MICHAEL PEARLMAN SAYS: Rees should be prouder now than when he won world title
10:12am Tuesday 4th February 2014 in Sport
ON Saturday Welsh boxing fans were treated to a fight they'll remember for a very long time.
The battle - and that word is entirely appropriate - between Gary Buckland, the victor, and Gavin Rees, the vanquished, was intense and at times, tough to watch.
Lesser men, lesser competitors or equal warriors with less to lose, couldn't have matched the effort from the Welsh duo, they wouldn't have lasted the 36 minutes. It was brutal.
Buckland, a very good domestic level fighter who could easily win European or Commonwealth honours but doesn't possess world class power, was coming off the back of a defeat and simply had to win as he stepped up to lightweight.
Rees, a genuine world title level fighter who should've enjoyed a glittering career, instead of just a very good one, had lost two on the spin - a world title fight and a world title eliminator - and at 33, said he'd retire if he couldn't beat Buckland.
After one of the most fiercely fought and intense fights you'll ever see - neither boxer conceded ground, the majority of the fight in the centre of the ring where it could've been contained in a phonebox - it was almost inevitable we'd have a split decision.
Ringside opinion was divided - though I'd say most, like I did, thought Rees just shaded it, I scored the contest 115-114 to Rees - and it wasn't by any means controversial that Buckland ultimately got the decision, 115-114 on the deciding card. The other two judges scored it 116-113 to either fighter, proving it really was a dual where it simply depended what you valued as a consumer, Rees' class versus Buckland's relentlessness. Stats-wise, there was nothing in it.
It's fantastic for Buckland that at 27, his career is now back on track with a shot at the British lightweight title to come. No doubt he'll have done enough to land any promoter he wants as a desirable free agent who won a lot of new admirers on Sky Sports. He deserves his success.
However, I'd like to express my admiration for Rees, irrespective of whether or not he decides to hang up his gloves, as a boxer who has always been admirable but a man who hasn't.
That may seem harsh, that may seem unnecessary, but in order to truly examine how impressive Rees has become, it's important to focus on where he was flawed.
The Gavin Rees who had tears in his eyes after the verdict was delivered on Saturday, the Gavin Rees who couldn't probably comprehend how he could compete so brilliantly in two successive fights, only to be denied by the judges to many observers' surprise, is a totally changed man.
I'm certain Rees deserved a points win in his last fight against Anthony Crolla and many, including Nathan Cleverly's new coach Adam Booth, agree with me.
Yet Rees has been beaten three times in a row, having performed admirably in Atlantic City against Adrien Broner, stopped in five, taking his total career defeats tally to four in 42 fights over 16 years. He can no longer perform as he once could.
And that's an absolute tragedy. Because Rees as a human being is better than ever and that has rubbed off in the gym. His body is betraying him with injuries just when he's treating it right.
After years of living wrong, drinking too much, slacking off and eating badly and constantly losing weight the wrong way, Rees is a man transformed.
He's developed an incredible bond with Cwmbran's Gary Lockett, his trainer; a Ying and Yang relationship with a straight down the line, very serious character that has helped Rees to finally do things the right way.
Blended with the exciting fighting style honed by Enzo Calzaghe it makes Rees a top calibre performer, but he's simply not quite the fighter he was. Father Time has caught up.
Calzaghe believes Rees is almost on par with his son Joe for talent and I wouldn't dispute that. He was talented enough to be an undefeated world champion despite living like a footballer in the 1960s. Few could ever dream of getting away with that.
I'm fond of Rees, always have been, even when I've privately despaired at stories I've heard or incidents I've witnessed where he's been less that professional at shows or in the Calzaghe gym. We all know his drinking cost him a year of his career.
It was tough to see him so upset on Saturday, because the fact is, it barely registered when he lost his world title to Andriy Kotelnik in 2008. It was pitiful to hear him talking to Bradley Pryce post fight about where they'd go drinking and I never thought Rees would reach that height again.
But he's proved me and a lot of other people wrong. He's been extremely successful since, winning Prizefighter, British and European titles and has been involved in incredible fights; John Watson, Andy Murray, Derry Mathews, Anthony Mezaache, Crolla and now Buckland all getting superb contests from Rees.
His courage in the ring is extraordinary and Welsh boxing should be very, very proud of him whatever comes next.
But for me? There is true glory in Rees fading as a fighter but emerging as a man and potentially, someone who can provide the next generation of Welsh boxer with a lot more than being a cautionary tale.
Some will say it's a shame if Rees goes out to an unlucky defeat, but I wouldn't be one. Gavin Rees has given his life to boxing and ultimately, it's made him a better man and given fight fans incredible memories.
Mawkish as it sounds, I'm proud of him.
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