THE world is comprised of almost 200 countries. Forty-four of these are in Europe, and Britain is just one of those. Yet Gavin Rees takes greater pride in having been champion of a continent, and of a country, than he does in having once ruled the whole planet.
“The world title was chucked at me,” the Welshman says of taking the WBA 10st belt from Souleymane M’baye in July 2007, in a challenge that came out of the blue and a win that was even more unexpected.
“But the British and European [lightweight] titles, I earned them, beating some very good boys. Working my way up the ladder meant a lot more. I appreciated the hard work paying off.”
If the WBA reign was short-lived, the payoff Rees refers to is a series of big domestic dust-ups leading to what every fighter dreams of – boxing in the USA against a superstar of the sport.
It was another ‘world’ title shot, this time thoroughly earned by, rather than “chucked at”, Rees. But nobody would be chucking victory at him either, for this challenge came against a peak Adrien Broner.
The fight was in Atlantic City, broadcast on HBO, and Broner was being touted as the Mayweather-elect future of American boxing.
In later years, ill-discipline on Broner’s part meant he ultimately fell short of that, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that in February 2013, at 23 years old, he was in formidable form – undefeated, dazzlingly fast, a spitefully hard puncher, bristling with confidence and edging his way into the pound-for-pound conversation.
“I don’t think anyone could have beaten him at lightweight,” says Rees of the defending WBC 135lb titleholder. “He’d even have beaten me nine times out of 10!
“I won the first two rounds but then he hit me with something and I knew he was a monster at the weight. He was such a hard hitter and if you missed a shot, he’d hit you eight or nine times. He was something special.”
Rees held his own with the American for two-and-a-half rounds, but Broner then found his range, hurting his challenger in the third. Knockdowns in the fourth and fifth prompted cornerman Gary Lockett to signal the surrender.
It had been far from the walkover Broner had predicted. In typical Broner fashion, he had been insolent and dismissive in the build-up, but satisfied he had acquitted himself admirably, Rees has no hard feelings.
“If he was here, I’d buy him a pint.”
In the unlikely event Broner was here in the Welsh valleys, in a small village called Pantside, that pint would be bought for him in the pub Rees now owns, The Rocks Bar, named after his ring moniker.
The label was bestowed on him by the late Enzo Calzaghe, legendary trainer, father of Joe, and former owner of the Newbridge Boxing Club, a ramshackle but folkloric gym with a tin roof that famously turned out three ‘world’ champions at the same time, with Rees joining Joe Calzaghe and Enzo Maccarinelli when he beat M’Baye.
“Enzo [Calzaghe] gave us all nicknames,” says Rees. “I was about 14 or 15 when he came up with it. He called me The Rock because I could take big shots and not be moved.”
Nor has he ever moved from Pantside. Rees still lives in a terraced house in the village he grew up in, and now presides over its only pub. The Rocks Bar occupies half of a former social club – with the other half taken up by a boxing gym, also owned by Rees.
At Pantside ABC – the village’s first boxing club, established in 2014 – Rees trains all levels, including eight pros (among them the highly touted Kody Davies and exciting veteran Craig Evans).
This in itself keeps him fit, and he still puts in plenty of gym hours. The Rock, at 41, is still rock-hard – a few divisions above his peak weight, perhaps, but it’s all muscle. He looks as though he could fight tomorrow. But there will be no comeback.
“Life’s very good, man,” he says. “No regrets. I’m happy.
“You say I’m retired, but I’ve never been so busy. My wife [Kayleigh] is cursing me, the amount of work we’re doing. But we’re making a lot of money.
“You can go one of two ways [after retiring from boxing] and not many go the way I did. A lot of boxers go downhill after they retire, because they don’t have a plan. I always wanted to own a boxing gym, and now I do.
“I was also very lucky to go out on a high. It’s a lot easier to walk away when you’ve won.”
Rees bowed out following a revenge win over fellow Welshman Gary Buckland on May 17, 2014. Their first encounter, three months prior, was one of the fights of the year; an excruciatingly punishing 12-round won by Buckland on a split decision. And yet Rees went into the rematch having barely sparred.
“I knew it would be my last fight,” says Rees. “I’d known deep down a long time before that it was over. My hand, my arm, was f**ked. I’d been training 25 years; that’s a lot of strain on the body, and when you’re in your 30s, the injuries don’t go away.
