The talents and achievements of Gavin Rees (b. 1980) have arguably been more overlooked than those of any other modern Welsh sports person.
The Newbridge man has many positives to his name, but his career was hindered by out-of-the-ring problems, a poor media persona, and a lack of discipline in his preparations – troubles that have arguably prevented him from becoming one of the all-time greats of Welsh boxing.
In his book, Enzo Calzaghe describes a youthful Rees as “extraordinarily talented”, then compares Rees’ abilities as a professional to some of the other fighters he trained, such as Pryce, Enzo Maccarinelli and Nathan Cleverly:
“Without question the second most natural talent I’ve seen behind Joe would be Gavin Rees,” said Enzo Calzaghe.
“His speed and his power are things that you just can’t teach and he has the heart and fortitude of a warrior just like Joe. What he doesn’t have, or certainly didn’t have under my watch, is Joe’s discipline or work rate.
“Whisper it quietly, but Gavin’s natural ability in terms of his picture-perfect jab may even be better than Joe’s. That’s how good I believe that kid is.”
After an outstanding amateur career, ‘the Rock’ turned professional in 1998 and quickly built an impressive winning record.
Discipline was the problem, though – for Rees, and for his main partner-in-crime, Pryce. Both freely admit to being overly attracted to junk food and alcohol, indulgences they would not forego in the build-up to fights.
Rees was fighting at super-featherweight – arguably already above the weight the 5ft 4ins Welshman should have been – but had problems with stamina as his poor preparations drained him towards the end of fights.
Still, his talents had taken him to 20 successive wins by June 2004 and a shot at the vacant WBO super-featherweight title against Mike Anchondo in Dallas.
A check weigh-in over two weeks before the fight found that Rees was not close enough to the 130lb limit to reduce his weight safely before the bout, though, and instead he found himself facing Michael Muya up at lightweight in Newport Leisure Centre.
Even more troubling out-of-the-ring problems hit the Welshman later in the year when he knocked out a mourner from a funeral after being thrown out of the wake.
The courts handed Rees a community punishment, while the British Boxing Board of Control banned him from the sport for a year.
He would eventually go 18 months without a fight, but continued to look impressive – and to keep winning – on his return. That put the Welshman in the frame for the most unlikely of title shots.
Promoter Frank Warren needed an opponent for WBA light-welterweight champion Souleymane M’baye, and felt that Rees was the man to take the July 2007 fight at Cardiff International Area.
The lack of respect would cost him dear, though, as Rees was all over M’baye from the outset.
The challenger built up a huge points lead and – although his usual lack of stamina hit him hard in the closing rounds – he hung on for a deserved points win.
The Welshman joined a distinguished list of former WBA light-welterweight champions that included Carlos Hernandez, Nicolino Locche, Wilfred Benitez, Aaron Pryor, Edwin Rosario and Kostya Tszyu.
The championship belt did not see Rees reform his ways, though, and poor preparation contributed to him losing his belt – and his 100% professional record – in his first defence against Andriy Kotelnik.
The Newbridge man was brave, but it’s arguable that Kotelnik’s physical advantages at light-welterweight meant his victory was all-but inevitable.
A disappointed Rees was out of action for 15 months, but came back to prominence with an impressive victory in the December 2009 Prizefighter light-welterweight tournament, the £32,000 prize proving superb motivation.
In 2010, Rees started working under new trainer Gary Lockett, who resolved to cure his stamina problems.
The former champion dropped back down to lightweight, and in November 2010 claimed the vacant British title with an impressive stoppage of John Watson.
Rees still had the tendency to fade in the later rounds of fights, but he cleaned up at domestic level and won the European belt, beating Andy Murray, Anthony Mezaache and Derry Matthews.
New promoter Eddie Hearn secured a world title shot for the Welshman, but the challenge could not have been more difficult.
In February 2013, Rees travelled to Atlantic City to challenge boxing’s new sensation, WBC lightweight champion Adrien ‘the Problem’ Broner.
The US press had him down as a bum and ridiculed his lack of stature, but the Welshman’s confidence, nonchalance and dry wit were never more evident than in the build-up.
He carried the attitude into the fight and took the action to Broner, his bravery and skills surprising many as he made the champion work much harder than he had perhaps anticipated.
But Rees’ natural come-forward style was made for Broner’s heavy counter-punching, and the outrageously talented champion dropped the Welshman twice before Lockett compassionately threw the towel in during the fifth round.
Rees’ record and reputation remained impressive, though, the only two blemishes on his record having come in world championship bouts against high-quality opposition.
But in his next outing he suffered his first loss at domestic level – a points defeat to Anthony Crolla in Bolton – and this was followed by a split-decision loss to compatriot Gary Buckland after an epic 12-round war in Cardiff in February 2014.
The public clamoured for a rematch that was made in May, and in the build-up Rees announced that it would be his final fight. Increasing injury problems meant that the former world champion felt he could never again put himself through the rigours of a training camp.
Rees put everything into his final bout, though, and his efforts were matched by the ever-game Buckland. It was a rip-roaring repeat of their first encounter with one major difference – at the end of another 12-round war it was 34-year-old Rees who came away with the split-decision victory.
- Gavin Rees’s career record
- Gavin Rees: Official website
- Gavin Rees on Twitter
- Wikipedia – Gavin Rees