Mike Lee is rewriting his boxing mythology on his own terms
Mike Lee will fight Chris Traietti for the USBA light heavyweight title this Friday at the UIC Forum in Chicago, Illinois (9:00 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network). Should he win, Lee will earn a top-15 world ranking, and as he prepares for the biggest fight of his career, Lee is rewriting the narrative of his career.
If you read any story about light heavyweight contender Mike Lee, the same compelling details are always regurgitated: Notre Dame graduate; a 3.8 grade point average from the Mendoza College of Business; Wall Street job offers; and Subway spokesmen. These are all facts, but they are only part of Mike Lee’s story.
Boxing promoters are a calculating bunch, and the ability to sell a fighter to the public is often a shrewd enterprise. Some boxers naturally resonate with a broad audience, while others languish in obscurity despite obvious in-ring talent. Because of this, novelty, and the potential to exploit it, is given disproportionate value in assessing a fighter’s worth.
When he turned professional in 2010 after an amateur career that included winning Notre Dame’s Bengal Bouts three consecutive times and claiming a Chicago Golden Gloves title, Mike Lee (17-0, 10 KOs) — largely because of his atypical background and before he’d fought a sanctioned, paid round — was eagerly saddled with inordinate expectations.
But to assume that Mike Lee is merely a product of hype and a fighter who has enjoyed the unearned spoils of success is a fallacy that ignores two crucial factors: Lee’s ability to reflect on the unusual circumstances of his early pro career and his genuine passion for a sport that so starkly exposes half-hearted or entitled participants.
“I felt that pressure,” Lee said when discussing the expectations he had to shoulder early on. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But I always felt that I was the kind of athlete that enjoyed it. I love the pressure because it made me train harder, and I love being on big stages. And I think that the one thing that really prepared me for it are these big fights.”
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Few boxers with Mike Lee’s experience are given the opportunity to fight at Madison Square Garden on a Miguel Cotto undercard, or at the ostentatious home of the Dallas Cowboys with Manny Pacquiao headlining. And it’s not as if Lee was a mere footnote at these marquee events; he received mainstream media attention, with then-promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank Inc. diligently selling Lee’s backstory, earning his fighter plenty of ink with mega outlets like ESPN and that national Subway ad campaign, which even aired during the Super Bowl.
A funny thing happened, though. Mike Lee never developed a sense of entitlement. Fighting at historic arenas and stadiums in front of tens of thousands in support of the world’s most marquee fighters was something Lee never took for granted or even came to expect. Although Lee had broken into the mainstream — which even boxing’s best known superstars rarely do — he ultimately found the benefits of that to be pragmatically grounded in boxing, not some ephemeral celebrity status.
“I think it’s very rare for a fighter coming up to get that type of exposure, and so it’s a double-edged sword so to speak,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of expectations that come with that, but also I got to learn the very valuable experience of fighting in front of lots of people, fighting in front of a national audience – cameras, lights – and, you know, a lot of people can’t fight under those conditions. You see a lot of guys that do well in their hometowns, that do well off-TV or in the gym, but when it comes to fight night they freeze up.”
Lee confidently asserts that no stage makes him nervous after what he’s already experienced, which means that the stakes of his upcoming title fight haven’t altered his preparation or mindset in the slightest. Lee has fought under the bright lights of HBO and ESPN, and he’s headlined a pressure-laden card at his alma mater — situations a fighter cannot actually prepare for. “You’ve either done it, or you haven’t done it,” Lee said.
But what about that Subway ad? Or his sterling boxing and academic record at Notre Dame? These are aspects of Lee’s story that have been used to define him and frame his every move as a fighter, so you can sense an almost palpable sense of relief when he’s finally given the chance critically assess his own narrative.
“I think that that is part of my story, but I don’t think that’s the entire story,” Lee said. “You know, I first and foremost want to become a world champion. That’s number one. And also, yes, I do have this finance background and I had, so to speak, ‘other options,’ as people like to say. In terms of finance, this is something that I excelled at, it’s something that I loved, and I think if anything it shows my passion for the sport.”
Indeed, those eager to jump to conclusions can use Mike Lee’s intellect and relative affluence as a lens through which to question the substance of his boxing career — an assumption that mistakenly dismisses his commitment to the sport, which is genuine and profound regardless of how you feel about Lee’s prospects of becoming a world champion. What Lee also hopes for is that more outsiders can focus on his actual boxing as opposed to the extracurriculars that have taken center stage. Notre Dame, after all, was a completely different chapter of the now-29-year-old Lee’s life — “a long time ago.”
For this shift to take hold, though, winning and stepping up his level of opposition is essential, but that’s precisely the way Lee wants it. For a fighter who on the surface appears to have been given so much, the yearning to earn respect and earn a world title resonate as authentic.
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The inherent challenges of boxing, which are what drew Lee to the sport in the first place, are what engender the greatest sense of enthusiasm in a fighter people never fail to mention could “easily” walk away at any time. But for Lee, the way boxing forces self-reliance is a challenge he has yet to encounter anywhere else. He also spoke of how he relishes that feeling of being able to jump up on the ring ropes in celebration after scoring a knockout with such unfettered abandon precisely because it’s the ultimate climax of personal accomplishment, with so much of the groundwork having been laid in gruelling, private gym session with no fanfare. And this thrill is only enhanced each time Lee fights.
“If anything, it [boxing] brought out an adrenaline rush that I was seeking. I always excelled in different sports, but there’s nothing like boxing to me where it’s one-on-one. There’s no excuses, there’s no timeouts.”
