by Kieran Mulvaney
There has been no shortage of relatively unfancied fighters from the British Isles who have upset the applecart and upended the careers of more highly favored foes from across the Atlantic.
Just ask Donald Curry, whose Hall-of-Fame trajectory was knocked permanently off course by a mauling at the hands of Lloyd Honeyghan in 1986. Or Jeff Lacy, who received such a thumping from Joe Calzaghe 20 years later that he was barely ever seen again. Or Razor Ruddock, who began the evening of October 31, 1992 as a big favorite over Lennox Lewis and ended it flat on his face as Larry Merchant presciently proclaimed of the victorious Brit that “we have a great new heavyweight on the boxing scene.”
Then again, sometimes the script has unfolded differently. Ricky Hatton’s limitations were cruelly exposed by both Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Barry McGuigan promised so much but ultimately delivered so little. And Frank Bruno was … well, Frank Bruno.
So where on the spectrum of British challengers do we place Gavin Rees, who takes on lightweight champ Adrien Broner on HBO World Championship Boxing on February 16?
The good news is that he has some pedigree: He is a former world titlist, who has lost only once in 39 professional outings and has gone undefeated for almost five years. The less good news is that his world title reign, which began with a points win over Souleymane M’Baye, ended just eight months later with a TKO loss to Andriy Kotelnik in his first defense. That abbreviated hold on a world crown came at 140 pounds; he has since subsequently moved down to lightweight, five pounds and one division lighter. In contrast, Broner has moved up from junior lightweight. But at 5’4”, Rees will be the shorter man in the ring by three inches, and his 64” reach will put him at a seven-inch disadvantage against the American.
Not long after being relieved of his world title, Rees looked in danger of going off the boil. In December 2009 he took part in – and won – a ‘Prizefighter’ tournament, in which entrants fight a series of three-round elimination bouts over the course of the evening. His next couple of outings were six- rounders, and while Broner was also contesting six-round bouts at the same time, the flashy young man from Cincinnati was then just 20 years old. Rees was 29.
But since then, the Welshman has been in the form of his life, capturing the British and European lightweight belts, and recording four of his 18 career stoppages in his last six fights. Most recently, he overcame Liverpool’s Derry Matthews in nine hard-fought rounds that showcased his strengths – a stiff left jab, a hook off the jab, a fierce right hand, and an aggressive style – and his weaknesses, such as a vulnerability to uppercuts and an occasionally alarming lack of head movement that will likely have Broner salivating.
The likelihood is that Rees will come up short, possibly way short – a commentary not on his ability but that of his opponent, who may very well prove to be a spectacular, once-in-a-generation talent. But then, there were plenty who thought the same of Curry when he was riding high atop the pound-for-pound lists, only to be brought crashing to Earth by a confident, brawling challenger from Britain. That fight took place on the Atlantic City boardwalk, as will Broner’s defense against Rees. Supporters of the Welshman will be hoping that lightning can strike twice in the same place and deliver a shock every bit as stunning as that night more than 26 years ago.