The salvation of Robbie Regan
Robbie Regan plunged into alcoholism when his career was cut short while still a world champion. Now he recounts the darkest times while revealing what made him see the light, writes Oliver Fennell
ROBBIE REGAN’S tale is a love story – and like so many love stories, it is tinged with loss. Regan loved boxing. He loved the discipline of training, the roar of the crowd, the thrill of the fight and the sensation of success. Most of all, he loved being champion of the world.
The Blackwood battler climbed the mountaintop on April 26, 1996, wrenching the WBO bantamweight title from Puerto Rico’s Daniel Jimenez as a 4/1 underdog in one of Welsh boxing’s most stirring performances.
And then, just like that, the love affair was over. The relationship between man and sport which Regan felt defined his existence was abruptly called off. He would never box again. “What I’d worked 15 years for was taken away in seconds,” says Regan of the results of a brain scan which cost him his title and his licence with the British Boxing Board of Control. Seconds which would end a career. Seconds which would take years to get over.
He hit the drink, seeking quick comfort but getting hooked for the long term. Any relationship with alcohol is an imbalanced one – it takes more than it gives. It took his marriage. For 18 months, it took his liberty. Most crucially of all, it took his purpose. All things he loved.
“For 10 years, I was at my lowest,” he says. “I was missing the routine from boxing. I hit the drink to fill the void.
“At first it was just to have a laugh with my mates, but it becomes an addiction. You physically need it. You get up in the morning and your body craves a pint.”
But Regan beat it. Just like how he avenged his first defeat, he gained redemption. Just like how he bounced back from losing his first world title fight, he rallied. Just like how he dethroned Jimenez, he defied the odds. And it was thanks to the power of love.
“I met Rachel,” he says of his fiancée. “We were together a couple of years. She’s younger than me and she wanted a baby, so I realised I had to sort myself out.”
Now 52, Regan is a father of six. His oldest is 30; with Rachel he has two little ones, aged three and one. “I love all my children,” he says, “but these two [with Rachel] changed my life. They were the making of me.”
Now Regan is surrounded by friends. He looks happy – much happier than the last time we saw him. That was the night of January 24, 1998, when tears ran down his face as he stood in centre ring not to fight but to tell his fans he would fight no more.
Those fans were gathered in Cardiff International Arena not only to watch Joe Calzaghe. Until just two days prior, they thought they’d be watching Regan in the co-main event too. Instead, they chanted his name not to urge him to victory but to bid him farewell. It was as poignant an exit to the sport as we have seen.
“Any fighter would be proud of the fans I had,” Regan says. “I owe my career to them, and I’m just glad I could win a world title for them.”
Four attempts were made to defend that title, but ill health kept Regan out of the ring even before that MRI scan and its irrevocable verdict. “Something wasn’t right, but no-one could work out what was wrong,” says Regan of his post-coronation comedown. “In sparring, I could see the punches coming, but I couldn’t get out of the way. I used to run 70 miles a week but now I’d get exhausted before I’d even reached the first lamppost on my street.
“Eventually I was diagnosed with glandular fever, or Epstein-Barr virus, they call it.
“People might not think it’s serious but it’s absolutely cruel. You feel normal until you start doing something strenuous. If you’re just doing an office job, you might not even feel anything’s wrong, but if you start training – bang! – it shuts you down.
“It’s a virus that stays with you. I still have it now. I’ll never get over it.”
Even so, he fought it with his trademark tenacity and regained enough fitness and momentum to set up his long-awaited return. “I still wasn’t right, but the doctors gave me the all-clear,” he says. But then that all-clear was clouded by a shadow on his brain scan.
“It was scar tissue,” says Regan. “Of course it was from being hit in the head, but it never affected me or my life. Think of it this way – if you injure your leg, you might be left with a scar, but otherwise your leg is still fine.
“[My private healthcare provider] said the scar tissue had probably been there when I won the title, but it hadn’t been picked up.
“I don’t want to look at it like my career ended because my licence was taken away. I look at it like I’d achieved my dream and walked away a happy man.”
Even so, that is Regan talking with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, he’d had his livelihood and life’s work torn from him at just 29, and it’s no surprise he struggled to come to terms with it. Dark days followed. There was a spell in prison in 2004-2005 for an assault arising from a property dispute, and a decade lost to alcoholism. “It cost me my marriage,” he says. “I was never violent, never chasing after other women, I just never went home. I was either in a pub or round a mate’s house, drinking.
“I was just drinking to leave the real world; to knock myself out.”
In doing so, Regan inflicted upon himself a result that no human opponent could manage. Of the two defeats in his 17-2-3 (7) record, one was on a cut and the other a corner retirement, both bitterly protested.
Regan found boxing almost by accident. “I was never interested in any sport back in the day,” he says. But a family holiday introduced him to legendary boxing trainer Dai Gardiner, a friend of his uncle. Inspired by the stories Gardiner told, teenage Robbie and his brother decided to give it a try themselves.
