ANDY LEE has retired from boxing and boxing, as a result, is today a little less human and a little more stupid than it was yesterday.
The retirement was announced by Lee on Off The Ball, an Irish radio station for whom he now works, and was every bit as low-key, classy and dignified as the man himself.
Blink and you’d miss it, there won’t be a press release, much less a press conference, nor will he force highlight videos of his finest moments upon us. He will instead leave as he arrived: quietly, humbly and gracefully, to nods of appreciation.
What’s more, such is Andy Lee’s intelligence, it is all but certain we won’t see him again.
“No, I don’t think so,” he assures Boxing News. “We’ve seen people make that mistake a million times. Better boxers than me. I know I won’t make that mistake. My family and my wife wouldn’t let me anyway. Everyone I talk to cares about me and is congratulating me, so they won’t let me go back.”
It’s a good day for Lee, and those who value his work and wellbeing, but a bad day for boxing. Like punches, you see, the absence of Andy Lee depletes the sport of brain cells and brings down its overall IQ. It is akin to Henry Fonda’s Juror 8 bailing on eleven angry men and leaving them – the impatient, ignorant and prejudiced – to convict a poor immigrant boy for a crime he didn’t commit. In short, Lee’s exit removes a strand of common sense and humanity from the room.
“Just a bloody good fighter,” is how the 33-year-old would like to be remembered. “I gave it everything I had. I was an honest fighter. I want to be remembered as an honest fighter. A fighter’s personality reflects in their boxing style, and if nothing else I was honest.”
Honest almost to a fault, I’ll tell you who Andy Lee was because Andy Lee won’t tell you himself.
Andy Lee was many things. He was an Irishman, a 2004 Olympian, a southpaw, a middleweight, a knockout artist, a WBO world champion, and a husband. Recently, he became a father. Above all else, though, Andy Lee was refreshingly and unapologetically human.
In a time when everyone else is quick to label themselves a beast or a machine or a danger, something more than human, Andy Lee embraced the fact he was human and didn’t perceive this, or his niceness, to be any sort of weakness. He took strength from it, in fact: this ability to knock middleweights the f**k out and – shock, horror – still be a decent human being before and after the event. Didn’t even have a nickname, let alone a clothing line, brand or alter ego.
Au naturel, he looked human and accepted his imperfections. When his pasty skin got hit, for example, it went red. When he got punched in the face, it registered. When he sparred, he’d start slow and you’d sometimes see inferior men get the better of him, and you’d worry.
Frankly, it never looked easy for Andy. He had to work for it; work for every small victory. His limbs were long and skinny, his stance dangerously wide, and his overall physique seemed achievable. You relate to guys like that. See yourself in them. But what you don’t do is assume they will become a world champion, nor imagine a scenario in which they leave a man unconscious on the floor.
Indeed, there was reticence and uncertainty throughout his career. “I don’t know what I can do with him,” Adam Booth told me in 2012, around the time Lee first approached him with a view to striking up a partnership. “Even though he has fought for a world title, there’s so much work to do.”
And yet, Lee, one for the big stage, would invariably show up when it mattered, make use of his ring smarts and savvy, and if he landed correctly, with either his right hook or left cross, he’d do more damage than men with biceps and thighs twice his size. Ask poor John Jackson who, to this day, pesters his father, the great Julian, to tell him what happened the night he chased a wounded Irishman around the ring inside Madison Square Garden and was seemingly about to finish him. Or perhaps ask Carl Daniels, knocked out by Lee in 2007, and the recipient of one of the finest lead right hooks a southpaw has ever thought to throw.
Andy Lee, of course, would boast about such moments if he was someone other than Andy Lee. But that was never his style. He had style, no doubt, but it was more pork pie hats, chinos, checked shirts and loafers than look-at-me-my-name-is-plastered-all-over-my-clothes-because-I-want-the-world-to-know-who-I-am.
He didn’t trash talk, either; didn’t use it as method of getting under an opponent’s skin or in the name of guerrilla marketing or new age promoting. He might have made even more money from the sport if he had, but money, for Lee, was never the primary motivation. He made enough to get what he wanted – a home in Dublin for his wife, Maud, and their baby daughter, Julia – and then, upon realising his earning potential was dwindling and big fights were now out of reach, decided to get out.
“I wasn’t beaten up badly in my last fight and then forced to retire,” Lee says. “It wasn’t like that. I always said I was open to offers and was open to being enticed back, but they never came.
“I wasn’t going to hang around forever. I’m 33 years old, I have a young family, and it’s the right time to walk away. The prospect of leaving my daughter and my wife to go away and train just doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I have responsibilities now, not just to myself.”
