Dave Oakes previews Saturday's lightweight clash between Gavin Rees and Derry Matthews.
Both Gavin Rees and Derry Mathews go into their European title fight on Saturday night with question marks over them. Rees, a former world champion, has faded badly in his past two fights and has looked like a fighter edging towards the precipice. A resurgent Mathews has strung together a run of four wins recently but it remains to be seen as to how he’ll deal with this step-up in class.
Mathews, 29-5 (15), was unbeaten in his first twenty bouts, beating good fighters like John Simpson and Stephen Foster Jnr along the way. He was just starting to make a name for himself when he met Mongolian mauler Choi Tseveenpurev, who dismantled Mathews inside five rounds, scoring multiple knockdowns in the process. Bad then turned to worse; Mathews lost three of his next four, all by knockout, one of which was against ageing journeyman Harry Ramogoadi.
Aged only 26, Mathews decided it was time to call it a day, feeling that he had nothing left to offer a sport he was still in love with. His retirement was short-lived, after eight months away he decided to give it another go. A couple of warm-up wins came before he entered Prizefighter. A third round win against Gary McArthur in the quarter-final presented him with a semi against the man who started the poor run that led to his retirement – Choi Tseveenpurev.
After a thrilling battle, it was Mathews who had his hand raised, and even though Mathews was stopped by Gary Buckland in the final, he was encouraged enough by his performance to carry on his comeback. He’s moved up to lightweight since then and has been unbeaten at the weight, the highlight of which was beating former conqueror Scott Lawton over twelve absorbing rounds.
Saturday will be a much tougher test for Mathews; Rees has mixed at a higher level and has always been a hard fighter to beat when on top of his game. And that’s where the problem lies with Rees; he’s not always in peak physical condition and can also look disinterested in fights. He’s blown hot and cold during his career, sometimes looking awful against opponents he should be dealing with easily, and then shocking everyone to win the WBA title against Souleymane M’baye.
The Welshman, 35-1 (16), was also revitalised by Prizefighter, beating Ted Bami, Jason Cook and Colin Lynes to win the tournament. The victory came nearly two years after he lost his world title in an unsatisfactory performance against Andriy Kotelnik in what was his first defence. That display showed you can’t fight at 70% of your ability at world level, Rees has gotten away with it at times against substandard opposition but Kotelnik took full advantage.
Rees has capitalized on his Prizefighter triumph by winning the British and European titles in his last two fights. He claimed the British title by stopping John Watson in the eleventh round of a fight he came close to throwing away. Rees was in control early but seemed to switch off midway through to allow Watson back into it, to Rees’ credit he found the extra drive to finish Watson off but it was far from convincing.
His European title win was far from impressive as well; he was never in any real danger against Andy Murray but faded badly as the fight wore on, raising questions about his stamina. Rees has blamed his diet for the stamina issues, which, considering he’s been a pro for thirteen years, is a startling insight into Rees’ dedication, or lack of as the case may be. Weight has been an issue for him throughout his career; he’s now old enough and experienced enough to know what to eat and what not. His diet shouldn’t be used as an excuse, and if it is, it’s not an excuse, it’s a sign of weakness.
Rees is the clear favourite for the fight and should win convincingly if he turns up in shape and on form. Mathews is a gutsy fighter, he’ll try to match Rees early but may find it hard to impose himself on Rees, who enjoys boxing aggressive fighters. I feel Mathews will make the fight entertaining but I can’t see him pulling off the upset unless Rees produces an extremely lackadaisical performance or fades badly. Rees should get the job done somewhere between the 6th and 8th rounds.