Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. might have the reputation as the most “entitled” fighter in the sport, but nobody in boxing has been given the types of opportunities Mike Lee has received so early in his career.
A graduate of Notre Dame, the light heavyweight prospect has been the perfect marketing chip for promotional outfit Top Rank: a well-spoken, educated fighter who comes accessorized with the Fighting Irish brand.
Before his tenth professional fight, the 25-year old has already fought on ESPN, been featured in every publication imaginable, and will make his HBO pay-per-view debut this Saturday night on the Chavez Jr.-Sergio Martinez undercard.
Oh, and he’s also been in a national Subway campaign with NFL star Michael Strahan and MLB slugger Ryan Howard.
But don’t tell him he hasn’t earned it.
“Subway has given me tremendous national exposure, but it’s really been the culmination of years and years of hard work,” Lee told RingTV.com. “Even before I turned pro, my Dad would have me out in the backyard until it was dark out, throwing a football or baseball, working on drills. It was that kind of determination and discipline that was instilled in me since I was a kid. So I feel that I’m in the spotlight right now, but I’ve been working hard, and I deserve it.”
That spotlight is likely to shine on him first on Saturday, as his bout against Kansas City club fighter Paul Harness is expected to open up the telecast. However, the fact that he is able to face a 4-3-1 opponent on a $60 broadcast has been a point of criticism from boxing fans and media members alike.
Beneath the glamour and hoopla surrounding him, there are naturally skeptics who are not happy with the latest break for the Chicago native.
Lee says the important thing is that people are paying attention.
“If you don’t have critics, and you don’t have people criticizing what you do, either inside or outside the ring, then you’re not doing anything right. You look at the most successful people in the world – I don’t care if they’re professional athletes or if they build casinos here like Steve Wynn, you get your critics,” said Lee (10-0, 6 knockouts).
Even in mentioning Wynn, whose resorts have a hand in sponsoring the weekend’s festivities, Lee demonstrates his corporate and media savvy that has made him so endearing. As he answers questions, he is outfitted in a sharp grey suit (fitting that GQ profiled him, too), while other fighters mingle in windbreakers and sweatpants.
Smooth talking and fashion-mag style won’t necessarily make you a star in boxing, though. Lee already has legions of fans that travel from Illinois and Indiana in blue and gold t-shirts to all of his fights, but to cross over and appeal to more than submarine sandwich enthusiasts, he needs to produce the goods in the ring.
Thankfully, in the ring, he tends to operate in a manner that is antithetical to his clean-cut image.
“I’ve been winning fights in dramatic fashion,” said Lee. “I’m gonna come out aggressive and hard charging. It’s a fan-friendly style.”
Renowned trainer Ronnie Shields has been given the task of fine-tuning that style and hopefully building a future world champion who lives up to the promise.
“He needs work on everything. He’s not a perfect fighter,” Shields told USA Today earlier this year. “So we’ll take our time and go fight by fight. And if it takes us another three or four years to get to that level, then that’s what it’s going to take. But we’re not going to rush things.”
To put his good fortune in perspective, Lee, a two-year pro with no amateur experience, will collect $50,000 for his six-round bout on Saturday night. Down the strip in Las Vegas on a competing card, WBC featherweight champion Jhonny Gonzalez will make $40,000 for a title defense.
In a sense, Lee does agree he is a product of hype and bluster at the moment; not that he is a mythical creation of it, but that without it, he wouldn’t be pushed to become what everyone hopes he will.
“There’s been days in this camp when I didn’t want to wake up for that first workout,” Lee admitted, “but I got up and killed it, because I knew I was gonna be on this platform. I’ve said it before: If I was fighting in some ballroom in front of 100 people in the Midwest somewhere, I’d probably have my worst performance ever.”
Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank
Follow Corey Erdman on Twitter @corey_erdman