“Training for the Buckland rematch, my elbow was killing me. I was going to pull out, but then I thought OK, I’m just not going to spar. My elbow hurt when I missed a shot, but bags don’t move. If I don’t spar, then I’ll be able to box one last time.”
And box he did, more sensibly than in the first Buckland bout, squeaking a split decision. There were still the moments of high drama and repeated swings of fortune that characterised the first fight, but Rees used his head more than his heart when it mattered, since what mattered most was the win. The Buckland rivalry capped a long run of big British and European fights that saw Rees feature regularly on Sky Sports, starting with a Prizefighter light-welterweight tournament win (beating Ted Bami, Jason Cook and Colin Lynes). This was followed by duels with the likes of John Watson (w rsf 11), Andy Murray (w pts 12), Derry Matthews twice (td 4, w rsf 9), Anthony Mezaache (w rsf 7) and, post-Broner, Anthony Crolla (l pts 12) and Buckland. During this time, he won the European lightweight belt and defended it three times, and twice reigned as British champion, but it is arguably the one night against M’Baye for which Rees is best remembered. In a huge upset on a famous Cardiff night, the irrepressible underdog dazzled the WBA belt-holder for a wide unanimous decision that almost nobody had seen coming.
“They were lining him up to fight [Ricky] Hatton,” he says of the Frenchman signed at the time to Frank Warren. “That didn’t go to plan! I outworked him, won the first eight rounds. I threw lots of combos, got underneath his shots, and he wasn’t doing a lot. Then I moved more in the last few rounds, knowing I’d p**sed the first eight.”
Rees won by margins of 117-113, 118-110 and 117-112.
“I was over the moon,” he says of lifting the belt. “It’s what you’ve trained 20 years for, running in the snow, missing out on things, walking in the gym every day thinking ‘oh, for f**k’s sake!’, knowing you’ve got to fight – not spar, fight – those guys. It was worth it in the end.
“I was 8/1 against, but I always knew I had that potential,” says Rees of winning a ‘big four’ belt. “Enzo [Calzaghe] and all the boys knew, it’s just that I hadn’t been on TV much.”
Certainly that lack of exposure was a big part in the shock value of Rees’ win. The title shot had come out of nowhere, because while Rees was at the time a superficially impressive 26-0 (14), it was long on stats but short on substance. Of the 26 men he’d beaten, only eight had possessed a winning record, and none of them had been remotely world level. “Just because you haven’t boxed in world class doesn’t mean you’re not world class,” says Rees of what he’d proved against M’Baye. But he’d hardly forced the issue in that overlong, nine-year apprenticeship.
“I just couldn’t get a break,” he says, “but I was living a bad life – drinking and fighting [outside the ring]. I was banned from boxing for a year [in 2004] just when I was breaking through, because I got into a fight outside.
“It was in the pub, a fight broke out and I got involved. It was just a scuffle. Someone hit me and I hit them back and knocked him out.
“Nobody got hurt but the [British Boxing] Board doesn’t see it like that, and rightly so.”
The drink is also blamed for him losing his belt in his first defence, when a visibly slower and weaker – albeit still highly competitive – Rees was stopped in the last round by Ukrainian Andriy Kotelnik in March 2008. “I was out drinking, not training properly,” he says. “It was complacency. I’d had 27 wins on the trot and a big lump of money. I thought I was unbeatable. It was my own fking fault. If I’d trained like I had for M’Baye, I would have beaten him. I look back and think what an arsehole I was to let go of an opportunity like that.”
Still, plenty more opportunities would come Rees’ way – those big domestic nights on Sky Sports, the American adventure against Broner, and finally, after hanging up the gloves at 38-4-1 (19), realising his dream of opening a boxing gym.
But the significance of this gym being attached to a pub, when the owner says he lost a belt and a year of his career due to drink-related problems, is not lost on me.
Rees insists there’s nothing to worry about.
“I bought a pub and now I don’t drink!” he laughs. “I’ve not deliberately stopped drinking, I just don’t have time for it. I’m in here from six in the morning until nine at night.”
And by “in here”, he means the healthier half of the enterprise. While wife Kayleigh runs the pub, Rees is in the gym, honing either his own body or the talents of the next generation of local boxers.
“It’s important to have a boxing gym in a place like this; something for the young people to focus on,” he says.
Indeed it is, as Rees himself knows from experience. Yes, he made the occasional bad decision, but without boxing he likely would have made a lot more.
With boxing, he became champion of the world, of a continent, of a country, and most importantly of all, of one little village in the Welsh valleys.