Mike Lee is getting a lot of attention for his unusual background. But does he have what it takes to be a champion?
As soon as he could drive, Mike Lee would venture from suburban Wheaton, Illinois into tough South Chicago to train at local boxing gyms. Lee's father owns one of the nation's biggest sellers of barcode devices, and by all outward appearances Lee seems like someone who should be hanging out at a suburban mall. But he loved a boxing gym's atmosphere—the buzz of the three-minute bell, the whipping of the speed bags, the melody of the jump ropes, the acrid smell of sweat—and learning the boxing trade. Lee is quiet and thoughtful and, by his own description, shy. He was a popular kid—starred as a middle linebacker on his high school team—but to him, there was nothing like the culture of boxing. "There aren't a lot of kids from my background in boxing gyms," says Lee. He felt more at home among the working class, regarding many in his peer group as "phony."
After finishing high school at Benet Academy, a private prep school, he went to the University of Missouri for a year then transferred to Notre Dame University. While he was in South Bend, he became a local boxing legend as a three-time winner of the "Bengal Bouts", an intramural boxing tournament started by Knute Rockne, which now benefits the poor of Bangladesh. (To get a better sense of where the aid was going, Lee volunteered and worked at a Bangladeshi school one summer and also set up his own foundation there.) While attending Notre Dame, he constantly traveled back and forth to Chicago gyms.
After he graduated (3.8 GPA) with a finance degree, there were job offers from Wall Street. But Lee, who also won a 2009 Golden Gloves championship, felt he really hadn't accomplished much as a boxer, and he wanted to see how far he could go in the sport. While his friends were moving onto finance careers in Chicago and New York, he had dreams of being a boxing world champion. He sought out his father for advice. An intense man who looks like an Irish cop, his dad told him to go after his real passion. So Lee called Ronnie Shields, a noted trainer based in Houston, who told Lee that he would give him an honest assessment. Shields asked him when he would arrive at the gym and Lee said he would see him the following morning. Shields laughed, but Lee took the next plane out, and there he was in the morning, going through the toughest workout of his life, throwing up in a trashcan afterwards. Lee loved it. Shields saw some skill, a passion for learning the trade, and a lot of heart.
Lee is a boxing anomaly. First of all, he's white. But the pigment of his skin isn't as unusual as his education level and affluence. The accepted notion among most trainers is that the toughest fighters come from the toughest backgrounds. Boxing promoters also capitalize on race when they promote fighters: it is common practice to pit racial stereotypes against each other. (At a press conference I attended two weeks ago between the African-American Floyd Mayweather Jr. and the Mexican-American Victor Ortiz, much of the trashtalking dealt with Ortiz bragging about the warrior-like toughness of Mexicans, while Mayweather jokingly said Mexico is his favorite vacation getaway.) Boxers will play up ethnic differences during a fight's buildup because it helps to sell tickets. And Lee also realizes that he has been able to get so much attention and fight on the boxing cards of some of the biggest fights of the last two years because of boxing's version of affirmative action. Lee, it is joked, is the most famous 5-0 fighter in the world.
Lee, 24, is not regarded as championship material yet but he has been successful at gaining a following. Top Rank, considered the premier boxing promotional company, signed him and has used him as a front man to sell fights because of his unusual story. He also has a professional team behind him with his father, who is managing his career, and a personal publicist pushing his name to the Notre Dame faithful and the boxing press. In boxing, it often takes 20 professional fights to get a true sense of a boxer's skill level. "They are bringing him along slowly," as the saying goes, meaning Top Rank is pitting Lee against obviously weaker opponents to give him experience and exposure.
Lee, a 6'0" light heavyweight, has good power, but he will need to improve his boxing skills markedly if he wants to become a champion someday. "I know a lot of people see me as a fish out of water, but as soon as I get into the ring and prove myself, they see my tenacity...I am an aggressive kid. I love to fight. I do. I have never been accused of backing down. People see that. I definitely earn the respect in the gym." Lee says it will take him three or four years to get to a world-championship level. "I am still raw," he says.
Lee was in Los Angeles a few weeks ago to promote his next fight, against someone named Michael Birthmark (2-5), which will be held at the Home Depot Center on Saturday. At the press conference, Lee, dressed in a suit and tie, said a few words, including some respectful ones directed at Brandon Rios, a dynamic lightweight who has served jail time. Rios is the WBA World Lightweight title holder, and he will be fighting Urbano Antillon on Saturday in a much anticipated fight among the boxing cognoscenti. But Lee, on the undercard had the most vocally supportive group. Lee always has a cheering section that shows up at press conferences and his fights. They wear blue shirts with yellow lettering: MIKE LEE. They stand out because they look like a Midwestern church youth group. They often say things like, "Mike Lee is just a great guy."
After Lee said a few words at the press conference (he was the only member of the undercard asked to speak), he sat down. The presser quickly fell into chaos as Rios and Antillon started jabbering back and forth in an exchange of profanity-filled insults. Soon enough, Rios pretended to slash his own throat as a threat directed toward Antillon. As almost every sports has become corporatized, pre-game outbursts are tightly controlled. Athletes are trained to say as little as possible because large corporate sponsors don't want to be associated with such banal behavior. Mock throat-slashing doesn't play well on ESPN. Television executives and corporate sponsors want to give the impression that they are not only selling sports, but a value system.
Mike Lee sat on the dais, placidly watching the men square off. It would have been easy to think Lee was out of his element. He wasn't—unless you wanted to judge him by the color of his skin. "Both my parents grew up in the city under tough upbringings. My dad didn't even graduate high school. And that's how I was raised, not with a suburban vanilla outlook on life."
He continued, "I am very quiet and calm outside the ring. In the ring, seeing the cameras, the crowd, and just knowing that you are going to war with someone. I hope people underestimate me. I hope people think I am not tough. I hope they judge the book by its cover because they are going to figure out that it's not true. When I am in there, I feel like I am going to win, or I am going to get carried out."