“I’VE always been a fighter,” Lee McGregor says as his friendly chatter becomes more serious and he looks up intently. “I’m a proper fighter and there’s no quit in me. I’ve had to get through some brutal times and last year was absolutely devastating. But I never came close to quitting.”
Devastation is not an experience that should be familiar to a 21-year-old but, over the past 16 months, McGregor has endured the death of his mother and three other close family members in a chain of personal catastrophes that could have made him buckle and lose hope. Instead, McGregor is unbeaten in seven contests and already the Commonwealth bantamweight champion.
The young Edinburgh boxer, who trained alongside Josh Taylor, George Groves and Luke Campbell at Shane McGuigan’s Wandsworth gym before joining up with Grant Smith, has shown eye-catching potential while displaying skill, patience and startling power. McGregor hits ruinously hard for a bantamweight, and he has been ferocious and clinical in winning six of his seven bouts by stoppage.
McGregor’s nickname is Lightning and all his previous opponents have looked suitably stricken after he has hit them with withering body punches and percussive blows to the head. But real life, and death, has struck repeatedly. The internal scars are obvious as McGregor recounts his grief in painful detail.
“My mum had [throat] cancer for over a year but she’d got the all clear,” McGregor says. “She died on the day in May 2017 when I won the British amateur bantamweight title. The effects of cancer ended her life. She had suffered a lot and she was only 44. She had lost her voice and had to get a voice-box and she struggled to speak after that. We’d already had a big scare after she was cleared of cancer. She was choking one time on her own. She managed to phone an ambulance but she passed out before the call ended. They had enough information to know where my mum lived and so they could resuscitate her.
“We believe she was choking again the second time but she never had the chance to phone 999 on the day I fought for the British title in Cardiff. It’s so sad but I don’t think she knew I won the title that day. It must have been about two in the afternoon when I won and I think she went about the same time. My gran and grandad had been phoning her all day. They thought she must just be sleeping. But it got to the stage where they thought something’s up. My grandad drove to the house and I think he knew what he was going to find.”
Lee McGregor shakes his head. Before he relives the terrible moment when he finally realised his mother was dead he revisits a happier memory. “In the final for the British title I boxed Louie Lynn. He was the English champion so he’s a good fighter but I knocked him down in the first round. He got up and gave me a real hard fight. But I won it clearly. About 30 of my mates were there and we went out to celebrate in Cardiff that night.
“My gran and grandad had a horrible decision to make. They knew we were celebrating and drinking. They decided not to tell us until we got home. So we were out that night, drunk and having a laugh, not knowing my mum was dead. It makes me sick thinking about it.”
Lee McGregor left Cardiff earlier than his brothers and their friends the next morning. His hangover was bad but he felt even worse when he read a text from his gran asking him to come straight to her house. “My first thought was that something was wrong with my grandad because he also had cancer. I phoned her and she said, ‘I don’t want to tell you over the phone.’ I went, ‘Just tell me.’ She said, ‘It’s your mum. She passed away.’ And she burst out crying.
“I was in an avenue full of people and I hit the floor. It was shock. I bawled and bawled. I couldn’t get over it and so I phoned my girlfriend Amber and she took me to my gran’s. My brothers were still in Cardiff almost 24 hours since my mom’s passing. I called my brother Connor and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
“That night was horrible. I got home and I was spewing. I cried that much. My insides were in agony. I was vomiting and then I saw my grandad cry. He’s was a strong man but he was the most broken up of us all. You could tell it was killing him but he was trying not to show us.”
McGregor also had to hide his torment and he went straight back into training to prepare for the European championships in Ukraine. “Lots of people said I can’t do it but I said. ‘I’m going to do her proud.’ I got a brutal draw. When I heard I had to fight this German guy I had just beaten on a split decision, I said, ‘In the first round? You must be joking!’ But I beat him more easily this time. Next round I got the reigning champion. This was a big fight for me because it meant qualification for the World champs if I won. This guy from Russia had won everything when he was younger. I still beat him and I boxed absolutely brilliant. Everyone was so proud – especially what was going on with mum’s funeral. I remember putting up a poster saying: ‘Keep guiding me, mum.’ I then drew the Ukranian champion – in the Ukraine. I thought I won but the ref deducted points off me and I knew they were never going to give me the decision. But I had still beaten the reigning champion and qualified for the Worlds.”
