IT WAS a night of new beginnings at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena, but it was a man who brought the curtain down on his career who stole the show.
After 16-years as a professional and 25-years since first walking into a gym, Newbridge’s Gavin ‘the Rock’ Rees bid adieu to the sport he loves with a superb display in another absolute tear-up with domestic rival Gary Buckland.
And it was the emotional pull of watching Rees leave it all in the ring once more with one of his best displays in years that most enthralled a capacity crowd on a night where new beginnings were set in motion.
For Cefn Fforest fighter Nathan Cleverly, the former WBO light heavyweight champion; that means a new weight, a new promoter and a new trainer and his rehabilitation after defeat and a nine-month hiatus is well and truly underway after he crushed Shawn Corbin.
And while main-event star Lee Selby wasn’t quite so destructive in his 12-round triumph over Romulo Koasicha, the sky is the limit for the St Joseph’s boxer as promoter Eddie Hearn and manager Chris Sanigar plot his route to not just a world title, but possible superstardom for the fighter endorsed by no less than Floyd Mayweather.
However, when you take away pennies and pounds and future prospects, there is no question the man heading for the exit door deserves the plaudits for not only another brilliant fight, but a splendid career.
He’s been a world, British and European champion at two different weights and a Prizefighter victor, but at 34-years old, Rees, who recently purchased a pub, is calling time at the bar.
His rematch with Buckland was a reward to the Welsh public who were so enthralled by the first battle and it’s a testament to their warrior qualities that it took place at all.
On day one of his training camp, Rees, whose boxing age is about 123, so many wars has he been in, decided he wanted to call it quits. Only professional pride carried him through the past few weeks.
And Buckland, after the best win of his career, didn’t need to rematch, especially as he’s a natural super featherweight campaigning at lightweight only to maintain his rivalry with Rees. One can only hope his reward will come with the contract with Matchroom Promotions he covets, because he’s a natural successor to Rees in terms of spirit and desire.
The Dynamo simply doesn’t know when he’s beaten and though I scored this contest as I did the first fight – with Rees winning by two rounds – he’s enhanced his reputation enormously.
Rees just had a little bit more quality in another fight that was at times tough to watch, the punishment dished out to both men who never took a backward step.
This time Rees appeared to have a little more in his legs and in spells he exposed Buckland with his tremendous speed and ability to throw punches in bunches.
There was a look of horror from Rees and his trainer Gary Lockett when a split-decision was announced, but the judges got it right in awarding the contest to the Rock, who should and will stand-by his decision despite winning.
“Delete my mobile number because I don’t want to hear from you,” he jokingly told promoter Eddie Hearn post fight.
But Rees, whose daughters watched him fight for the first time, is certain he’s got nothing more to give.
“It means the world, I wanted to go out with a victory and to win in front of my girls, it’s very special,” he said.
“It was another hard fight, I boxed a lot more and it was the best I’ve paced 12-rounds, it was my last fight and I wanted to enjoy it and I did when I was hitting him!
“But that’s definitely it for me. I’m 34, I’ve boxed for 25-years and I’ve loved it, but I’ve had enough. It’s time to do other things; I’m a happy man who can walk away into the sunset.”
Buckland, flanked by his trainer Tony Borg, was as gracious as ever.
“I thought Gavin deserved it, he just nicked it,” he said.
“For me now going forward, I’ll move back to super featherweight, I can make 9 stone 4lbs easily, I’m a bit of a blown up lightweight, but people wanted to see Gavin and me box again.”
Rees’ former stablemate under Enzo Calzaghe, Cleverly, will be reflecting on a job better than well done.
There were plenty of sceptics, this reporter included, as Cleverly changed everything in response to losing his WBO light heavyweight title and undefeated career nine months ago at the devastating hands of Sergey Kovalev.
Cleverly, now training with Darren Wilson are ending his partnership with father Vince, and under the Matchroom banner, is now boxing at cruiser, incredibly six categories up from where he started.
However, there can be no denying Cleverly looks far more comfortable than he did at light heavy and he took power with him, bullying the bigger Corbin, particularly with some booming right uppercuts. Following an onslaught, the referee intervened for Corbin in the second session.
That set the stage for Selby and much like with his idol Mayweather, he was forced to look impressive for 36 minutes rather than blast his opponent away.
I gave Selby all 12 rounds - the closest a judge scored it had Selby winning by nine – but it was at times a cautious display from a naturally flamboyant fighter, a cut above his right eye suffered in the fourth seemingly having an effect.
“He was tough, he was a typical Mexican if you like and he caught me with some good shots, he was a tough guy who kept coming,” he said.
“I managed to out box him and I didn’t want to risk anything, I’d been cut so I didn’t try and take him out. He caught me with a punch, so I could’ve been stopped on cuts.”
And the mature Selby, who is also now an expectant father, is determined to do right by his body.
“I’d get back in the ring tomorrow ideally, usually after a fight I’m back in the gym after two days,” he said.
“But this time I’ll do things properly, I’ll have a couple of weeks off and get ready for a fight later in the year, people are always looking ahead at opponents for me, but I’ll take them as they come and stay in the moment.”
Manager Sanigar revealed he’s hoping to place Selby in a final eliminator for the WBC featherweight title, hopefully in Cardiff in September.
Elsewhere on the card, Swansea’s Tobias Webb fell victim to a scintillating display from top prospect Callum Smith.
The super middleweight, nephew of former world champion Enzo Maccarinelli, had hoped to face Callum’s older brother Paul for his British title, but that prospect was rejected by the British Boxing Board.
However, this was still a step-up in class for Webb and he was unable to cope, Smith dropping him four times in a devastating second round where he tore into Webb, especially when forcing home some vicious body shots.
Elsewhere on the card, there were victories for a pair of Gwent fighters hopefully on the ascendency.
Cefn Fforest’s Rob Turley has endured a horrific year with a routine medical test throwing his career into doubt, but his in-ring return was impressive while it lasted, opponent Marc Callaghan withdrawing with a shoulder injury.
Mitchell Buckland, younger brother of Gary, was also victorious in routine fashion, shutting-out Daz Usher 60-54 over six threes as he continues to show real promise.