Andy Lee always wanted to work with his hands, just not the way his father did. Thus, down in the dirt, a future world-class boxer found his calling.
The fast-rising middleweight prospect was 14 when his family left a working class neighborhood in east London for Castle Connell, a small village six miles outside of Limerick. It was a return to the old sod for his Irish family but working with the sod, new or old, was not what young Lee had in mind for himself.
Already in the midst of a growing love affair with boxing, Lee was at first adrift, an unhappy young teenager who felt more Irish than English but more city kid than country boy. Fortunately he and his two older brothers, Tommy and Ned, quickly found the St. Francis Boxing Club on Mungret Street in Limerick and there began an odyssey that would lead him to a bedroom in Emanuel Steward’s house in Detroit and a career path that keeps moving him closer to the day when he will live out his dream and fight for a world championship and farther away from his days as a reluctant landscape gardener.
“It’s honest work but just not for me,’’ Lee said one cold winter afternoon while sitting in Steward’s living room after having boxed four rounds with Aaron Pryor, Jr., another Steward prospect. “Before I was 18 I left school. I was boxing for the Irish national team and working with me Dad. It was hard work and I knew I didn’t want that kind of work for me so I had to make some decisions.’’
Lee had begun boxing at eight when his uncle Cheasie introduced him and his two older brothers to the sport at the Repton Boxing Club in London. It would be three years before his first amateur fight but Lee showed immediate promise and that continued to shine through until his moment came seven years later when he least expected it.
Traveling to the 2002 World Junior championships in Cuba, Lee fought five times in a week, winning four before losing in the finals to win the silver medal. Little known outside of Ireland at the time, Lee upset top-rated American Jesus Gonzales, who was the No. 1 ranked American in their weight class, to reach the finals, an event that become as critical to his career path as what would follow it.
At the time Steward was serving as the national director of USA Boxing, the sports’ amateur wing in the U.S, a serendipitous situation for both as things would turn out. Shocked to learn some unknown Irish kid had just beaten his best light middleweight hopeful, Steward was more shocked to learn that kid was wearing KRONK Gym colors the day he did it.
KRONK is a boxing brand name created by Steward and the fighters produced in that drab old Detroit gym in the basement of the aged Kronk Recreation Center the past 38 years. KRONK became synonymous with many things in boxing, including champions like Thomas Hearns and Hilmer Kenty and pain, which is what boxing is all about. So who’s the Irish kid in his red and gold colors again?
His interest piqued, Steward learned Lee had begun training out of what would become KRONK Belfast, a gym Steward had agreed to assist with some equipment that was run by Tony Dunlop and Damian McCann, Dunlop’s cousin. Dunlop was at the time serving as the Irish national team coach and so Steward called to inquire about this tall, left-handed Irish kid. What he learned convinced him to keep his eye on him.
Just after New Year’s Day 2003, Dunlop called Lee and told him someone had called to ask about him on Christmas morning. Thus began a series of events that would change his life.
“The gym was still the Belfast ABC but Tony had been telling me it might become KRONK Belfast,’’ Lee recalled. “I didn’t think much about it until he called and said I’d never guess who’d called to ask about me on Christmas morning.
“He put Damian on the line and he’s the one who told me it was Emanuel Steward. I could not believe it!
“Emanuel Steward? The great American trainer knew me? The guy who trained (then heavyweight champion) Lennox Lewis? I was over the moon.’’
Lee didn’t stay there for long. Barely 13 months later, he qualified for the 2004 Olympics in Athens by winning three fights at the European championships in Croatia despite a broken right hand. He would not only make the Irish Olympic team that weekend, he would become the Irish boxing team.
“I was the only Irish boxer in Athens,’’ Lee said. “I had high hopes but I didn’t box well. Maybe I was too emotional. I wanted to become the first Irish boxer to win a gold medal. The fact I didn’t do it still bothers me.
“I won my first fight but in the quarter finals I lost in a countback to Hassan Ndam Njikam, a guy from Cameroon. I lost the first round and I knew I wasn’t boxing well so I figured I had to open up and chase him. After four rounds I thought I’d done enough but they said the scores were level (even at 27-27). That meant a countback.’’
A countback is an international amateur scoring method in which the high and low scores are thrown out in an even fight and a winner is declared. After what seemed an eternity, Andy Lee’s Olympic moment was over.
“I was very disappointed in myself,’’ Lee said. “I just didn’t fight to my ability. But when I got back home the people treated me like I’d won the gold medal. They treated me like a hero even though I’d lost. I’ll never forget that.’’
Lee’s sagging spirits were lifted by the people in Castle Connell and Limerick but that meant he now had to face a most difficult decision. The Irish Sports Council was prepared to offer him financial support to remain amateur in hopes of reaching the Beijing Olympics in four years. It was tempting because failing to medal had left him with his first boxing dream still unfulfilled.
But a lot can happen in four years and not all of it is necessarily good. Lee understood that, just as he understood that one of America’s greatest trainers was ready to offer him a five-year contract with a sizeable signing bonus to come to Detroit, live with him in a house constantly full of fighters, train at KRONK and try to become a champion.
“I had to decide if I was willing to go out of my comfort zone and come to America,’’ Lee said. “My Mum wanted me to stay in Ireland, of course. Detroit is a long way from home. I’d never been there. It was difficult.
“The Irish Sports Council had made a great offer for me to stay amateur for four more years that included funding and a new car and a chance to get an education. It was a chance to try once more for the gold medal in familiar surroundings. The decision wasn’t easy but I finally told me Mum and Dad I had to go and follow my dream.