2012: No stranger to life on the road, Andy Lee moved into rented accommodation in Purley, Surrey, a two-minute drive from Adam Booth’s home, and shared the place with a number of housemates, none of whom he knew.
His personal space was a box-room consisting of a single-bed and a small table on which you’d find two tablet devices, an Apple Mac computer, a pair of white headphones and a Kindle in a black case. There was a television at the end of his bed and, between training sessions, he’d connect it to a tablet device and watch an American crime series (at the time it was Breaking Bad). There was also a half-eaten packet of rich tea biscuits, his favourites, on a shelf.
“There are two people in this place I still haven’t even seen yet,” he said. “We all come and go at different times and nobody likes to spend time together in the kitchen. Everyone keeps themselves to themselves and each room is like its own little house.
“Weirdly, there were no checks done on me when I showed an interest in taking a room here. I could be a serial killer for all they know.”
Lee wasn’t a serial killer, but was certainly a quiet man. Like the others, he shuffled through to the kitchen only when certain the coast was clear, and then, once alone, started to prepare his lunch without making a sound. That day it was pasta, tuna, olives and garlic in tomato sauce.
As he cooked, he heard a noise coming from the shower down the hallway. “Ask him his name, will you?” he said to me. “He told me once but I forgot it.”
A housemate soon entered the kitchen, put his tagliatelle in the microwave and introduced himself as Mark. “Bet you can’t remember my name, can you?” he said to Lee. “I remember yours. I knew we’d quickly forget names around here. We need name-tags.”
The strangers discussed recent rugby matches as Lee looked for a sieve and found one in Mark’s drawer. “Help yourself,” said Mark. In return, Lee pointed to his own drawer and said Mark was welcome to whatever he found inside.
“There’s still one person in here I haven’t met,” said Mark.
“There’s two I haven’t met,” said Andy.
“The one person I’m talking about always has their door shut. I don’t know whether to knock and introduce myself or leave them to it.”
“There’s almost a silent agreement in place where we use the kitchen at different times and make sure we don’t overlap. Then we go to our rooms, sleep and go to work the next day.”
Work meant a different thing to both men. For Mark it meant working in Braintree, Essex as an electrical engineer, whereas for Andy it meant finishing his meal, resting for a couple of hours and then travelling the five minutes it took to get to the boxing gym.
In 2014, he’d venture to Las Vegas, crush Matt Korobov in six rounds, and become a world middleweight champion. But Mark and the rest would never have guessed.
Honesty and humility. That’s why. Andy Lee was a human being first and a boxer only if you asked.
“Winning the world title was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” he says. “It wasn’t even a feeling of elation or jumping for joy. It was just a culmination of a life’s work. It was very satisfying to finally reach that goal and realise my dream.
“I went to Las Vegas as a six-to-one underdog against a highly-touted fighter who was once the best amateur in the world. To beat him in six rounds was fantastic.
“Also, with Marie, Emanuel Steward’s wife, there, and with Adam there, it felt so right. Adam loved watching all those great fights in Vegas between the likes of Thomas Hearns and Ray Leonard. The whole night just felt special. I had a brilliant time.”
2013: Ahead of what was his first fight under the tutelage of Adam Booth, he joined his new trainer in the middle of a changing room inside Belfast’s Odyssey Arena and held out both his hands. It was coming up to half past seven. Booth turned to Roger, Andy Lee’s younger brother, and flashed a smile.
“I always bandage standing up,” he told Roger, perhaps detecting his concern, perhaps simply wanting to explain every step of what was a new process.
“Why is that?” asked Roger, interested rather than sceptical.
“Because I bandage while standing in the gym and I try to replicate everything we do in the gym on the night of a fight. That way it seems normal, you know, part of the same routine. I’ve always believed that what you do here should be near enough the same as what you do in the gym.”
“That’s interesting,” replied Roger. “Manny used to always do it sitting down.”
“I know,” said Adam. “A lot of coaches do it that way.”
Lee, the fighter, humbled himself. Never once so much as questioned it.
“There were a lot of downs along the way,” he says today. “A lot of obstacles and disappointment, inside the ring and outside the ring. It wasn’t smooth sailing to say the least.
“There were quite a few times when I would have been justified quitting the sport. I was getting demoralised and thinking about walking away. But I didn’t. I stuck with it.
“Teaming up with Adam was one of the best things to happen to me and my career. Being with Emanuel was great and invaluable, of course; being with him and living with him is an experience no one else will ever have; to be so close to him for that amount of time was beyond my wildest dreams. But Adam just refocused everything. He’s a very clear-thinking guy and he was the perfect person to guide my career. It was definitely a good move for me.”
