UPON hearing the result both men dropped to their knees after an exhausting 12 rounds.
The first to sink to the floor looked almost incredulous that he did not get the decision before a feeling of devastation ran through him. It was raw, it was heartbreaking, it was not what was meant to happen.
Seconds later the man to his right, the away fighter, slumped to the canvas overjoyed at the result, as well as the prospect of finding a home for his new IBO super-bantamweight belt. Over five thousand miles away from his home in Ensenada this 122lb Mexican terrier called Erik had won the biggest fight of his life.
Beforehand, the Meadowbank Sports Centre in Edinburgh had tried to create the type of din they hoped would unsettle Erik Robles Ayala. There isn’t much evidence to support the theory that such a noise could rattle any fighter from a country where boxing is a way of life, however.
On the surface, and throughout fight week, Lee McGregor was a man of smiles and confidence ahead of a bout against someone not many knew about. Yet seasoned British fight fans have grown accustomed to being wary of an unknown Mexican.
Fighting in his home city, live on terrestrial television, and in his debut for his new promoters Wasserman… all that was missing from this story was a happy ending. Boxing, though, doesn’t work like that and reality bit and bit hard for McGregor, 12-1-1 (9).
Now, seven weeks on, the 26-year-old tells Boxing News that his first professional loss is taking time to get over but realises the future can still be bright.
“Still gutted,” McGregor said.
“I’ve watched it back many times and I’ve not come out [and] said much about the fight. The people close to me know the struggles and the problems I had leading into that fight. The fight didn’t really tell that because I fought well. I thought a gave a very good account of myself against a very good fighter but that was me nowhere near my best.
“Preparation for that fight was not ideal; a few issues I don’t want to go on and speak about, but it wasn’t the smoothest camp. I done what I could. I fought my heart out.”
That he did. There were in fact moments in the fight when it looked like ‘Lightning’ would strike and take over a contest in which both men positioned themselves mere inches from one another and let rip to head and body.
Fighters in the main don’t want to sound like a sore loser, nor do they want to offer a landslide of excuses which in turn washes away the efforts and resilience of the winner. For this reason BN didn’t push McGregor for an answer on the ‘issues’ he spoke about but there is every chance something in the background may or may not have contributed to his first professional loss.
The story of Lee McGregor is filled with triumph and tragedy, despite the fact he has only had 14 fights in the six years he has been a professional. British, Commonwealth and European bantamweight champion after 10 fights was just cause to take his career seriously. However, McGregor was navigating through a personal hell between 2017 and 2018 with the deaths of his mother, Elizabeth, a cousin, his grandmother, and then his grandfather, Jim Aitchison.
Three years later Lee’s father, Stuart, was taken to hospital after being hit by a lorry in Edinburgh and was left fighting for his life. Thankfully he recovered, but when the accident happened McGregor had been in in Las Vegas training for his debut against Narek Abgaryan in Manchester on the Joseph Parker-Derek Chisora 2 undercard. Naturally, his dad’s condition, as well as a hand injury, meant the fight and his debut for then co-promoters Matchroom was called off.
When McGregor tells BN, “I’ve been through a hell of a lot,” he means it.
In the grand scheme of things one defeat in a prizefight should not register greatly inside McGregor’s heart and mind given the pain he has experienced losing loved ones, yet the loss to Ayala nips at him. There is clear frustration in his voice over the phone and, while winning an IBO title may not be for everyone, it was everything to Ayala and McGregor.
The fight occurred on July 21, four months after an eight-round runout against Alexis Boureima Kabore in Newcastle. That followed a disappointing draw against regular UK visitor Diego Ruiz 13 months earlier. All in all, McGregor has fought just six times since his win in an old-school classic against Kash Farooq four years ago.
“Inactivity never done me any favours going into that fight,” he insists. “With being so inactive I probably was the heaviest I’ve ever been.
“People were saying it was the new weight. I’d been so big for bantamweight it was still a real struggle for me to get down to super-bantamweight from where I’d been because I’d been inactive and not made that weight for over a year. It was 13 to 14 months. The on and off training camps all throughout the year, all the cancellations in the lead up, and all the stuff I was going through well before that played an effect and had an effect on me during my camp for that fight.
