Rees rocks on
When Gavin 'The Rock' Rees called time on his 16-year professional career in May 2014 he did so having won British, European and world honours. He also garnered the respect of both his peers and fans during a thoroughly enjoyable 43-fight ride.
Following the blueprint set out by his long-time stablemate Joe Calzaghe, Rees left the sport on his own terms when his body would no longer respond to the rigours of eight-week long training camps. And now 18 months into his retirement, Rees is enjoying life after boxing running his amateur gym, Pantside ABC, and a pub he owns, aptly named ‘The Rock’s Bar’ in the Gwent village of Pant.
“I train in the gym five days a week and work in the bar at night,” explained Rees when speaking to Boxing Monthly from his home in the Welsh Valleys.
“The pub is on a little estate in Pantside and it’s doing okay. It has a big room at the back where the gym is and the front (bar) is for profit. Last year we had an amateur show and the gym is starting to do well with plenty of young and talented boys coming through. We had a boy in the Welsh final and, hopefully this year, he will win a Welsh [title],” said Rees.
“I loved boxing but now I love to train the kids. They come off the streets from seven years old up to whatever age they want to stay here. We have people wanting to lose weight here and people wanting to get fit. I was never just gonna walk away from boxing and, hopefully one day, I can take a couple of my boys down the pro route.”
Rees turned pro as an 18-year-old on September 5, 1998 with a four-round point’s victory over John Farrell in a preliminary bout at the Telford Ice Rink and built up a reputation as a tenacious battler with skills to burn, often boxing in the shadow of stablemate Joe Calzaghe. He finished his career with a revenge victory over countryman Gary Buckland in May 2014 via a world title at 10 stone, Prizefighter success in 2009, British and European titles at 9st 9lbs and a shot at boxing braggart Adrien Broner in Atlantic City in 2013.
“Those early days with Enzo (Calzaghe) and Joe were the best days of my life,” admitted Rees. “The gym was buzzing. Me and Joe were world champions and Bradley Pryce was Commonwealth champion. I got to fight at the Millennium Stadium twice and, just to be around Joe, gave me a great buzz. I didn’t think it would end, I was young, the next thing I know I’m 34 and retired!
“The injuries were just unbearable towards the end,” said Rees. “For the last fight against Gary Buckland, I never sparred a single round. If I had sparred, I wouldn’t have made it to the fight, the injuries were that bad. You shouldn’t prepare for a fight like that and I told Gary [Lockett], ‘That’s it’. Honest to god, at the end it was a real struggle to make 9st 9lbs, it was killing me, my bones hurt and trying to get through an eight-week camp was tough. I’ve got big thighs and big legs and, at the end of my career, I did diet properly and I trained my balls off but I could never have gone down in weight, no way.
“Thirty-four isn’t a bad age to retire. I boxed well against Buckland [WSD12] and some people thought that I was gonna carry on, but I’m too clever for that. I knew that me and boxing are done.”
His final tally as a professional stands at an impressive 38-4-1, 18 KOs, with standout victories over Souleymane M’baye, Derry Mathews, Colin Lynes, Anthony Mezaache on away soil in France in defence of his European title and his final victory over Buckland in Cardiff. As impressive as those wins were it does pose the question of just how good Rees could have been if only he had avoided the junk food and alcohol he so liked to consume between fights with his partner in crime and fellow fighter Bradley Pryce.
“I’m in better condition now than I was when I was fighting!” joked the Welshman, whose physique looks more bodybuilder than boxer these days.
“People ask me why I’m training and dieting. When I was boxing I HAD to do it, now I find myself sat at home and I hate it, it bores me so I go to the gym and train.
“Back in my early days, I admit that I didn’t train as hard as I should and I liked to have a drink. But later on when I was with Gary Lockett I loved the game and trained like a demon. I had a great career and won almost everything there was to win so I can’t complain. I was a young boy and people approach things differently. It was only me who could have stopped the drinking but at that time I didn’t want to. I worked hard during the week but come Friday and Saturday I wanted a drink. It was hard to stay at home you know!”
By June 2004, Rees was unbeaten in 20 fights and he was offered a shot at then WBO super-featherweight champion Mike Anchondo in Dallas, Texas, but a check weigh-in two weeks before the proposed date revealed that the Welshman was too far over the 130lbs limit to safely make the weight. Again rumours of Rees’ poor preparations and bad diet came to the fore but he explained to Boxing Monthly that, on this occasion, it was a simple mistake.
“I jumped on Enzo’s scales and was fine but when we got on the official scales they were wrong by 2lbs. It was only 2lbs but they (WBO) were very strict and wouldn’t allow me anymore time. I asked for two days but they said no and that was that.”