To know any fighter is to get a clear glimpse at what goes on behind closed doors — when the celebration of victory or agony of a defeat has passed and all that’s staring back at them is the road to their next fight. Surface narratives have defined Mike Lee for too long, to the point where it’s easy to overlook an intriguing aspect of his glitzy early career: the fact that he cut no corners in punishing, humbling gym work.
When he turned pro, Lee moved to Houston, Texas, to trained with Ronnie Shields, one of the most respected teachers in the sport. At the time, Lee was in the process of shopping around at different renowned gyms, and it was the culmination of his workout with Shields that left no doubt as to what Lee needed to do. Lee finished the most gruelling training session of his life and stepped outside the gym; then, he threw up. “This is the guy,” Lee recalled saying to his father.
Although Lee no longer works with a Shields — an amicable split due to Lee relocating — they remain close, and he remembers his time in Houston fondly.
With Shields, Lee’s learning curve was in fast-forward. The Houston stable then consisted of Jermell and Jermall Charlo, Erislandy Lara, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Edwin Rodriguez and Kermit Cintron — elite champions or legitimate prospects and contenders across the board. Lee shared the ring with them and soaked up the experience. There were days where Lee excelled, and plenty of instances where he got his “ass kicked.” But if he was ever targeted based on surface assumptions, he now only sees value in having to wade through that gauntlet to prove himself.
“Especially once the Subway commercials came out, you know, you had a lot of people that were in my camp that supported me, but then obviously you’re in the gym and you’re sparring and you get into wars – you’ve got to prove yourself,” Lee said. “And I wasn’t going to turn down these amazing opportunities that I had outside of the ring, and I don’t think anybody would, but obviously you get doubters, or haters or people who want to test you. And I’m glad it happened.”
Anyone still questioning Mike Lee’s commitment or character need not look further than his experience with Notre Dame’s Bengal Bouts, even if his three consecutive victories at this historic competition are usually brought up without exploring the deeper impact this entire process had on his life.
Legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne started the Bengal Bouts in 1920 with the noble principle that “strong bodies fight, that weak bodies may be nourished.” In concert with The Congregation of Holy Cross, the Bengal Bouts raise money to help combat poverty in Bangladesh, while also focusing on building primary and technical schools, as well as healthcare clinics. During Lee’s senior year at Notre Dame, the charity mission raised over $100,000.
But that wasn’t enough. Lee felt compelled to travel to Bangladesh for approximately two weeks to aid with work on the ground. In his time there, Lee helped build schools, and he also taught English and Mathematics. The experience instilled in Lee a profound sense of gratitude that would carry over into other philanthropic work and Lee donating his entire fight purse to charity on multiple occasions.
“Bangladesh opened my eyes,” Lee said. “Everybody has tough situations and tough things in life, but to go to a third world country like that and see people that are really struggling for simple necessities that we take for granted – it opened my eyes, it made me extremely grateful, and it made me, I think, a more charitable person.”
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That sense of perspective helped Mike Lee pull through a rash of injuries that kept him sidelined from September 2012 until April 2014 — an arduous stretch that forced him to seriously question whether he would be able to box again. All of a sudden, the fighter who had had such an enviable beginning in so brutal a sport appeared to have succumbed to a bulging disk in his lower back and headaches from Invisalign braces. A cynic may have said that Lee was simply beginning the inevitable process of fading away.
Lee, however, recovered, and although he couldn’t come to terms on a new contract with Top Rank after the 11-0 start to his pro career, his split with one of boxing’s most powerful promotional outfits — like his parting with Ronnie Shields — was conducted with class. Acknowledging that he was also dealing with some familial issues at the time, Lee had wondered internally whether he had a future in the sport. The fact that he did and was able to essentially start afresh proved to be a blessing.
Suddenly, the novelty of the Subway ads had worn off, and writing about Lee solely through the lens of Notre Dame and his finance background rang hollow. Lee, who now works with trainer Jamal Abdullah, could exclusively focus on gaining more experience to complement his natural strength, speed and power. Lee praises Abdullah as a “teacher” and someone who shares his analytical approach to training and dissecting his craft.
With maturity comes perspective. A self-described Type A personality, Lee admits to being inordinately hard on himself and somewhat obsessed with achievement and personal betterment. While these can certainly be admirable qualities, Lee admits that he needs people surrounding him who can help him dial things back. The ability to reflect and be self-critical has prompted Lee to incorporate hot yoga and daily meditation into his regime, which initially seemed unthinkable. “My eyes are open to tons of different alternatives,” Lee said.
Perhaps being forced onto the proverbial fast-track as a young pro has enabled Mike Lee to relish the value in slowing down. It’s certainly something that has benefited him from a boxing standpoint — a sport that he now clearly understands is chess, not checkers.
“What I see in these elite fighters, and what I want to become, is someone who can literally round by round break somebody down – not just physically, but mentally,” Lee said.
If anything about Mike Lee should surprise you, it has nothing to do with Notre Dame, Wall Street or grade point averages. Boxing is his life — it’s encompassing, and his approach to the sport is analytical and rigorous, yet undeniable rooted in an almost pure enthusiasm. Anyone reading this will likely say, “But now he needs to prove he actually has what it takes in the ring” — to which Lee would surely reply, “Finally.”
Lee is used scrutiny; he even relishes it. Media attention does not phase him, nor does fighting for a professional title in his home state. He won’t deny the implications of his bout against Chris Traietti are more significant than any he’s ever faced, but he also won’t get swept up in anything other than the fight itself.
“I’m so excited to be fighting for this belt,” Lee said, implicitly reinforcing what has always mattered most to him. “I can’t even tell you. This is a really big deal for me.”