By TITO S. TALAO
TOKYO — As the nation holds its breath, first this question: Who is Great Britain’s Galal Yafai, the man standing between the Philippines’ Carlo Paalam and the flyweight gold medal in the XXXII Olympiad Saturday at the Kokugikan Arena?
The 28-year-old and 5-foot-5 British boxer, born of Yemeni parents, advanced to the gold medal bout Friday after a slugfest semifinal against Saken Bibossinov of Kazakhstan, who was reduced to tears after the announcement of the winner.
Yafai swept the judges’ cards in the first round, highlighted by a standing count on Bibossinov after he was caught by a right hand. The Kazakh came back strong to take the second round 3-2, setting up the decider, which the British took by split decision, leaving his opponent distraught.
“It’s insane, it’s like a dream,” Yafai said in reports.
A brother of pro boxers, former WBA super-flyweight champion Kai Yafai and Gamay Yafai, with whom Galal sparred with extensively as part of his preparation for the Games, Yafai won a silver medal at the 2017 European Championships and a gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
He also took the bronze in the flyweight class at the 2019 European Games and competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics where he lost his Round of 16 fight to Joahnys Arpilagos of Cuba.
According to his official Olympic profile, Yafai won the award for Bout of the Year for his fight against Rasul Aliev of the Russian Federation to confirm his spot at the 2020 Olympic Games.
The final is scheduled at 2 p.m. here, but at 1 p.m. in Manila, and will pit two boxers with different styles who sparred in 2018 at the England Institute of Sport in Sheffield, a three hour-plus drive from London.
PAALAM KNOWS HIS RIVAL
As recalled by national coach Elmer Pamisa, who had spotted an 11-year-old Paalam in 2010 during the weekly Boxing in the Park of now Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno and brought the boy to Manila for training, the Alliances of Boxing Associations in the Philippines, in preparation for a World Series of Boxing tournament in 2019, sent three Filipino boxers — Eumir Felix Marcial, Mario Fernandez and Paalam — accompanied by men’s coach Ronald Chavez, to Sheffield to spar with their British counterparts.
One such session involved Paalam, then campaigning in the 49kg division, and Yafai.
Chavez, who was at ringside, said Paalam got tested in several sessions of five-round sparring with Yafai and held his own against the older and more seasoned British.
“Nasa 49 (kilograms) pa lang si Carlo noon at dikit naman naging sparring nila; di naman siya nagpadehado,” said Chavez.
“Ngayon, mas may experience na si Paalam kasi nakapaglaro na siya sa World Championship.”
Chavez said Yafai, like Japanese Ryomei Tanaka, who Paalam, 23, beat by unanimous decision in the semifinals Thursday, loves to trade punches in frenetic fashion, which could play into the Filipino’s patient and precision in-and-out style.
“Tingin ko medyo angat na si Carlo ngayon although di rin tayo puwede pakumpiyansa,” said Chavez, who reached the quarterfinals of the lightweight division in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics before losing to a South Korean.
“Pareho sila halos laro ni Tanaka, pero mas mautak at makaranasan si Yafai.”
Asked about Paalam’s condition going to the final, where a victory will give the country its second gold medal in 97 years after weightlifting heroine Hidilyn Diaz, Chavez said, “A, wala nang sakit-sakit si Carlo ngayon kasi pa-gold medal fight na siya e.”
He then added, laughing, “Ang maraming nararamdamang sakit ngayon, si Eumir.”
Marcial secured for the country its fourth medal, a bronze in the middleweight division where he reached the semifinals of the 69-75kg category before losing by a heartbreaking split decision to Ukrainian top seed Oleksandr Khyzhniak, a fight where the Filipino had won the first two rounds, 3-2 and 2-1.
Meanwhile, Pamisa bared that Paalam’s frame of mind going to the fight is at its peak.
“Ganadong-ganado na sa laban,” he said.
SASO FIRES 67
Over at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama, the merciless Tokyo sun and the scorching pace set by American Nelly Korda continued to wither down challenges mounted by the Philippines’ Yuka Saso and Bianca Pagdanganan.
Saso, the US Women’s Open Champion, charged with a 4-under par 67 with five birdies against a bogey to climb 14 notches to joint 20th with a 209 total. She remains 11 shots though behind Korda, who fired a 2-under par 69 with three birdies and a bogey Friday to go 15-under after 36 holes with a 198 total.
Pagdangan, on the other hand, fell to a shared 29th place after an even-par 71 where she scattered five birdies but got mired with a 37 in the back with two double-bogeys in the 11th and 14th and a bogey in the 320-yard par-4 15th.
Three shots behind Korda at solo second is India’s Aditi Ashok (201) while four golfers, led by by New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, share 3rd, five off the leader at 203.