NEW YORK – As Gavin Rees settles into his seat at a Starbucks a few blocks north of Times Square, his hands are still as he sips a cappuccino to warm up from the frigid weather he had been at the mercy moments before. The calm is in sharp contrast to the frenetic boxing style in which the native of Newbridge, Wales won the WBA junior welterweight title in an upset over Souleymayne M’baye back in 2007.
Few thought that the diminutive Rees, who had previously boxed mostly in six- and eight-round bouts against mediocre talent, stood much of a chance against the stylish Frenchman, whom he upended by unanimous decision. Likewise, Rees is in a similar position as he approaches his bout against WBC lightweight titleholder Adrien Broner on Feb. 16 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.
Now 32, Rees himself acknowledges he is at the “Last Chance Saloon,” and is ready to go all in after 15 years as a pro.
“I’m fully confident in a victory,” said Rees (37-1-1, 18 knockouts), who has set up camp in The Big Apple to prepare for the fight, which will be televised in America by HBO and in the United Kingdom by Sky Sports. “I’m a massive underdog on the odds but we don’t see it like that. I’m coming over here to win.”
Rees’ career, which has taken place exclusively in Europe, has been in a process of rebuilding since his 12th-round stoppage loss to Andriy Kotelnyk in his first title defense in 2008. Rees was out of the ring for the next 17 months but reemerged with new trainer Gary Lockett, who had once trained alongside him under Enzo Calzaghe during his own pro days. Lockett, 36, set out to help Rees maximize his potential before it was too late.
“Obviously when he came to me I think his training was all over the place, he wasn’t in the gym. I think that was due to motivational problems, no dates to fight, no real sort of pathway to where his career was leading,” said Lockett, himself a former world title challenger.
Lockett’s first order was to settle Rees down in the ring.
“I think before he was like a bull out of a gate throwing hundreds and hundreds of punches. He was more like a six-round fighter. I think the best thing that Gavin’s done is slow himself down and see what’s coming back. He can see what’s coming back and he can counter punch.
“His nutrition was a problem so we got a nutritionist on board to educate him properly and now he does it all himself.”
Rees agrees that nutrition wasn’t his strong suit in the past.
“When I was a bit younger you think your career is gonna last forever and then all of a sudden now I’m 32.
“Until I got with Gary I never really dedicated myself to boxing, always out for a beer, no dieting, living life like a bum really. Just getting by on natural talent, that’s all I was doing,” said Rees. “Since I’ve gotten with Gary I’ve knuckled down and proven that in the fights.”
Rees’ career got a shot in the arm when, in 2009, he signed with Matchroom Sport, and was entered into the Prizefighter television series, which he eventually won. The Prizefighter series is a tournament that pits eight fighters in a single day tournament consisting of three round bouts, with the winner earning the largest sum of money.
With his name once again relevant, Rees dropped down to lightweight, a division that most figured he was best suited for to begin with. First came the British lightweight title, which he won with a knockout of previously unbeaten John Watson in 2010, then came the European title with a unanimous decision win over the similarly unbeaten Andy Murray. After a few defenses, Rees and team decided it was time to hunt for bigger game.
“My last couple of fights have all been stoppages, just goes to show the power coming down,” said Rees. “I think I always struggled a little bit at 140. I was never really a light welterweight any way.”
In Broner, Rees is facing an opponent who, though unbeaten (25-0, 21 KOs), is far more classier than his recent opposition. The 25-year-old boxing prodigy from Cincinnati, Ohio has won titles in two weight classes and is generally thought to be one of the best young fighters in the world. He rose to the No. 1 spot at 135 in THE RING’s ratings following his easy eighth-round destruction of WBC titleholder Antonio DeMarco last November.
Lockett understands that Broner is as tough a draw as there is at 135, but remains confident nonetheless.
“He’s got a style that Adrien Broner’s never seen before,” Lockett said of Rees. “Don’t get me wrong, Adrien Broner is number one lightweight in the world, he needs no introduction to any boxing fan. He’s fabulous to watch, he looks like a very good fighter. I don’t think he’s met somebody who believes that they can win the fight when they go in. I think that half the people [he faces] are beaten when they get in the ring. He’s faster, bigger, stronger than everybody that he fights.
“I think in Gavin Rees he meets a fighter who believes he’s going to win the fight and has got the skills to trouble him.”
During a conference call last month to promote the fight, Broner appeared to not even know Rees’ name, underscoring how big of an underdog the Welshman is. Rees, who revealed that he passed up on a chance to fight Richard Abril for the vacant WBA lightweight belt in order to face the stiffer test in Broner, isn’t fazed at all by what he perceives to be gamesmanship.
“I think that’s just the way he is, he shows no respect for nobody,” said Rees. “He does that to play mind games but I just don’t bite to it. Hopefully, he’s underestimating me and in [two] week’s time he’ll know what it’s like in the ring.”
Photo / Max Nash-AFP
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.