As the rain tiptoes down the windows of a traditional Welsh pub, two men are discussing boxing greats of years gone by. It’s not intrusive, that spattering; standard for early Spring. As it marks time – warning those tucked safely inside with their ales or gins of the elements that await them – one fellow challenges the other to name as many of their homegrown world champions as possible.
“Well, Calzaghe, of course,” blurts out the more eager of the two, confidently. No points for originality.
As they bounce names back-and-forth, they pass comment on Enzo’s biggest win against a faded Roy Jones Jr or Barry Jones and his recent, stellar showing as a pundit. Could Gavin Rees ever have beaten the outrageously arrogant Adrien Broner? It doesn’t matter – he’s made their list. As they continue, praising Steve Robinson for winning his world title on a couple of day’s notice, they suddenly drink themselves dry.
Across the country, men and women spanning different decades would struggle to pick Robbie Regan (17-2-3, 7KOs) out of a crowded queue at the bar. One of Wales’ most talented and best-loved fighters, he found himself stuck at the wrong end of boxing’s pendulum, reaching the top of the sport before having everything snatched from under him.
Now, aged fifty-one, Robbie had almost become the third version of himself. There was the boxer; then the empty vessel that had been masquerading as a proud, former champion; and now, the loving father and dedicated fiancé. He still held a love for boxing in his heart, albeit at arm’s length. He runs a gym, hiring friends to coach kids and educate the next generation of Welsh talent, but it only seemed to dull the pain.
“I wouldn’t start too young,” Robbie told me, on a hellish Tuesday evening. “I think boys have a lot of schoolboy fights, a lot of junior fights. Don’t start too young in life. Maybe twelve or thirteen, that’s young enough, I think. You gotta stay dedicated. Single-minded. You gotta forget the rest of the world and what’s going on, partying, and the women, all of that stuff… If you want to be world champion, you have to stay focused.”
The boy from Caerphilly had captured his world title twenty-three years ago, beating the talented Daniel Jimenez unanimously. His county in South Wales, known for its castle and not much else, birthed the little champion standing at five-foot-four who had experienced the highs and lows of sport at the top level. On a family trip, he was introduced to boxing, a sport generally reserved for troubled kids mingling amongst the working class. There were many youngsters who ticked those boxes, mingling through a sport that often splits families.
“It was actually when I was on holiday with me’ uncle. Dai Gardiner was a close friend of my uncle cos’ me’ uncle was a boxing trainer. It was me and my brother, it was a family holiday and Dai was there and he obviously later became my trainer. I just fell in love with the sport, so I just carried on from there. I was nearly fifteen, then. It wasn’t the worst place in Wales, that’s for sure. Times were hard back in them days, we didn’t have much but we were happy.“
Legendary Welsh trainer, Dai Gardiner, had experienced everything – even death in a boxing ring. He was the man who had led Johnny Owen into battle on the night he was tragically killed, in 1980. He had been involved in the sport since lacing up his own gloves shortly after World War II. A Welsh boxing forum recently posted a thread, praising Dai deservedly for his work with names such as; Steve Robinson; Neil Swayne and the late Owen. Robbie’s name was nowhere to be seen.
“You know, I had good amateur pedigree. I won a gold medal in Norway. I boxed in the Commonwealth games and I was part of the Olympic squad for Seoul ’98. I always had a pro style though, if you like. I didn’t think the amateurs really suited me. When I did turn pro, that suited me better. When I walked into the gym from the first day, I just always wanted to turn pro.”
After his first six bouts, Regan was the owner of an unremarkable 3-0-3, 2KOs record. Notching up draws as a professional fighter isn’t common, yet he’d somehow ended level in half of his contests. The Welsh fans were originally excited about the prospect of a highly-touted amateur turning over, but the young bantamweight took time when adapting to the sport without the comfort of his red, national coloured vest.
Stepping out to represent his fervent Welsh supporters meant a lot to the fighter, however it seemed to mean more to the retired, vulnerable voice on the other end of the phone as he replayed those big nights on home soil. Robbie Regan, although often forgotten over a packet of pork scratchings, was a fans’ favourite. They raised the roof, sparking national interest as he commenced a run that would see him win the British and European titles in neighbouring Cardiff.
Of their raucous occupation at his fights, Robbie spoke of his support, “It was just the most amazing feeling I’ve ever had. It was just phenomenal. I mean, the journalists would speak to fighters at the press conferences and they’d ask them, ‘Have you heard Robbie Regan’s crowd before?’ Because even the journalists hadn’t heard a crowd like mine. I had such a big support, but of course we had some world champions who defended their world titles in Wales. I’ve never changed. My supporters were my friends and I was close to the Welsh people. I think they took me to their hearts.”