2012: Days before Andy Lee’s WBC world middleweight title fight with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, his trainer, Emanuel Steward, offered perhaps the greatest testimony his pupil could ever hope to receive.
“I’ve never been this close to any fighter, including Tommy Hearns,” Steward said. “It’s more personal with Andy. It’s like I’ve been raising him for this moment. None of the others (achievements) even come close if Andy can do this.”
This wasn’t said for motivational purposes, nor because Lee lived under Steward’s roof. It wasn’t said because Lee was Steward’s greatest fighter or even his most marketable. Instead, he said what he said because Steward, like anyone who came into contact with man from Limerick, realised this: Andy Lee was different to the rest. He was better than the rest. More honest than the rest.
Still, words weren’t enough. On June 16 in El Paso, Texas, Lee lost to Chavez Jr in seven rounds.
“I think every day about the fights I lost and how I could have prepared different and fought differently,” Lee says now. “But I’m walking away from boxing with my health intact and I’ve still got my good looks – just about.” He laughs. “What more can you ask for? I don’t have to worry about money. I’m very lucky.”
Four months after the Chavez defeat, the boxing world lost Emanuel Steward to colon cancer.
This led to Lee, Steward’s favourite boxer, relocating to London. He brought with him some of what he’d learned from the Kronk legend. He brought the red and gold: the T-shirts, the boots, the robe, the bag. He brought manners. He brought his southpaw skills and his people skills. The former paid the bills, while the latter endeared him to all and eventually persuaded Booth, initially hesitant, to fill the void and agree to take him under his wing. “He’s the ultimate gentleman,” the coach said. “How could I not train him?”
Booth did it for Steward and he did it for Lee, too, someone who, in time, would seduce his new coach the way he seduced his old one; seduce him to such an extent that he forgot all previous flings and love affairs.
Booth would never say Lee was the best fighter he trained, or the most gifted, but he would often say his achievements, of which there were plenty, meant more to him than anyone else’s. “It feels more personal,” he would say, “because Andy is just such a nice fella.”
Manny, if still around today, would nod his approval. “See?” he’d say. “I told you Andy was different.”
2016: With a dollop of Vaseline in hand, his fingers ran over his forehead and his nose and his cheeks and his chin and then worked their way back over the same terrain to ensure no spot was missed.
He next made a fist, a boxer’s default setting, and rubbed that fist along the hard edges, pushed it in deep, all the way, and inevitably left a red mark on Irish white flesh.
Pressed rather than caressed, his face was a child’s face grabbed by the hands of an uncle. It was also a face that would soon be punched for the first time in 13 months.
Thirteen months, the time that had elapsed since losing his WBO world middleweight title to Billy Joe Saunders, had turned Andy Lee soft. He knew it, accepted it. The next morning, the day after sparring, he’d wake up and remember what it meant to take time off. He’d describe it as soreness.
“Your face is not conditioned to be punched, so you’ve got to condition it,” he said. “If you haven’t played football for a long time and you head a ball, the next day your head will hurt. It’s the same for a boxer after a layoff. Your skin becomes soft.”
To kick-start preparations for his next fight, his last, he sat on a bench beside his brother, Roger, and tied his boots. While doing so, he watched two young boxers spar. The action was frantic, these were smaller boxers, kids in the throes of a sugar rush, and Lee observed it all as if he were a proud but weary father reminiscing about the time he used to be like that.
He was up next, and a move to the other side of the ring, towards a different bench, sparked the process of wrapping hands. He did this alone.
Once he’d finished, he took a bundle of surplus tape, tossed it in a large black bin and rolled his eyes in a manner which could only be interpreted as here-we-go-again.
Summoned to the ring, Lee said, in his best Italian-American accent, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”
In that moment, he sounded like Al Pacino but looked like a Sunday league footballer, once quite the player, encouraged to warm up ahead of a second half appearance. Reluctant, he had a final drag on a cigarette, performed a couple of half-hearted star jumps, did some keepie-ups, cocked a leg to pass wind, and then took a deep breath. Here we go. Right left, left leg.
It was then I knew retirement wasn’t far away.
Now, almost a year later, it’s official. He’s out.
“It’s a good feeling, and it’s just sinking in,” Lee says.
“It feels a little sad to say goodbye to a major part of my life. It has been my life. It has defined me and who I am. So it will take some time.
“But overall I am very happy with what I achieved and what I leave the sport with in terms of the fights I had and the life I had. I can’t complain. The plan was to win a world title and then, once you achieve that, you want to secure your future. I’ve done both of those things. And I’m one of the few people in the world who can say they have lived their dream.”
Andy Lee, 35-3-1 (24), didn’t just live the dream. For anyone fortunate enough to be in his presence, he was the dream.