Mike Lee embarks on defining 2017 campaign

Mike Lee starts what could be a defining 2017 campaign against Justin Thomas on Feb. 16.

Boxing’s current landscape is littered with both major and minor titles to the point where fans can easily go cross-eyed trying to make sense of a belt’s significance. But don’t tell that to Mike Lee (18-0, 10 KOs), who claimed the USBA strap at 175 pound in his last outing against the rugged and hard-hitting Chris Traietti (22-4, 18 KOs) and is now firmly entrenched in the IBF and WBO’s echelons of top contenders.

For Lee, a cerebral, charismatic athlete, the legitimacy that this victory represents is yet another crucial step in transcending a past — Notre Dame finance degree, Super Bowl Subway ad spokesperson — that has both blessed and dogged him. Now, as he embarks on the most crucial year of his professional career as a prizefighter, the conversation around Mike Lee has shifted.

And make no mistake, that USBA title has played a crucial role.

“It’s a symbol of all the hard work I put in,” Lee said. “It’s a symbol of days like today where I sparred eight rounds, and I’m sore, and no one’s there to see it. There’s no cameras; there’s no one there; there’s no glory in it. But it’s those kinds of moments that are really cool because I’m like, man, maybe what I’m doing is right – maybe what I’m doing is really something special.”

Specifically, Lee recounts an anecdote following the Traietti fight where he found himself in line at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and was recognized by a couple of TSA agents who were checking his luggage. Their palpable excitement at opening up the case containing Lee’s title belt and being able to hold it up reminded the undefeated contender that the strap itself doesn’t only represent the Traietti fight; rather, it’s a culmination of all he’s been through and hopes to become.

In the Traietti bout, Lee pitched a virtual shutout, including a second-round knockdown of his opponent. With the victory came added maturity, as well as the experience of being extended 10 rounds for the first time as a pro. Admitting that he could have scored a late stoppage, Lee is nevertheless grateful for the rounds and feels confident he showed that he belongs in the upper tier of contenders at light heavyweight.

“It was my first 10-rounder, so I know mentally now that I felt good,” Lee said. “You can see that my punch output was great in eight, nine and ten. And I wanted to get those rounds in.”

Although Lee was able to have full conversations with trainer Jamal Abdullah in-between rounds late in the fight, which Lee jokes was like banter between two bar patrons, he remains the same analytical and self-critical assessor of his performances. “I wanted to work better on the inside — my inside game,” Lee said. “Watching the fight now, there were times when I could have put a few different combinations together.”

Specifically, Lee mentioned the constant need to create angles to land volleys of punches. In other words, punching while moving to establish new avenues of attack in order to keep his opponent off-balance. Lee found he had some success with this against Traietti, particularly later in the bout, and it’s an aspect of his craft that he’ll continue to hone at his training camp in California.

“I wish I had done that more, and now I kind of know when I’m in there what to look for in getting these angles,” Lee said. “I don’t want to be a guy who sits there in the middle and just bangs it out — ‘you punch, I punch.’ I want to be an elusive fighter. I saw moments of that in the fight that I liked. I’d just like to have more moments of that.”

Ideally, Mike Lee will fight four times in 2017, and he’ll take his first step towards closing in on a world title shot when he faces Justin Thomas (18-1, 7 KOs), who has won six consecutive bouts after suffering his lone defeat to date. Thomas is exactly the kind of foe Lee needs to build on the momentum generated from the Traietti win: a solid fighter with a winning record who Lee ought to shine against, because far greater challenges loom.

A convincing victory over Thomas (7:00 p.m. via live stream on the FIGHT CLUB OC website) could propel Lee into appealing match-ups against, say, Sean Monaghan, which is exactly the kind of mid-level contender fight he needs to win in order to secure a top-five ranking. Should Lee prevail as expected against Thomas, Monaghan-type bouts are next, and that trajectory fits perfectly into Lee’s 2017 goals: to end the year 22-0 and be firmly in the conversation for a major title shot. The plan is pragmatic, and Lee asserts that he can clearly visualize it unfolding.

At 29, Mike Lee concedes that he isn’t “young” in boxing terms any more, but rather that he’s in his athletic prime and in a sweet spot to make a strong push at 175 pounds. After a rash of injuries derailed his career and sidelined him for all of 2013, Lee has adopted meditation, yoga and now acupuncture into his training regime. It’s all been part of another facet of Lee’s development: open-mindedness to methods of personal and athletic growth his admittedly Type A personality would have dismissed in the past.

When speaking to Lee, the man who rejected Wall Street job offers to box, he always exudes genuine passion for a sport typically taken up due to necessity rather than choice. It’s why he relishes the chance to fight increasingly difficult opponents on the road and do whatever it takes it achieve his goals.

“It’s the beauty of the sport, right? It’s one-on-one, and when the bell rings, you don’t have to worry,” Lee said. “The crowd can be there, but it’s up to me. That’s what I love about boxing. If I have to go to someone’s backyard and whup some ass, it doesn’t matter to me.”

It will likely come to that for Mike Lee in 2017, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. If winning the USBA title was imbued with both literal and symbolic significance for the burgeoning contender, the promise of building on that, of solely staring down challenges that will elevate him, will lead to a new stage in his evolution as a prizefighter — a stage that Lee already knows how to define.

“If I fought myself a year ago, I’d knocked myself out. And I want to say that exact same thing a year from now.”

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