His fleeting serenity faded. McGregor and his girlfriend went to Turkey for a break between the Europeans and the Worlds. “I was out there when I got the call to tell me my other grandma’s husband had passed away from cancer and she wasn’t coping. We came back and I saw her in hospital. She was about seven stone with a broken shoulder. She looked like she was on her death bed. But we got her out of hospital and she looked amazing on the day of his funeral. Oh my God, what an inspiration. But after the funeral she was broken. Me and Amber put her to bed and I said, ‘I love you.’ The next morning we heard her sister had found her dead.”
McGregor was bereft but he forced himself to fight in the worlds – where he lost in the second round. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says, his eyes flaring. “It was such a bad decision against [the American] Duke Ragan. He lost a 3-2 split decision in the final. So I lost to one of the world’s best who I was sure I’d beaten. And then, in September, Barry McGuigan called.
“He’d been watching me and was really impressed and so I came down to London, did a bit of training with Shane and loved it. I was training for the Commonwealth Games but my dad said: ‘Who knows what can happen next? You need to take this opportunity. Life’s too short.’ I made my pro debut in November. I want to bring happiness back to my family because we’ve been through hell. My debut in Edinburgh was unbelievable. Everyone was there apart from my grandad who watched me on TV because his cancer was getting worse. But after that first round knockout everyone was buzzing.”
A series of blistering left hooks to the body of Stefan Sashev, which left the Bulgarian looking crumpled and abject, were an early indication of McGregor’s venomous body-punching. “I fought again in December,” McGregor says with a grin. “Knocked him out as well.”
A big right uppercut followed by another left hook to the body dropped Kamil Jaworek in the first round. The Pole was soon down again in the second and it did not take more than another minute before the referee waved the contest over. “I thought 2018 is going to be a happy year,” McGregor says. “I thought my grandad will beat the cancer.”
His face clouds. “But in January I’d just finished a circuit in the gym. I was moaning on the ground, suffering after a hard workout. Shane said, ‘You’d better get your phone, Amber’s trying to get in touch with you.’ I knew. My heart was beating fast and when I called her she was crying: ‘Your grandad’s got two months to live.’ I went to the toilet and I was sick again. I went home that weekend.
“It was horrible. Grandad said, ‘I’m not scared to die, but I just want a couple of years.’ I said, ‘I’m fighting in March. Try and watch this fight.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be with you every step of the way.’ He also taught me a song – but he knew death was coming.
“In the hospice he was so relaxed and I remember I was by his bedside when he took his last breath. We knew something was going to happen that night because his breaths were getting slower. I asked if could have some time on my own with him. Everyone left and I spoke to him for a while. I promised him I’m going to try my hardest to be a world champion. I knew that’s what he wanted. He loved me and he loved boxing. I cried for ages and then I said goodbye.”
McGregor looks up again. His eyes are clear and he smiles. “Since my grandad passed away, he’s been looking over us. He’s been sorting us out. I won my next fight [stopping Pablo Narvaez in round two]. I then took a big step up and fought Goodluck Mrema in June.”
On the memorable night that Josh Taylor beat Viktor Postol in Glasgow, McGregor stopped the Tanzanian in the fourth round. Mrema had won 20 of his previous 22 fights but he was outclassed and overpowered. “Now I’m fighting for a Commonwealth title,” McGregor says. “It’s my toughest fight so far but I want to make a big statement. This fight gives me an opportunity to open a lot of people’s eyes.”
Next month McGregor will become a father for the first time. “I’ve got a little girl on the way with Amber. It’s incredible. There is so much life in my family now. My two brothers have both become dads. And now my baby girl will be born. Since my grandad passed away, honest to God, it’s like he changed our luck. Everything’s going so well. I could break down crying.”
Lee McGregor laughs, reassuring me that these would be happy tears, and his face is soon wreathed in smiles. “I can’t wait for this fight. I want that title. Then we’ll have the baby and this will have turned out to be an amazing year after all. We’ve been through some dark times but there is so much to look forward to now. It feels good. I have come through so much that I am going to make the most of these happy times.”