“People need to realize I have my whole life ahead of me,” said Lee. I don’t plan on being Bernard Hopkins and fighting when I am 47. I have one goal and that is to become a champ one day and everything else can wait.”
Lee grew up in Chicago as a lover of all things sports, playing them all and doing it with passion. But it wasn’t until age 15 that the lifelong boxing fan stepped into the Windy City Gym.
“I was always an athlete. I played a million different sports, all the way through high school, college. Football, basketball, baseball,” said Lee. “I got cut from my basketball team. I was never one to sit around. I was devastated. I was always just a real physical guy. In fact, I would get in fights on the field in hockey, even when I was little. I was throwing punches. I was real calm outside of sports but in them, I was aggressive. So my cousin and my dad brought me to a gym one day and I was like, ‘I love it.’ I was addicted right off the bat.”
Despite having just 16 amateur fights including a 2009 novice Golden Gloves title, when Lee talked about why he likes boxing, that indefinable thing that makes all fighters was evident.
“The adrenaline rush for me,” said Lee without hesitation. “When I step into the ring and there are cameras in my face, you look across and you are going one-on-one. You know you are going to war with someone and everyone is watching you. There is just something about it. I eat it up and I get this feeling that I want to go to war. Either you are born with it or you’re not. I just always had it. I get excited. I want to get hit and I want to hit back. I get excited just talking about it.”
After graduation, it was either turn pro or get a Joe job. Lee signed with Top Rank in January and contacted veteran trainer Ronnie Shields, who works out of the Savannah Gym in Houston, TX soon after. Right from the start, Lee showed Shields the kind of work ethic and drive that made him a straight-A student who was also the captain of his boxing team.
“Mike came to me; his father got my number through Shelly Finkel and they called me up and wanted to see if maybe I could work with him,” Shields told me at this week’s presser. “So I said, let’s see if we can work together. Normally, when I tell a guy to come down, they’ll say, ‘Give me a week or two.’ Mike said, ‘I will be there tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘Chicago,’ so I said, ‘OK, you get here tomorrow and we’ll start the next day.’ He said, ‘No, no. Let’s start tomorrow.’ So that impressed me.”
Lee does not strike me as a man who likes to leave anything to chance. He signed with a company in Top Rank who is excellent at developing young fighters. Their matchmakers Brad Goodman and Bruce Trampler are Hall of Fame caliber. Adding someone like Ronnie Shields to the mix was essential as well. Someone with that world-class experience is needed for Lee, who does not strike me either as a man who likes to come in second.
“I told him I was for real about it. I said, ‘I’d be honored if you’d train me,’” said Lee. “I remember him saying, ‘I only train guys that want to become world champions and train guys that I think can become world champions. I’m serious about this.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ He said, ‘When can you come down?’ I said ‘Tomorrow.’ He was a little shocked. I had never even been to Texas before. I told my dad and Top Rank and we flew down the next day.”
“Best decision I ever made,” Lee said, smiling. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Shields put Lee through his paces right off the bat and came away impressed.
“I told him, I said, ‘Look, I am going to put you through some workouts. It’s going to be hard but this is the way it will be every day. If you think you can hang with this- it’s hot in the gym- so I just want to see. He came; I put him through some hard workouts. I worked him out for two hours. He hung in there and impressed me. He told his father, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
“That goes along with your confidence,” said Lee of getting through the early trials and of his conditioning in general. “In this sport, the more confidence you have, the better fighter you are. And every single fight I’ve gone into, I’ve gone, ‘OK, I have the best team and I busted my ass in camp,’ to the point where I feel like I am going to pass out in some sessions. It gives me comfort stepping in that ring because you know what? Whatever happens happens. At least I can’t say, ‘Oh, man, I really should have run that day instead of sleeping in.’ No regrets.”
It’s hard to tell so early on in a career if a fighter’s power is real or if the people he is facing aren’t. Time will tell with Lee as he steps up from the Birthmarks of the world but there are signs his right hand is more real than imagined.
“I really knew I had power when…I started getting knockouts in the amateurs but I first came to Houston to train with Ronnie. I was sparring a guy, a cruiserweight,” said Lee. “He was about 205. I hit him with a straight right. It was my first sparring session there and I was all nervous. I wanted to impress Ronnie. And I dropped him with one shot. 16-ounce gloves on. I remember sort of being surprised at myself, like, ‘Damn.’ Ever since then, we have worked on my right hand. When it develops, I think it is going to be a big tool for me.”
There have been rumblings that this is just some big fluke-ish flight of fancy for Lee. Top Rank has had some oddities over the years for sure. Butterbean was their creation. Most recently, Baltimore Ravens safety Tommy Zbikowski has graced Top Rank cards as a heavyweight with hopes of a title someday. But when push comes to shove, “Tommy Z” will likely return to football. Lee is in this for the long haul.
“He is in a different class than ‘Tommy Z.’ ‘Tommy Z’ is a football player. He can only fight if they are on strike or if he is not playing football anymore,” said Shields. “Mike wants to be a professional fighter. The difference with Mike Lee is when he came to me, he came to me to learn how to fight. He moved to Houston. Mike don’t live in Chicago and then Houston. He lives in Houston, TX. He is fully committed to training in Houston and being a professional fighter.”
“The beauty of the sport is everyone can question it,” said Lee, “but I am fighting one person and that’s how I think of it. Saturday night, if this guy thinks that I don’t want to win a world title or I am not going to beat his ass and come for it, he’s in for a world of hurt. Anybody can say I don’t have as much motivation because of where I came from or whatever but when they see me fight they won’t question it.”
For now, there is the business with Birthmark to contend with. Lee is a tape watcher and has prepared a specific plan for his opponent.
“I think I am going to be a better fighter as I start fighting more rounds,” said Lee. “This is my last four-round fight. I think I am going to be a guy who can pick apart guys in the later rounds and use my intelligence to see guys’ tendencies. And so for tape, that is what I like to do. I like to see their tendencies and hopefully exploit them.”
“I want to wear a belt more than anything. I want to hold it above my head and then who knows? But that is what I dream about.”
All of this is to prepare for the ultimate goal. How far can he go? Time will tell and Shields feels that Lee has the intangibles to fight his way to a title.
“Just like any young fighter, that is the hope,” said Shields of a future title run, “that one day, he can be the champion of the world. Does he have the potential? Yes. He is learning every day. You gotta understand he only has 16 amateur fights. That’s not a lot. He was in the college system. Then after college, he fought in the Golden Gloves in Chicago and won that. So that is a big deal in itself that lets you know he has some skills. He’s an athlete. Football, baseball, basketball. He catches on real fast and he will try anything. He’s starting to put it all together.”
Beyond the ring, Lee is a socially conscious young man who has his eye on all aspects of the sport as well. He is helping to organize a charity event at Notre Dame for September 16 to benefit breast cancer research.
“We are having a fight September 16, the day before a home game vs. Michigan State,” Lee explained. “We are going to put the ring in the middle of the basketball arena. It holds 8-to-10,000 people. We will try to pack the house. Top Rank is going to have a whole pro card there. This is the first time in Notre Dame history they have ever had a pro fight on campus. So you have a few hundred-thousand people who are here for a football game. So after the pep rally on Friday night, we will bring them all over and put on a huge event. It’s going to exciting. Proceeds go to charity. We are looking to make at least a six-figure donation to various charities, one of which is a breast cancer charity. My grandmother died of breast cancer. It’s cool for me. I get to fight; it’s a homecoming and I get to give back. It’s awesome. It doesn’t get any better for me.”
You can email Gabriel at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.