“I think it was only in my seventh fight that I boxed for the Welsh title. In my eighth, I won the British title. In only a couple of fights I was boxing for major titles and boxing didn’t give me a lot of experience. I won the British title against a Scotsman, Joe Kelly, and he’d had a lot more fights than I did. As soon as I won that British title, all I wanted to do was win it outright. As soon as I’d done that, I wanted to take the next big step and fight for the next title and that was the European. After I won the European, I was ranked in the top-ten and my goal was to win the world title.”
Robbie Regan won that world title at the first time of asking, in what proved to be his last ever fight. His tale is an unusual one, even for a sport that throws up the most unlikely of narratives. That night in the Welsh Institute of Sport, Cardiff, was one of the best of his life. He remembered it fondly, attempting to express the emotions felt, now two decades removed. He had been chasing it ever since.
“It was everything I’d ever trained for. You want to win it as much for your fans as you do for yourself – it was something I just had to come through. I was supposed to fight FIVE different world champions before I got my shot. I’d be training and coming up for a fight, then something would happen and the fight would fall through.
“I never stopped believing at the time because I knew this was my dream. It gives you that extra boost. Especially in those last couple of rounds when you’ve got the whole crowd chanting your name – it’s just the most amazing feeling. As soon as they said, ‘the NEW!’ I don’t think anyone else heard the rest of my name being called. I think the noise drowned out the MC! That’s just something that’s locked in your brain forever.“
Robbie’s name used to fill the Ice Arena, bouncing off the walls as his supporters spilled outside following another, impressive victory. He was their world champion. Was his omission from articles or conversations because, at the peak of his powers, he’d been dragged kicking and screaming from the limelight? Those other Welsh champions were allowed to bow out gracefully, defending titles, making decent money and earning themselves careers. Robbie never had that.
Astonishingly, when many boxers were lining up extravagant purchases, Regan was planning alternative employment. In those obscure and unfortunate circumstances, the Welsh boxing community allowed his name to dissolve as he continued to search for purpose. He attributed his constant fighting spirit to merely, ‘being Welsh’, but it was so much more. Mentally boxing had broken him, but Regan’s physical state remained a mystery long after he triumphantly raised the WBO title over twenty years ago.
“The toughest part of being a fighter is sticking at it. When your head is down and things aren’t going your way, then it’s just believing in yourself. You gotta keep fighting for what you want. You gotta stay dedicated. I think it is being Welsh [that helped me do that], you know? You’re fighting for your fans and your family as much as yourself. Some of the greats of Welsh boxing – people I grew up with who’ve become my friends – to be immortalised with them, it is just incredible.”
Being a fighter is tough. Having it taken away from you is far harder.
Robbie’s journey from that holiday training camp with Dai Gardner to boxing’s summit was about to end. The dream had swiftly turned to a nightmare, however, as Regan struggled to understand his body’s unwillingness to co-operate. The sport had become so much more than punching and plaudits. That punishing routine was his way of life. Gone. It was everything to the man from Caerphilly until it had become nothing at all.
“Obviously it broke my heart,” Robbie exclaimed, with his voice sinking. “I think I would have found it a lot harder if I didn’t achieve my dream first. If that happened to me before I’d won the world title, that would have been a lot harder to take. I was out for a year after I won the title, I had glandular fever. Nobody knew what was wrong with me, they just couldn’t find it – it took them months. Eventually, a doctor who specialises in foreign disorders, he found out that I had the same virus that Jonah Lomu had. That’s what finished me, really. I used to run sixty miles-per-week, seventy miles-per-week. I’d try a nice five mile run and I’d get to the second lamppost and I just couldn’t run anymore.”
“My body would just give up. I could see punches in the gym, but I couldn’t get out the way of them. When I didn’t know what was wrong with me, I just thought I was cracking up until it was proven. Not being able to do things I could normally do and nobody could tell me why? It just broke my heart, regularly. I was crying. I was just really down. I tried and tried [to return from illness]. I was always off to the doctors, but I knew I wasn’t right. It was that bad, if I tried to do some training now, I’d feel the same. That’s how bad it was – it was twenty years ago. It was unbelievable.”
The eventual diagnosis – viral condition Epstein Barr – effectively ended the career of then-reigning world champion, Robbie Regan. Unable to train professionally and desperate for another chance, he was given the opportunity to reapply for his British Boxing Board of Control license after showing some minor signs of improvement. Entering the office of the Boxing Board, the bantamweight was about to suffer one last, crushing blow. He would fail his returning brain scan. The Welshman was left in the cold – hoping for loyalty, at the least.
