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Andy Lee Looking to Make Waves Under Emanuel’s Stewardship

By Eoin Redahan

 Whatever happened to Adie Mike?

 Some well-worn British and Irish football fans might remember him as a Premier League sticker from the 1994/95 album (the one with a foppish Ryan Giggs on the front). He was on the “Rising Star” page and was supposed to be Manchester City’s next big thing.

 That was 15 years ago. In the interim, he has played for a total of 16 league and non-league clubs, including the less-than-eminent Leek (not just a vegetable), Hednesford, Droylsden, and a Swedish club called Linkoping. By 2003, (the last available statistics) the forward had scored a total of 28 career goals. He is now a registered personal trainer.

 It would be fair to say that Mike never fulfilled his potential; but, for every luminary in every sport, there are a thousand Adie Mikes. Sporting limbo is littered with faded promise and tattered dreams.

 Irish prospect Andy Lee is unlikely to fade into obscurity any time soon, but the Limerick-born middleweight is in his own sporting limbo at the moment. He is possibly only two impressive wins away from a world title challenge; yet, he is the same number of defeats away from relative anonymity.

This precarious position not what was expected of Lee. In recent years, Larry Merchant talked up the prospect and ESPN expounded his virtuoso talents (Lee featured as one of its top prospects for 2007). Even more strikingly, his trainer Emanuel Steward has continually talked up his pupil’s future. He predicted that that Lee would be a Hall of Fame fighter back in 2006 and still ascertains that he will be a world champion.

The expectation appeared well founded. Lee had an impressive grounding as an amateur. He was world junior silver medalist and had become amateur Irish middleweight champion by the age of 18. After representing his country at the Olympic Games in 2004, he made an impressive start to his professional career, under the tutelage of the revered Steward at the Kronk gym in Detroit.

On paper, the young Lee seemed to have all the attributes of a champion. He was a tall (6’2”), rangy southpaw with an excellent jab that was difficult to get inside. In addition, he contained knockout power in both hands, and had an excellent repertoire of punches, which seemed to befuddle many of his early opponents. As a young fighter with an exciting style and decent fan bases in the U.S. and Ireland, Lee was also very marketable. Then along came Brian Vera in Lee’s 15th fight, in March ‘08.

Despite Vera’s respectable 15-1 record, Lee was expected to win comfortably. Nevertheless, Vera gradually exposed a weakness in Lee’s armoury: fighting on the inside. His come-forward aggression paid off, and the referee called a halt to proceedings in the seventh round after Lee sustained a series of clubbing shots.

As former four-weight Irish champion Jim Rock said: “On his night, a good fighter can have a bad night, and a mediocre fighter can fight out of his skin.” Unfortunately for Lee, that is precisely what happened; however, since the Vera fight, he hasn’t looked at his brutal best. Lee has fought five times since his solitary defeat but has failed to box with the same authority.

Part of this could be attributed Steward’s choice of opponent. After his grueling 10th round stoppage win over Willie Gibbs in July, Steward mentioned that he didn’t feel the need to take Lee’s caliber of opponent down a notch, stating that, “There’s no use putting him in against second-class fighters. He’s already on the top level.” Indeed, his last choice of opponent – the durable European Union champion Affif Belghecham, would appear to bear testament to this approach.

Lee may have maintained, and beaten, a decent level of opposition in recent fights, but there have been weaknesses in his performances. While Rock has a lot of respect for Lee’s “exceptional” ability, if he were to fight one of Ireland’s three middleweight contenders, (the others being Matthew Macklin and John Duddy), he would select Lee.

He explained that, “As we’ve seen with a few of his fights; he doesn’t like being under pressure…. My angle to beat Andy Lee would be to keep him under pressure with fitness and relentlessness.” That said, Rock did mention that, “Lee has the most skill out of all of the middleweights in Ireland.”

Conversely, if Mick Dowling, former nine-time Irish amateur bantamweight champion and boxing analyst, were drawn into choosing a hypothetical winner from among the triumvirate, he would probably go for Lee:

I think Macklin or Duddy’s style might well suit Andy in a way, in that they’re considerably smaller in stature. Andy is taller; he is a good southpaw and a good mover with a good reach;” however, Dowling did mention that any match-ups would be too close to call, and that each boxer would trouble the other: “Duddy and Macklin are well able to let it rip inside. They would have to get close to Andy before they could let it rip, but if you’re boxing over 10 rounds, sooner or later you’re going to narrow it down and get close.”

Dowling was complimentary of Lee’s technical ability, though (like Duddy) he would like to see the ruthless streak return to his boxing: “Andy has a lot of skills and all that, [but] I would like to see a lot more ruthlessness in him, a lot more killer instinct.”

It is also not implausible to suggest that Lee has suffered from steep expectations. Not only do his fans on either side of the Atlantic expect him to win every bout, the many plaudits from within the boxing world bring their own burdensome pressure. Rock mentioned that the eulogies and predictions from prominent boxing figures have an upside and a downside:

It’s great when people talk you up like that. The feel-good factor alone must be great for Andy. The other side of it is that it puts a lot of pressure on Andy to perform all the time.”

Despite his fluctuating form, the future looks promising for Lee. The attributes that cast him into the spotlight haven’t dwindled. At 25, he will only get stronger, and he doesn’t appear to have difficulty making the 160 lb limit. The school of hard knocks at the Kronk gym with hard sparring against top-class opponents can only be good for Lee.

He is also in the right stable. Steward is well versed in coaxing fighters from the depths of adversity after knockout defeats. Under his tutelage, the previously vulnerable Wladimir Klitschko has gone unbeaten since 2004. Similarly, Steward helped Lennox Lewis become the finest heavyweight of his generation after a knockout defeat to Oliver McCall in 1994. The list goes on.

No opponent has been mentioned for Lee as yet, but 2010 should see a continued hike in his standard of opposition. Dowling is hopeful about the Limerick southpaw’s future: “If Andy gets his confidence back, he could be the one to make the splash, but he really needs some good, tough sparring, [so] that he proves to himself, not to us, that he can take a shot and mix it with any of them…. Then, perhaps if he gets a fight or two that are like that and he comes through them with flying colors; then he might be the one to really do it.”

In the press conference before the Belghecham fight in November, Lee was philosophical about the fluctuating nature of boxers’ careers: “It comes and goes. You’re only as hot as your last fight…. Sixteen months ago, Matthew Macklin was considered third between John Duddy and myself, and now he’s probably [ranked] first. So, it comes and goes.”

 It does come and go. Just ask Adie Mike.

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