Robbie Regan – The Legend that Never Was
By Mark Turley: Boxing can be a beautiful, inspirational sport. It can also be unbelievably cruel. And few stories reflect that as perfectly as that of Robbie Regan. Imagine a scenario. It’s 1998 and shortly after winning his first world title, a talented young fighter named Floyd Mayweather Jr has been forced to retire.
Think about how different things would be, for us and for the fighter. The course of boxing history would be completely altered and ‘Money’ himself would be a very different person. Certainly not the brash, super-rich, self-fulfilled icon he is today. You can perform this same hypothetical exercise with any of the greats – Pacquiao, Calzaghe, Tyson. What would have happened to these men if after winning a World Championship they suddenly had to quit the sport before their first defence? Would they have hit the bottle or the needle, got mixed up with crime, or ended up working a regular job, becoming nobodies, disappearing into the masses?
Robbie Regan, from Cefn Forest, Wales, started boxing at the age of 15 under the tutelage of legendary trainer, Dai Gardiner. He turned Pro in 1989, with ambitions to emulate his heroes, Muhammed Ali, Jimmy Wilde and Johnny Owen. Early signs were more than promising and by his tenth professional fight he had captured the British Flyweight Title with a rematch victory over Francis Ampofo.
An exciting, front-foot, boxer-puncher, Regan emerged from the shadows of a golden era of British boxing, with legends like Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Michael Watson, Lennox Lewis and Duke McKenzie dominating the limelight, eclipsing other fighters. Unheralded and little known outside of Wales, the upward curve of his career continued quietly towards ultimate glory and after an unsuccessful challenge for the WBO Flyweight Championship against Alberto Jiminez in June 1995, Robbie won the interim IBF title with a second round knockout of Ferid Ben Jeddou in December. Frustrated by the IBF’s hesitation in awarding him a fight for the real title, he took what appeared to be a massive gamble by stepping up to Bantamweight to challenge WBO Champion Daniel Jimenez. This was his chance to crack it. Recognition surely awaited at last if he could pull off an upset win.
Most commentators believed that the Puerto Rican champion’s natural strength at the weight would be too much for Regan, but Robbie went into the bout “full of confidence”. “The truth is” he said “I had been struggling to make flyweight for ages. I felt so strong at Bantam. I should have stepped up long before.” As the fight began, Regan was a 10/1 underdog, but he fought with real fire and determination, flooring Jimenez in the eighth round, on his way to a richly deserved unanimous decision. The lad from the village had conquered the world.
In a jubilant post-fight interview, Regan said that he felt “like a man who won the lottery, put all the winnings on a 10/1 outsider and won that as well!” He became the first Welsh Bantamweight World Champion in history and only the 6th Welshman to win a World Title at any weight up to that point. Stardom beckoned and opportunities opened up before him – glamour fights in America, unification matches, riches beyond his dreams, but it is here, as he tells you his story, that his tone of voice changes. He sighs. He pauses. “I still enjoy the memory” he says quietly, his lilting Welsh accent becoming stilted and hushed “when I remember that night. Because it’s something that can never be taken away from me.”
Sadly, the fairytale turned sour. Fate, it seemed, had other plans for Robbie Regan. And they did not include global glory and fame. Shortly after winning the World Championship, Robbie succumbed to a severe attack of glandular fever. He was unable to defend his title, which was eventually stripped from him because of inactivity. When he finally attempted a comeback, two years later, his prolonged illness caused him to fail an MRI scan. Tragically, Robbie was told he could never box again.
“It was devastating.” He says simply. “It was all gone, all taken away from me. Everything I’d done. All the things I wanted to do.” At 28 years old Robbie was an ex-fighter. For several years he became directionless, depressed, “I was bitter and angry” he says. He found it difficult to come to terms with his misfortune.
Like many whose careers are cut short prematurely, Robbie struggled to adjust to life without fighting. He encountered personal problems which have been publicized. Yet he remains upset as to how his difficulties have been misreported. In particular, in 2004, 6 years after his forced retirement, Robbie was sentenced to 18 months in prison for Assault and Actual Bodily Harm. It was reported in the media that he and two associates had broken into a house and attacked its occupants, leading the public to believe that the ex-champ had turned to burglary for living.
Robbie is keen to set the record straight. “This had nothing at all to do with the end of my boxing career. How it has been reported is not how it happened.” He says. “If you read the newspaper reports, they make it sound like I broke into someone else’s house. It was my house! I owned the place and was renting it out to this lad. He moved his friend in who was a bit of a thug. And I didn’t want this other kid living in my property. I told him to pack his bags, but he wouldn’t leave. So I went around there that evening to kick him out. I can decide who does or doesn’t live in my property, can’t I? Anyway, when we got there, he pulled a baseball bat on me, so I hit him in self defence.”
The Judge David Morris, concluded however that there “was no excuse for what they had done.”
Following his time behind bars Robbie looked once again to boxing to put some direction back into his life. He worked in several amateur gyms and trained schoolboys at the Lewis School in Pengham. During this time he formed the idea of using his rekindled enthusiasm for the sport to develop Welsh boxing from a grass-roots level and after several fundraising evenings and partnerships with sponsors, will shortly be opening his own gym. Cefn Forest’s first. “There’s something special about Welsh boxing” he says, “it’s the passionate support that inspires you. And for many young Welsh boys, it’s a way out. In the old days it was a way out of the mines, now it’s a way out of the factories.”
One such prospect is Sean Maher, a young fighter he is working with, in conjunction with Roy Hawkins, his conditioning coach. With the help of men like Kevin Griffiths, Mark Dimmock of Western Power and Julian Pritchard who he says has been “the backbone of the gym” and without whom “none of it could have happened” he has raised money and support and now intends to establish a real centre of excellence for young Welsh fighters. Since the closure of Enzo Calzaghe’s camp, it is certainly needed. He hasn’t decided on a name yet, but “The Dragon Unleashed” is one possibility that certainly sounds appropriate.
He aims to train future World Champions in the image of his favourite current fighter, Super Middleweight Champ, Andre Ward. “He’s something special. Robbie says, “the best thing since Sugar Ray Leonard.” If Robbie can train some of his boys to anywhere near that level, or indeed the level he once reached himself, he may yet recover some of what was lost all those years ago, a chance of becoming a boxing legend, in a different way. And after everything he’s been through, only the hardest heart could wish him anything but good luck.
Robbie Regan was talking to Mark Turley.