canvas in the first round, the result was never in doubt. “On my day, I knew I could beat anyone in the world,” he says. “And I peaked at the right time.”
I thought: ‘I’m praying to God this pays off. Because if it doesn’t, I’m going to look like a real nitwit here’
Yafai’s gold was one of six medals for Team GB’s boxing team, making it Britain’s most successful Games in that sport for more than 100 years. “I’m seeing my friends live out their dreams right in front of me,” Yafai says. “And I’m living out my dreams in front of them and yeah, it’s just surreal and really motivating.”
Turning right on to the aeroplane after Rio isn’t the only hardship that Yafai, born and raised by his Yemeni parents in the West Midlands, has had to endure. For most of his sporting life, he has been in the shadow of his older brothers, Kal and Gamal, both highly decorated boxers: Kal was a longtime super-flyweight world champion; Gamal has won European and Commonwealth titles. While this was happening, their younger brother Galal was working the night shift at the Land Rover factory in Solihull for three years in his early 20s.
“I remember thinking: ‘God, I hate this job!’” laughs Yafai. “No disrespect to Land Rover, they are a brilliant company, but I just thought: ‘I want to be a superstar in boxing.’ Those were my words: ‘I want to be a superstar.’ I’m stuck in this dead-end job and my brothers are getting the limelight on the telly and they’re in all the newspapers and I’m nowhere to be seen.”
Yafai could have turned professional after losing in Rio, but he decided he had unfinished business at the Olympics. When Tokyo 2020 was delayed because of Covid, he was close to pulling out of the Team GB system. “I was gutted and I wasn’t sure I could do another year,” he says. “I thought: ‘I’m praying to God this pays off. Because if it doesn’t, I’m going to look like a real nitwit here.’”
Tokyo validated his decision to be patient. Yafai is planning to turn professional now, and he hopes to be fighting for a world title within two or three years. Even still, he doesn’t think that anything he does in the ring will surpass the gold he won this summer. “I can go anywhere in the world and say to someone I’m an Olympic champion and automatically get their respect,” he says. “Being a world champion, it might financially be better in the long run, but being Olympic champion is something I can live with for ever.”
There have been other perks from his success. At the GQ Men of the Year awards, he met Ed Sheeran and Idris Elba. Liam Gallagher has tweeted him: “Yes eye Yafai.” He couldn’t get hold of a PlayStation 5 before Tokyo, and now he’s been sent one for free. When asked in Tokyo what he was most looking forward to after winning gold, he replied “Five Guys”, and the burger chain gave him a stack of vouchers. “I think I’ve had one too many Five Guys,” Yafai admits.
Mainly, though, Yafai seems pleased that he has finally got bragging rights in his family. “I’m at the top of the tree now with the brothers,” he says. “I think so, I won’t tell them that though!”