“Me and my brother went to the gym,” he says. “He didn’t stick with it, but as soon as I hit the bag, it felt so natural. I said to myself ‘This is what I want to do.’”
The amateur career which followed was statistically unspectacular – “I didn’t even have 30 fights, and I didn’t win half of them” – but it included a trip to the 1986 Commonwealth Games and six appearances in the Welsh ABAs before Regan turned pro in 1989, with Gardiner in his corner.A brisk march to championship status ensued. He won the Welsh flyweight title in February 1991, in his seventh bout, and then the British belt three months later against Scotsman Joe Kelly. He would then lose and regain the Lonsdale honours before the year was out.
He dropped the title to Francis Ampofo after suffering a cut in a head clash. British rules at the time determined any unintentional injury that curtailed a contest resulted in a TKO, regardless of how it happened.
“Look, he was really strong, but there’s no way he’d ever beat me,” says Regan of Ampofo. They’d boxed once before, in March 1990 when both were one-fight novices, and Regan won a six-rounder on points in Bethnal Green. “My brother had just got married and I still had a hangover, but I still beat him on his own patch.”
The loss in the September 1991 rematch continues to rankle, almost 30 years later. “Ampofo should have been disqualified,” Regan insists. “He butted me four times in one round.
“Mickey Vann told me later he had me four rounds up but he was glad Ampofo won because he was a nice boy. Well, I’m a nice boy too!”Regan would set the record straight three months later, comfortably outscoring Ampofo in their rubber match to regain the title and set up a three-year unbeaten streak that would earn him the Lonsdale belt for keeps, a European championship to sit alongside it, and take him to his first world title shot – a June 1995 challenge to WBO 8st ruler Alberto Jimenez of Mexico.
All fighters dream of a world title opportunity, but Regan claims “it was the first time I went into a ring and didn’t want to be there”.
He says an injury hampered his preparations and two postponements snapped his momentum.
“Alberto was a great fighter, the absolute elite of the elite,” Regan says, “but I had an abscess in my hand and hadn’t sparred a round.
“I pulled out to let my hand heal, but it never healed properly. Then Alberto pulled out [when the bout was rescheduled] with flu. So [when the fight finally happened] I wasn’t physically or mentally right.
“He gave me a hiding for five rounds but I just got on with it. I had a brilliant seventh, then eight and nine were good for me too. His power was gone, he was flagging, then I was pulled out and to this day I still don’t know why.”
While marked up, Regan was not visibly hurt but was a long way down on all three cards with just three rounds to go. While he insists he still had a chance, Gardiner had saved him for another day.
That day – or, rather, a two-fight series which catapulted Regan to the top of the world – dawned six months later.
First, a powerhouse performance saw him run riot over undefeated Ferid Ben Jeddou. Regan bullied the Tunisian from the off, and then registered a shockingly violent second-round finish. A left hook slammed into Ben Jeddou’s face, and Ben Jeddou’s face slammed into the floor. It would be two minutes before he got up. “I thought he was dead on the canvas,” Regan recalls. “I had something to prove – that the guy who fought Alberto Jimenez wasn’t the real me. I’d been written off by a lot of people. I wanted to prove them wrong.”
The win earned him interim IBF flyweight honours, with full champion Danny Romero out of action with a damaged eye socket. Romero was one of the hottest properties in the lower weight divisions at the time, and Regan craved a fight with him, but it wasn’t to be.
“Romero wouldn’t fight me,” Regan claims. “He moved up [in weight] instead. So, as interim champion, I should have been made full champion [when Romero vacated]. Instead, the IBF wanted me to fight Mark ‘Too Sharp’ Johnson for the vacant belt. I’d have fought him but it should have been as defending champion, with 60 per cent of the purse.
“I dumped the IBF and [promoter] Frank Warren offered me [WBO champion] Daniel Jimenez at bantamweight. I should have gone up two years ago; I’d been killing myself, eating f***kall, just training to make weight.
“Jimenez had been over here before and he’d beaten brilliant opposition – Duke McKenzie, Alfred Kotey, Drew Docherty – but no way was I going to lose. This was my chance to show how good I was.”
He did just that, dropping Jimenez in the eighth round and roaring to a unanimous decision.
As cheers scored the soundtrack to his coronation, little did Regan know the next time he heard his name chanted, it would be marking his retirement.
“I sought second opinions,” he says of the MRI results. “I was cleared by [London neuroscience clinic] Harley Street. I could have gone to America. But I’d achieved my dream.” It would be hackneyed to finish the story by saying Regan has no regrets. It would also be untrue. Of course, he wanted to defend his title, to unify, to make more money. But these were beyond his control. What wasn’t beyond his control was his long battle with the booze, the 18 months in prison, and how he perceives he let down those who matter to him most.
“I sincerely apologise to the people I love,” he says. “Rachel, my kids, my fans… I love each and every one of them.”
And they love him too. More than that, they saved him. Yes, this is a love story, and yes, this love story is tinged with loss. But Regan is writing his own final chapter – and it may have a happy ending yet.