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.