By Oliver McManus @OliverGMcManus
Photos Sacha Weiner @SashShots
Life in Tonypandy is generally indifferent – the small town in Wales is perhaps best known for serving as half the inspiration for the location of Fireman Sam.
The Edwards family is a little bit unique, however. Rhys is the middle child of eleven, the son of a carpenter and a dedicated mother. Consider the fact the industrial borough has a population of under 4,000 and it becomes clear why they’re a familiar face within the Valleys. At 19 years of age, Rhys is carrying the family name forward with pride as he continues on his professional development as a boxer.
It all started a little over nine years ago, Edwards explained…
“It was just before my tenth birthday, my father boxed when he was younger and I started by copying him, really. If it wasn’t for him I’d have been playing football or rugby, my grandfather boxed in the Royal Marines so it’s definitely in the blood. It makes you want to do well so you can continue their hard work and it’s great to have their knowledge but, at the same time, you kind of think “I’m going to look stupid if I lose”. I had my first fight just before I was eleven and, obviously being a kid, I found myself quitting for a week, coming back for a week, it was on and off for about a year from then.
As it happens I lost 15 fights in the end, out of 64, I went to a World Championships and a Youth Commonwealth Games. Obviously it wasn’t nice but I didn’t feel stupid, a lot of it was when I was young, and those contests are a lot more evenly matched.
If you’re a bad fighter as an amateur you’ll fight people at that level, there’s no amatuer journeymen. When I was 17 I won my fourth Welsh title and that was when everything clicked, really, it gave me that confidence I was missing sometimes. I’d lose a close fight in the past, look back and realise if I was more confident I would have won it – it took a loss to make that snap in my mind.”
They promised the world and delivered nothing
A Welsh amateur champion by the age of 13, it was then that the youngster was showcased by Frank Warren in an open work-out at Queen Street, ahead of Nathan Cleverly’s fight with Sergey Kovalev. Four years later and thoughts of turning professional himself were rushing through Rhys’ head.
“After I won my first British title as an amateur, I was training with Gary Lockett and sparring Jay Harris, but I still planned on staying amateur. I was on the Welsh squad for about six months, I won my second British belt and I was on terrible money, they wouldn’t send us to the European’s or the Youth Olympics, they promised the world and delivered nothing. I was on about £60 a week, living in Cardiff through Monday to Thursday. So I just had conversations with Gary and Mo (Prior) and decided to get stuck into it.”
The teenager made his debut last November, at the famed York Hall, in front of a coach-full of support that arrived from Wales determined to make an occasion of it. Three subsequent fights, including a return to Bethnal Green, have moved Gary Lockett’s charge to four without defeat. “Easy wins”, he admits, but ones that have taught him invaluable lessons.
“I learned the most from my fight with Simas Volosinas and I battered him to begin with, if I’m honest, but then I started to gas because I was looking for the finish. That showed in my next fight (his latest, against Elvis Guillen), that was the best I’ve boxed.
My movement was exactly what I wanted and these fighters are there to make me look bad, that’s the way I see it, but I’ve not been roped into that, yet. I’m looking for six fights this year, it was originally eight, but I had a slight niggle in my arm so I want to be 10-0 by January and get past this type of opponent – let’s get a Welsh title around my waist.”
Edwards is under no illusions that he is still a growing man and told me he would react to those changes but was confident in his ability from super-bantamweight through to super-feather, his current weight class. I questioned whether with the springs of youth firmly on his side, he felt he was missing out.
It’s nuts what I’ve achieved even now
“Not at all, I’d be wasting my life if I wasn’t boxing. I’d be going out to parties, not knowing what I want to do, getting lost in one big circle. I was never bad at school, don’t get me wrong, but it just wasn’t me. Music was my best subject, I’m quite good at guitar and I can do a little bit of piano.
I like blues music and I still play it quite regularly, every other day probably. Like you say, Ollie, there’s a perception about life from where we’re from and that sort of life doesn’t suit me. I hope by sticking to what I’m doing, along with Alex (Hughes) and Liam Williams, that we can get people off the street and into the gym.”
As part of the burgeoning Gary Lockett gym, nicknamed ‘The Funhouse’, Edwards is able to draw inspiration from those around him. The success spilling out of Wales, at the moment, spurs the 19 year old on.
“I want to be British champion by the time I’m 21. That’s the first goal I’m setting for myself. It may sound stupid to some people, but I know I’ve got the ability to do it. That is when I’ll feel the benefit of having turned professional at 18, I’ll still be young but I’ll have plenty of experience. Not just in fights but sparring, I’ve sparred Craig Evans and Chris Jenkins and they’ve all provided me with rounds that completely change my approach.
I know that I’ve got the ability and I know that the people around me will make sure I achieve what I set out to. To be honest I always have to pinch myself, it’s nuts what I’ve achieved even now, because I’m still such a little kid – playing on the Xbox, going for a kickabout.”
That feeling of pride is caveated with a refusal to sit in admiration. After all, this is only the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg that Edwards is looking to conquer. Nothing more than a pit-stop on his way to bigger things. A real family, hard not to be when there’s thirteen of you,his motivation for glory is not simply self-satisfaction, though he admitted he has to be selfish, but through a desire “to set (his) family up for life”.
now I’ve turned pro I will never look back
Indeed it was when talking about his family that, quite inevitably, his tone lifted ever so slightly – beaming with pride.
“My younger brother, Iestyn, has got the world at his feet. He’s won the Welsh championships twice, he’s a great rugby player as well, a great musician. I hope he can wake up and take one of them seriously, even if it’s not boxing. I thought that when I turned professional it would have pushed him on even more, kick him into training properly, but there’s nothing worse than not taking the opportunity when you were good enough. Not because you can’t do it, not because you’re not good enough, but because you just can’t be bothered.”
The frustration within his voice was fairly evident and it wasn’t through built-up anger but simply because of a desire to see those around him fulfill their potential. Eager not to carve out regrets of his own, Edwards was philosophical in discussing his “head start” on the opposition.
“To be honest with you I had lots of people telling me, before I made the decision (to turn professional), “don’t do it”. They didn’t think I had my man strength, things like that, but now I’ve turned pro I will never look back. If I was on the that Welsh team I would have been on something like £260 a month and after the Commonwealth’s, after the Olympics, everyone is looking to turn pro. All of the standout amateurs will be knocking about around then but by that time I’ll be two, three years ahead of them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not avoiding them or anything like that, but I’ve made a smart move.
When they make their debut, I could be British champion. I’m one step ahead, I’m not cutting anyone down but look at what’s happened to Paddy Barnes and Anthony Fowler lately. That’s no disrespect to them but I’m finding out the hard truths of professional boxer already. I know it might not look like it, given my opponents, but in the long run it will all be clear.”