“Since I was a kid I’d read about all the great fighters. Now I had a chance to try to become one with one of the greatest trainers in the world. I couldn’t pass that up.’’
So Lee packed his belongs three years ago and headed to America, just another emigrant trying to find his fortune in a strange land and in an even stranger business. Lee knew there would be uncomfortable moments and difficult adjustments to be made but he had no idea how difficult until Steward first brought him down the steps into the overheated basement room that was KRONK’s home for years before it finally closed a year ago.
The day Lee first walked down those steps and saw on that blood red door the words: This Door
he knew he wasn’t in Limerick any more.
“It was an amazing thing to walk in there and see the wall with pictures of all their champions (30 world champions have trained there and three KRONK fighters have won Olympic gold),’’ Lee recalled, the wonder of it all still evident in his voice three years later. “To have my picture on that wall became part of my dream.
“That first day I got there Emanuel told me I was going to shake out but he had something else planned. He was going to find out if I belonged there, I guess.’’
Lee had just gotten off a plane when Steward took him over to KRONK for what Lee thought would be a light workout on the pads. Once trapped inside the cramped old room jammed with a ring, two heavy bags wrapped with gray electrical tape, two speed bags, two decrepit stationary bikes and more people than it was ever designed for, Steward told Lee there was a bit more to it than that.
“He said he wanted to box so I said, ‘Then box,’’ Steward recalled.
Waiting for Lee was a young prospect with a nasty streak named Cornelius “K-9’’ Bundrage, who was at the time an undefeated power puncher unimpressed by a tall, skinny white kid with red hair and a quick smile.
“A white fighter at KRONK is pretty unusual,’’ Steward said, a grin on his face. “Anybody who gets in the ring there has to prove himself. Andy had to go through that. Nobody was going to give him nuthin’ just because he was in the Olympics.
“They didn’t give Lennox Lewis anything the first time he showed up. He was already heavyweight champion and he’s in the ring fooling around and two little kids are outside hollering at him. I never will forget it. One of them says, ‘Hey big man, you don’t want to fight get the hell out of the ring and let somebody in there who does.’ Two 11 year old kids!
“Lennox couldn’t believe it. That place has tested a lot of people. Andy showed right away he could handle it.’’
That didn’t surprise Lee, who according to legend pulled a mouthpiece from his pocket, borrowed a pair of boxing shoes and some gloves and, as Steward recalls, “Went about whipping K-9’s ass.’’
His ability to compete immediately came as no shock to Lee, who had already fought around the world against top amateur competition. Still, prize fighting is a different matter from the more protective amateur game, especially at KRONK. For an instant, he admitted, Lee wondered what he was doing so far from home that first day. Then he slipped between the ropes and began to box and as he did he knew he wasn’t far from home at all. He was home.
“They were yelling ‘Fresh meat!’ and things like that,’’ Lee said. “Nothing compares to walking through that door. I was proud to be there. It’s like Mecca for a boxer to be training at KRONK.
“When all the hollering started, I just thought it was funny. I knew I could box.’’
That’s a point he continues to make. Steward has brought Lee along without the aid of television for much of his early days, word of mouth telling his story until now. Friday night he will appear as the main event on ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights however against Brian Vera, the former season three member of “The Contender’’ series who is 15-1, the one being a second round knockout loss to Jaidon Codrington last year.
While Vera was on The Contender, Lee actually is becoming one, coming off back-to-back wins in Ireland in December and February, the latter a dominant fifth round stoppage of Argentina’s durable Alejandro Gustavo Falliga, who he dropped four times before the bout was stopped.
Falliga, who had never been stopped before in 17 professional bouts, had talked considerably before the fight, insisting Lee was an over-rated figment of Emanuel Steward’s imagination. He said with a threatening tone that Lee’s first fight back home in Limerick would end up being a disappointment. The latter was only true if Falliga had some relatives in town because the sold-out crowd of 2800 was roaring at everything Lee did, which was essentially whatever he wanted.
Undefeated in 15 fights (15-0, 12 KO) Lee and Steward recently closed a promotional deal with Top Rank, Bob Arum’s company, and will make their first appearance for Arum June 7 on the Kelly Pavlik-Gary Lockett undercard at Madison Square Garden. That appearance is no accident because Steward brought Lee to Arum with the sole intention of opening a direct route for him to Pavlik, the reigning middleweight champion and an Arum-promoted fighter, with the possibility of perhaps fighting fellow Irishman John Duddy along the way in what would be a big-money fight in Ireland.
Just as it is a long, long way to Tipperary, it’s also a long, long way from Castle Connell to a shot at the middleweight title of course but that time is shortening. Steward now believes it may be no more than a year away for the smiling Irishman who sits in his living room like a chameleon, one man outside the ring and quite another inside it.
“In my mind, Andy is the best middleweight in the world,’’ insisted Steward. “He loves to fight. He loves the game of boxing. He’s a student of boxing. We sit home in Detroit and watch films of the great fighters. He’s like a sponge. He wants to absorb all the knowledge he can.
“He’s a very mature guy. He’s been that way since he first came to Detroit. He gets in and boxes with Wladimir (Klitschko, the IBF and WBO heavyweight champion) and holds his own. He boxed with Jermain (Taylor, when Steward trained him before he lost the middleweight title to Pavlik) and held his own. He boxes with (welterweight champion Kermit) Cintron and holds his own. He can fight with anybody.’’
Soon enough, if Andy Lee has his way, he’ll be fighting for real gold, the kind you make for winning a world championship. That is why he came to America three years ago and it’s why he stays here, far from his Irish home but right at home where it counts the most – inside a boxing ring.
*photo courtesy Chris Farina at Top Rank-thanks!