Several years later in 2007, Rees was handed a surprised shot at WBA light-welterweight champion Souleymane M’baye when promoter Frank Warren, who handled both fighters careers, couldn’t find a willing opponent for his French star. Gavin stepped in at short notice, well above his natural weight and the rest is, as they say, history.
“I was 26-0 and I wasn’t getting offered nothing,” said Rees. “No fights at super-feather, no fights at lightweight and then one night I got a phone call to ask if I wanted to take the M’baye fight. Enzo took the call and I said yes straight away.”
In a shocking turn of events, Rees, who was an 8-1 underdog going into the fight and given no chance by well-respected trade insiders, boxed the ears off the champion to take the WBA championship by unanimous decision. It was a terrific performance.
One person who did believe that Rees could pull off the upset was trainer Enzo Calzaghe who referenced it in his 2011 book, ‘A Fighting Life’.
“I remember bringing up Gavin Rees’ name with Frank Warren and saying he could step up in weight and beat M’baye. I think Frank thought I was crazy. Gavin was 26-0 at that stage and had never really had anything resembling a defining fight. Tactically, I don’t think that there can be any doubt at all that it was my personal highlight as a trainer in my entire career.”
“That was the first time that anyone took notice of me,” said Rees. “I surprised everyone that night. I was a huge underdog but I took him apart.”
Rees was handed a first defence of his newly acquired title against Andriy Kotelnik in front of a passionate Welsh crowd at the International Arena in Cardiff in March 2008, with Kell Brook and Ricky Burns amongst others on the undercard. However, the night ended badly for Rees as the visitor proved to be a step too far for the diminutive champion as he was halted in the twelfth and final round.
“That was the only time when I felt as though my opponent was too big and strong for me,” Rees admitted. “I wasn’t a real light-welterweight, I was a small lightweight and he was probably coming down from 11 stone. He was just too big.”
Standing just 5ft 4” in height but solidly built, hence his nickname of ‘The Rock’, Rees possessed a brilliant and often overlooked jab, a punch that prompted his former trainer Enzo Calzaghe to say of Rees, “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.”
“Towards the end of my career I think people finally saw how well I could box. When I fought Derry Mathews (WTKO9 in a British and European title defence in 2012), I boxed his head off and landed jabs all night. He was something like 5ft 10” and I’m only small but my timing was perfect that night,” said Rees.
Having been a regular at Enzo Calzaghe’s Newbridge gym since he was nine years old, Rees was forced to accept that once Joe Calzaghe had retired and his father began to lose interest in the sport, that he would need to find another trainer if his career was to continue.
Gary Lockett had hung up his gloves after losing to Kelly Pavlik in a bid for the WBC and WBO world middleweight titles at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in June 2008 and Calzaghe recommended that Rees joined the young trainer and the former stablemates went on to have a successful partnership, with Rees winning British and European titles as well as challenging Adrien Broner for the WBC lightweight title in the US.
“After Joe retired, I couldn’t get any fights,” said Rees. “Enzo was thinking of retiring so I hooked up with Gary. I beat Jason Cook in Prizefighter, but I still wasn’t being given any chances and then I heard Cook was getting a British title fight, it was a joke really.
“Me and Gary hit it off straight away. In Wales, there aren’t that many trainers to go to unless you’re willing to travel but I have kids and a missus so that was out of the question. I felt as though I knew Gary well having trained with him for years and he did a really good job with me.
“The fight against Broner was a great experience and every fighter’s dream to box in America on a massive show. I did myself proud and, after the fight, I had American fans telling me how well I fought.”
The loss to Broner in America triggered a three-fight losing streak and the only time Rees had suffered back to back losses in his career. Following the Broner loss, Anthony Crolla edged a thriller then Buckland squeezed past Rees by split decision in Cardiff.
“I thought I’d definitely won the Crolla fight,” said Rees. “And the first Buckland fight was close but again I thought I’d done enough to win it.”
Enzo Calzaghe and Gary Lockett are polar opposites as far as personalities go, with Calzaghe Sr a combative, extroverted character whilst Lockett is a more studious, quiet type and Rees says there were subtle differences between the pair as coaches, too.
“Gary had me sitting down on my punches more. Enzo’s style was Joe’s style, which was one hundred miles an hour, but I was fortunate to have two very good trainers during my career. Gary is doing a fantastic job for Welsh boxing, along with Tony Borg. He has some brilliant boys coming through like Liam Williams who is Commonwealth champion at light-middleweight and Welsh boxing is on the up with Lee Selby as a good world champion.”
Rees is still in the business of dishing out headaches for a living as he forges a new career as a pub landlord but his own journey in boxing is never far from his mind. “I would do it all again and I wouldn’t change a thing!”