“There was nothing I could do. It was the situation I was in and it was an opportunity I was presented with. I was never ever going to turn it down. I’ve took on any challenge that’s been presented to me. I have always said that my fearless mindset may one day be my downfall. It’s a ‘fight anyone’ attitude.
“No-one would have blamed me for saying, ‘Do you know what, I’m going to give this one a miss and have a couple more to build my momentum back and get back to where I want to be. Get rid of some rust,’ blah, blah, blah. It’s the fighter I am. I’ve been brought up that way. That’s never going to change. Whether you like me or not, whether the coach would agree with it or not, that’s who I am. Like I said, that maybe was my downfall in that fight. I got in there and fought a great fight; the fans loved it; I watch it back and see a 100 per cent version of myself with the right frame of mind comfortably winning that fight. I’d loved to do that rematch.
“That’s another discussion we’re going through right now, when working on what the plans are next. I wouldn’t want to go into that rematch and the same thing happens because it’s not giving a true reflection of myself as a fighter because I took a lot of goodness out of me getting down to that weight. It’s a decision and a discussion that I’m having with my team just now and we’re working on the next plan, and I imagine it’ll be confirmed very soon what I’m doing next.
“I’m coming back, and I’ll be 100 per cent. The best Lee McGregor is still to come. [There have been] many bumps along the road in my career, as people well know, but I’ve been known to come through every single one and that’s no different this time, either.”
McGregor is placing pressure on himself. He expected to by now be a world champion or at least fought for a world title. The meteoric rise in a four-year, 10-fight period culminated when he blasted out Karim Guerfi in one round to win the European bantamweight title. Back then, we were looking at a future world title challenger and maybe even Scotland’s next champion alongside his good friend Josh Taylor. However, inactivity is one of many diseases running through the sport.
Losing to Ayala hurt more than the onslaught of punches the winner produced in waves at times. McGregor’s uppercuts and hooks to the body were punches that you shouldn’t keep walking through, yet some fighters can continue to march through the fire if a single night’s work is going to change their life.
McGregor wishes he had been more active but his time with the now-defunct Probellum has hindered him and many others. Life at Wasserman, on the other hand, is what the Scot has always wanted. Win or lose he says they have his back and are fully behind him.
One defeat is not the end of the road or the beginning of a slippery descent into oblivion, which is something McGregor knows better than anyone. He also acknowledges that his next move must be the right one.
“I went straight back in at the deep end,” he says. “I then had a holiday with the family and I’ve been straight back in the gym chipping away.
“The decision I need to make now is whether I feel like I can do super-bantamweight comfortably or not. I would then go straight back into that rematch before the year’s out. But it’s probably the biggest and toughest decision I’m ever going to have to make in my career. It could be a make or break for me if I was to go back into that. I know for a fact I can win that fight hands down. I know he’s not a better fighter than me. But I can’t go in and do the same thing because it’s not giving a true reflection of myself. It’s going to be a real tough decision and one that needs to be considered carefully and that’s what we’re doing right now.
“I’m not ruling anything out yet, but I do think it’s a matter of time before I’m a featherweight and when I do eventually go to featherweight, I will have time to really fill out because I would not be a small featherweight. We just have to wait and see.
“I’m sure whatever decision me and the team come up with it will be the right one because it has to be. I’m getting a bit older now; I’m 26. I feel like I’ve been in the game a long, long time. A couple of chapters have already been written. I’m well-seasoned but still young. I think that’s a benefit for me. I’ve experienced everything now.
“I’m trying my best. I’ve not had much luck in terms of personal issues, even career-wise, but now I’m settled and I’ve signed this new deal with Wasserman. Although our first fight together wasn’t ideal, and wasn’t what we wanted, I still feel I gave a really good account of myself and proved I can mix it at the top level. I’m excited to see where I can go. The story is nowhere near finished yet. I do firmly believe I’ll still become a world champion.”