MICHAEL PEARLMAN SAYS: Warrior Rees deserves the plaudits
7:31am Tuesday 20th May 2014 in Sport
NOT even I can pretend to deny sports journalism is awash with undeserved platitudes.
It takes very little for a striker to become a hot shot, for a good club man to become a legend or for a boxer who has beaten a dozen bums be labelled a top prospect.
We are guilty of thoughtless praise at times, way too often, some might argue, but I do want to issue a platitude or two today to describe Gavin Rees, the Newbridge boxer who is retiring at the age of 34.
It's not without consideration that I picked the platitudes I throw his way.
First and foremost, as evidenced again on Saturday night in his final fight, Rees is an absolute warrior.
His victory over Newport's Gary Buckland was the 38th of his career, having lost four and drawn one in 43 professional fights, though many would argue his narrow points losses to Buckland and Anthony Crolla were extremely harsh, myself included.
The draw came due to an unfortunate broken nose for Derry Mathews a round before Rees would've won on points and against only two men has Rees been on the canvas, Andriy Kotelnik and Adrien Broner the only men to stop the Rock.
It's a magnificent record and a decorated one, Rees a world champion at light welterweight - albeit for only one fight - as well as claiming British and European honours at lightweight. He also won a Prizefighter at light welter in 2009 after the disappointment of surrendering his world title.
He's never left South Wales, never been far from the hills of Newbridge, despite having two trainers, Enzo Calzaghe and Gary Lockett.
Both have shaped him enormously.
I've heard Rees disregard Enzo's contribution somewhat in recent years and that's a nonsense, presumably meant less as a slight on Calzaghe and more in defence of Lockett.
Rees' style is still shaped hugely by his training alongside Joe Calzaghe, having first encountered Enzo as a nine-year old prospect (roughly the same height as he is now) his speed and ability to throw combinations was and still is very much at a world level.
Enzo describes Rees as second only to Joe Calzaghe in all the boxers he's worked with for raw talent and I believe the gap between Joe and Gavin is smaller than many people would imagine.
However, aside from the glorious moment when Rees got a surprising shot at a world title and took it fantastically, it's hard not to criticise his career under Enzo's watch, through no fault of the trainer.
Rees, like some of his stablemates, was, for far too long, horrendously ill-disciplined outside of the few hours a day spent training.
I'm stating nothing Rees himself doesn't acknowledge. He got drunk too often and he ate food that would make Jamie Oliver weep for an entire series of cookery shows.
His career was going nowhere, partially due to his indiscipline - let us not forget Rees missed a year from the ring because of a ban for an incident at a funeral that saw him arrested and convicted of wounding - and partially because of Joe Calzaghe's split with promoter Frank Warren, which left Rees and the rest of Calzaghe's undercard in contractual limbo.
I'd pretty much written him off, and that was all the more frustrating because of Gavin's dazzling talent. Only Calzaghe, Rees and Tony Doherty - a huge waste of talent - have been able to stun me with phenomenal speed and combinations in the privileged position of watching fights at ringside, but Gavin seemed destined to be a one hit wonder.
When I wrote a short book on Team Calzaghe for the Quick Read series, I got a brilliantly honest interview with Rees and his long time partner in shenanigans, Bradley Pryce, in which they both lamented, in language not quite verbatim, "piddling their money up the wall."
At the time, their former stablemate Nathan Cleverly was getting a degree, buying a house and moving towards a world title. That wasn't lost on the pair of them.
Rees, however, got the break of his life when he switched to train with Lockett, who was himself recently retired.
To say the pair were friends from their time in the famed Calzaghe gym would be a nonsense. I was lucky to cover that era and Rees and Lockett were far from friends. Rees thought Lockett was straight-laced and humourless and Lockett found Rees and Pryce's lack of dedication unfathomable. Lockett, remember, spent a nearly a decade commuting to or living in Manchester in order to be as dedicated as possible to boxing.
Set in a different environment though, opposites attracted.
Lockett hasn't in my view, changed the wheel in terms of Gavin's style. He has however, had the time and ability to change his diet and crucially, his mindset.
Rees is a different man in his 30s, self aware, financially responsible, far more dedicated to training and very much planning ahead for life after boxing. Armed with nothing more than decent values and a good boxing brain, Lockett has changed Rees' outlook on training and more.
It's a crying shame the penny didn't drop sooner, who knows what Rees might have achieved had he not lived on a diet of Big Macs when he was a world champion, but his Indian summer since teaming with Lockett has really enhanced his legacy.
He was impressive as a European champion, a win in France over Anthony Mezaache a particular highlight in 2012 and he was fully deserving of a big pay day in Atlantic City against Broner for the WBC lightweight title.
Since then, he's lost twice, to Crolla and Buckland and then beaten the St Joes fighter, but all three battles were fight of the year contenders and that's to Rees' credit.
It's nice he goes out on a high - and he enhanced Buckland's reputation as well - and with his focus set on a future of training young fighters and running a pub.
But it's even better that he leaves boxing a better man than he was a decade ago when I started covering the Gwent fight scene.
Rees has always been brave and he's always been talented, but he hasn't always been the best he can be. However, he leaves the sport of boxing as an absolute credit to Welsh boxing, to himself, his trainer and to his family and the thunderous ovation he got in Cardiff on Saturday was testament to that.
We all thank him for the memories.
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