ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED January 25, 2008
ANDY LEE and I were both born in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel. As Andy is good-looking, funny, charming and an incredibly gifted fighter, you could say the similarities end there.
Lee is a patriotic Irishman but spent the first 14 years of his life living in old London town. Andy’s family came from Ireland to set up home in Bow, close to where I grew up in Stepney.
Andy’s best memories of the capital all involve his first boxing club, Bethnal Green’s famous Repton, where older brothers Tommy and Ned boxed.
“I followed them and loved it,” says the articulate southpaw. “From when I was a kid, they used to put gloves on me and teach me to shadow-box.”
Andy was a natural, going on to claim two national Schoolboy crowns, in 1998 and, despite Andy’s family moving back home later that year, 1999.
“We always saw ourselves as Irish,” Andy explains. “You’re more patriotic when you’re away from it. We moved to Castleconnell, six miles out of Limerick.
“It was like starting all over again, leaving my friends. I hated it at first. It was a big culture shock too. There’s a massive difference between London and a rural village in Ireland.”
Two factors aided Andy’s adjustment. First, he quit school (“I was never a scholar, it was great to leave”) and started to work with dad Tom as a landscape gardener. Then Andy joined Limerick’s St Francis ABC. “The hard physical work [gardening] made me strong,” says Lee. “But it convinced me that I didn’t want to do it my whole life – that motivated me in boxing.
“Dad was great – he’d get back from work, have a cup of tea and a sandwich, then take us to the club. Every night.”
While Tommy, Ned (a quality amateur) and younger brother Roger fell away from the sport, Andy stuck with it, although did once have doubts.
“There was a stage at St Francis where I wasn’t learning anymore and was becoming disillusioned. Then Shane Daley, a young, hungry new coach, came in. It got better after that and they had more time for me. Without Shane Daley, who knows what might have happened?”
Lee improved further, reaching the national junior finals at 16 before his breakthrough year in 2002. Andy took light-middle silver at the World Juniors, beating touted American Jesus Gonzales in the semis.
He went on to win three Irish national titles, a European bronze in 2004, outpointing Darren Barker along the way, and then represented Ireland at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He defeated a Mexican in his first bout, then lost to a Cameroonian on countback in the last 16.
“Representing Ireland in the Olympics was amazing,” says Andy. “It’s still my greatest amateur achievement.”
It was the World Juniors, however, that brought the Limerick man to the attention of legendary trainer and manager Emanuel Steward.
“Jesus Gonzales was the No. 1 across the weights in America at that time,” says Manny. “And they said he’d lost to a tall, left-handed kid from Ireland. I had to know who he was.”
After the Olympics, Manny offered Lee a contract, but had never seen him box.
Manny explains: “I figured if he could beat Cubans and go to the Olympics coming from a small country like Ireland, there must be some talent there.
“I had seen him in the gym. The first time he’d flown from Ireland to Chicago, then to Detroit, and he wanted to spar. I said ‘No, you must have jet lag.’ But he insisted, so I put him in with [Contender star] Cornelius Bundrage, who was then undefeated. Andy pulled a mouthpiece out of his pocket, borrowed boots from one guy and gloves from another, then he doggone whooped ‘K-9’s ass.”
Steward was the crucial factor in Andy’s decision to turn pro. The pair have a close relationship – they have lived together in Steward’s Detroit home since 2005 and the set-up works for Lee.
“I don’t pay rent,” Andy laughs, “Manny is great company and it beats spending all my time alone. I miss my home and family [though his girlfriend now lives in New York] but I knew the sacrifice I was making.”
Lee turned pro at 21 in March 2006, and has won 14 bouts, 11 early. He, not Steward, made the decision to start his paid career in the US. Lee explains, “Being in the States meant I could go away and learn my trade with no pressure. By the middle of 2007 I felt like a pro. Recently, I watched a tape of myself in the Olympics. It was a different boxer.”
Both Lee and Steward believe that a key factor in Andy’s development is his education in the boxing world as a whole.
“It’s good to sit ringside for the big fights, get used to the atmosphere,” Lee says. “And sparring all over the US really brings you on. In our gym, I spar Kermit Cintron, Wladimir Klitschko. I’ve learnt more in the gym than the ring so far.”
I have to ask Andy about the much-fabled giant-fighting. “Wladimir uses me for speed work and doesn’t hit me too hard,” Lee insists. “Once, though, I forgot myself and hit him with a good left and I could just see his eyes change. So I just ran for the rest of the time.”
Steward and Lee agree on Andy’s best performance so far – a third-round knockout of veteran Carl Daniels in Lee’s eighth fight. The former ‘world’ [light-middle] champ is now firmly an ‘opponent’, but no-one had ever finished him so quickly, or decisively. A perfect right hook nearly beheaded Daniels.
Andy recalls, “To win like that in Madison Square Garden, the day before St Patrick’s Day, was one of the best moments ever.”
Lee has since appeared twice in Ireland. Last time out, he outclassed Jason McKay for a six-round retirement win at Dublin’s famous National Stadium.
The atmosphere, Lee says, was electric. “The crowd were unbelievable. I get lots of pressure in Ireland but if I’m going to be a world champion one day, it’ll be like that every day.”
Next for Lee is his first appearance in hometown Limerick, where he faces Alejandro Gustavo Falliga, 14-3 (4), an average but durable Argentine who has never been stopped. Limerick has never hosted a pro show and Andy cannot wait.
“The Limerick people have been a great support to me. This is me repaying them a little bit. It really is something special for me and my family.”
Lee is respectful of potential future opponents like world No. 1 Kelly Pavlik.
“I watched Pavlik against [Jose Luis] Zertuche and said ‘Get me this guy’. “But,” he laughs, “he’s since produced the two best performances of last year.
“But while I’ve fought some tough guys, they’re nothing compared to Kelly. My goal is to get in position for a shot.”
Lee also scoffs at suggestions that Irish rival John Duddy is avoiding him.
“He’s a little further ahead right now,” says Andy, graciously. “He’s done what I’m trying to do, made a name for himself. As a draw, we have all the right ingredients but they need to be cooked right. I don’t believe he’s ducking me.”
Steward has high hopes for his charge. “I’ve never had a fighter that I’ve rated higher,” says the Kronk legend.
“To be good is one thing but to be great takes a great passion for what you do and Andy loves to fight. He is the complete package – good looking, intelligent, explosive power, physically structured to be a great fighter.
“There are more Irish people spread out around the world than any other race and I honestly believe Andy could be the biggest draw in boxing history.”
But will Lee let fame go to his head?
“Coming home keeps my feet on the ground. We all muck in here, and I get my mum’s cooking.”
Is it part of his nutritional plan?
“No, but we won’t talk about that!”
NOTE: In 2012, Steward passed away. It was a massive loss to boxing, and of course, Lee. The Irishman was forced to regroup without his master, and found comfort with new trainer Adam Booth. At the close of 2014, Lee and Booth fulfilled Steward’s prophecies…