Andy Lee was considered one of the best prospects in the sport. With the famed Emmanuel Steward both managing and training him, an undefeated record and plenty of positive press, it seemed as though the talented Irish middleweight’s stock couldn’t get any higher in boxing circles.
But then he ran into Brian Vera in March of 2008.
The fight was to be Lee’s coming out party – his American TV debut in the main event of ESPN’s Friday Night Fights. Vera was but an afterthought coming into the fight. After Lee dropped his foe in the opening stanza, the plan was going according to script. But Vera made it an ugly fight; and after he withstood punishment early, he stormed back to stop the native of Limerick, Ireland with a barrage of punches in the seventh. It’s the only blemish on Lee’s ledger.
Following the defeat, Steward had Lee (28-1, 20 knockouts) fight a series of low-level opponents while he built his confidence up. But the loss always bothered Lee greatly – he wanted revenge.
In his second HBO bout last October – his debut on the U.S. premium cable network was an exciting final-round TKO win over Craig McEwan – Lee had his rematch with Vera, and out-pointed his nemesis to avenge his lone defeat.
“It was a great relief for me to get that fight out of the way,” Lee told RingTV.com. “It was just hanging over my head even three years later. I was glad to get my revenge.”
Now he prepares for the toughest fight of his career, as he faces Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (the son of the Mexican icon) for the WBC middleweight title on Saturday at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas (HBO, 11 p.m. ET), where over 40,000 rabid Mexican fans are expected.
“I think I have to box a very disciplined fight, not make it into a rugged match, and stick to my boxing and keep it as technical as possible,” said Lee, who turned 28 on Monday. “(I have to) keep the fight at long range and win on the outside. I think he’s a lot better fighter than people give him credit for.
“He’s improved a lot the last couple of years. He’s an aggressive fighter. He’s a big middleweight so he’s a handful for anybody. He is a little slow, his defense is not great and he gives you a lot of opportunities as a fighter. If I can land some clean, big shots on him I know I’m going to hurt him.”
Lee isn’t concerned about Chavez Jr.’s size being a big middleweight himself at 6-foot-2 (Chavez Jr. is 6-foot.). He’s been sparring with super middleweights at the famed Kronk Gym in Detroit – namely Don George and Edwin Rodriguez.
Chavez Jr. (45-0-1, 31 knockouts) has been the subject of much scrutiny for his fight night weights on the unofficial HBO scales, typically weighing over 180 pounds on the evening of the bout. But Lee says he usually comes in around 176 to 178 pounds, stating “there won’t be much weight difference.”
Lee will have to contend with a raucous crowd on Saturday. THE RING’s No. 3-rated middleweight has passionate fans whichwill make for an intimidating atmosphere. One thing Lee isn’t alarmed about is the judging. On the heels of the major controversy of Tim Bradley’s split-decision victory over Manny Pacquiao, Lee thinks it will work to his advantage, with the judges being a hot topic.
“(I’m) not too worried about the judges,” said Lee, who plays the guitar and sings songs when he’s not training. “I think what happened Saturday in the Pacquiao fight might help me because (the judges will be closely watched). Hopefully they make the right decision.
“I know there’s going to be a good crowd there for him, but I’m prepared for it. In the history of boxing the challenger always has to go to the champion’s backyard and take the belt. Many fighters have done it in history – I’m just ready to join that list.”
Lee has been with Steward, who also serves as an expert analyst on HBO telecasts when Lee isn’t fighting on the network, since 2006, before turning pro. Steward discovered Lee at the World Junior Championships in 2002 and followed his progress before finally meeting Lee in 2004 and eventually taking him under his wing.
“When he tells you to do something, you do it, because he’s got the experience, the knowledge,” said Lee, a native of London, England. “Every day you learn something about boxing inside the ring and outside the ring – the industry and the fight game. We get along very well, it’s a good relationship. We’re friends inside and outside the ring.”
Steward believes that his charge (whom also lives in Detroit) is ready for the biggest fight of his life and is ready to become a champion. It’s the night Steward envisioned back in 2006.
“We have prepared for every possible scenario in the fight against a young, strong and resolute undefeated champion,” said Steward. “However, Chavez Jr. has never fought a fighter likeAndy Lee and the champion is going to realize that on fight night.
“Andy’s time has arrived, he has trained his entire life for this moment and he is now ready to become the new WBC middleweight champion. Andy isafighter on a mission and with the frame of mind he has had in the gym during camp I believe he can knock Chavez Jr. out.”
Lee is supremely confident of victory come Saturday. Why? Because he believes that’s he’s merely the better fighter.
“(I believe I’ll win) because I’m a better fighter, plain and simple,” Lee declared. “I’m as big as him; I’m as strong as him. I have way more skills. I’m a much more experienced fighter because I had a long amateur career and a seasoned professional career.
“And I just believe it’s my time. I’m hungry and this chance may never come again. I’m ready to take it.”
Photos / Chris Royle and Emily Harney-Fightwireimages.com
Mike Coppinger is a member of the BWAA, THE RING Ratings Advisory Panel and the Yahoo Sports Boxing Panel. He regularly contributes to USA Today’s boxing coverage and compiles the “Ringside Reports” for THE RING Magazine each month. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCoppinger. Find an archive of his work: www.mikecoppinger.com