“They found some scar tissue, is all. I went for a second opinion and two doctors out of the three said that I could box, they said they would give me my license. But one said no, and once one of them said no, then it was game over. I think it was a blessing in disguise, because I knew I wasn’t right. I was six pounds overweight a couple of days before the fight. Normally I was just a pound over. I couldn’t train. I just couldn’t put in the effort that I needed to. I couldn’t do it.”
He detailed the emptiness experienced after boxing in stark honesty, “I started working for my friends electrical company, but you know, to go from a job that you love to a job where you’re just doing anything… That’s soul destroying. I stuck it as long as I could, but that wasn’t for me. I was very depressed. I suffered from depression for a long time and I hit the drink. I was self-medicating, just making me forget. That went on for a good few years. Probably four or five years, I was just drinking everything. I never came to terms with it. Not accepting it, until I woke up one day and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?!’ My marriage broke down through it and that was the final straw. I realised it was no good for me.”
The gaping hole left in Regan’s heart was perhaps his most crushing affliction. Boxing had infected him, just a youngster skipping rope in a small county, dreaming of the flashing lights and the newspaper headlines. Sure, he had some of his own, memories and clippings adorning walls of the house that often felt like a prison. But he was owed more. Scrambling between jobs and bad habits, Robbie had encountered trouble with the law, serving a prison sentence whilst still battling his own demons.
That iconic picture of him, draped proudly in his native red, hoisting his world title aloft in the ring after his retirement had touched hearts. He stands, in front of his boxing public carrying the sport’s highest honour, yet sobbing uncontrollably. The expression on his face was one of pain and disappointment. Though it wouldn’t last forever. Thankfully, the talented world champion found peace of late.
“Boxing was the biggest part of my life and now, it’s not the most important thing. I’ve got a new baby boy and that’s helped me incredibly, him coming into the world. I’ve got a big focus with him. I enjoy attending the Welsh ex-Boxers Association. I’m the vice-president! That’s what I love, you know? Listening to the old stories with past champions and present champions. They have their convention every year and we go to other conventions. It’s great bumping into other friends that I knew years ago, as well. It’s gotta be a big fight for me now to wanna watch it. Back then I would have watched any fight! If there was two flies boxing, I’d wanna watch it. Now, it’s gotta be a big fight to get me interested. Back when I was fighting, I could name you every British champion, European champion and world champion at each weight. But now, I couldn’t. I just think that’s life.”
Twenty-three years on from his crowning moment, he gleamed as he told me of his recent engagement to Rachel, the mother of his young son, Ruan. Happiness came and went for Robbie, but family was central now. He seemed to accept that he’d always suffer with depression – though was determined to make the best of his current situation. Some fighters succeed with natural talent alone, whilst others combine genetics with dedication. Regan didn’t get the rub of the green, but startlingly one of his potential, former rivals is still competing at the highest level.
“I think Manny Pacquiao is amazing and everything he’s achieved is outstanding. He was the number one contender when I won my title, he was my number one challenger. He never boxed at bantamweight, he went straight from flyweight to super-bantam and won that title. He avoided me (laughs)! He is a phenomenon. He was begging on the streets to get money for transport to get to America, it’s crazy [boxing].”
Boxing is crazy – Robbie knew that better than most. A life entwined in the sport was one of routine. It was hours of sacrifice and deprivation, resulting in a violent performance to prove your worth for an audience, ultimately paying for blood. Boxing is everything a fighter knows, until it becomes something they can never replace. Robbie shared some stories, laughing heartily as he remembered the good times.
The passion in the anecdotes he shares tells you everything you need to know about Regan and his warm, loveable personality. Now a family man with a new son to celebrate with his beautiful partner, he still felt more at home immersed in the sport than anywhere else. He deserved to be mentioned amongst the Welsh champions of years-gone-by, a proud man who fought his toughest battles outside of the ring. When all was said and done, Regan wouldn’t forget a thing. He was Welsh through-and-through.
“Boxing Danny Porter, defending my European title [was a big fight] because I pulled out once. I was injured but we got the fight back on. He was a very dangerous opponent, he was. A lot of the boxing media said it was gonna be a really tough fight, but I blew him away in three rounds. Danny came out before the fight and said before the fight that he was gonna knock me out in the third round! He had the round right, but it was the other way, I knocked him out in the third!
“Dai said, ‘What round did you knock him out in?’ so, I said, ‘It was the third round’. He said, ‘It was the fifth, trust me I was there!’ I said, ‘Trust me Dai, I was there too!’ (laughs). I think he was on the beers! It’s the toughest and the best sport in the world. If I had achieved in other sports what I achieved in boxing, I’d be financially better off. There’s no other sport that asks as much of a man. I’ll always be involved in boxing. It will never be totally out of my life. I was inducted into the Welsh Hall of Fame recently and that was nice! I think I know first hand, how much it takes.”
Interview written by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209