LIMERICK, Ireland — As it turns out Andy Lee can win neither Affif Belghecham's French or European Union middleweight titles when the two meet at the University Sports Arena in Lee's hometown tonight. For one thing, he isn't French. For another, he isn't a middleweight.
In a bit of sleight-of-hand designed to guard against his EU belt slipping away, Belghecham's handlers built a two-pound leeway into the contract for tonight's 10-rounder. Lee scaled in two pounds over the middleweight limit at yesterday's weigh-in, while Belghechem himself weighed 160 1/2.
Lee's career-long trainer and manager Emanuel Steward, who had accompanied him to each of his previous five bouts in Ireland, will be in Las Vegas, where he is working as part of the HBO PPV broadcast team for tonight's Pacquiao-Cotto fight. All of Lee's preparations for tonight's encounter with the Frenchman have been undertaken in Steward's absence. Negotiations with promoter Brian Peters for the Belghecham fight were conducted by Belfast's Damien McCann, who seems to increasingly have Lee's ear, while former lightweight champion Joey Gamache supervised a peripatetic training camp that saw Lee spar in every New York borough save Staten Island.
Gamache and Lee's brother Roger will work the hometowner's corner tonight.
Lee is 19-1 with 14 KOs, while Belghecham (19-3-1) has stopped just four of his 23 professional opponents. That a size differential extends well beyond the pound-and-a-half discrepancy on the scales was also apparent at the weigh-in: when the two posed for photographs, the top of Beghecham's head barely reached Lee's ear.
Though French-born, Belghecham is of Algerian descent (as was, he will quickly remind you, the great Marcel Cerdan). Two of Belghecham's losses, along with the draw, came relatively early in his professional career. The other was a loss last December to Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam in the Finale du Grand Tournoi — sort of the French version of “The Contender” — in Paris.
Still undefeated at 21-0, N'Jikam is now a world-rated contender. For Grand Tornoi purposes he was listed as French, but in the 2004 Olympics he represented his native Cameroon — and was the boxer who eliminated Andy Lee in the middleweight quarterfinal of the Athens Games.
The EU title is a relatively inconsequential trinket, but since Belghecham is rated slightly ahead of Lee in both the European and world ratings, a win in tonight's all-southpaw main event could enhance Lee's prospects of fighting for one title or the other.
Tonight's bout will be preceded by another Irish-French clash of some importance: The two nations' soccer teams will clash earlier in the evening at Dublin's Croke Park in the first leg of a home-and-home World Cup qualifier. (Round Two is in Paris Wednesday night.) Promoter Brian Peters will have the soccer game showing on a large screen at the arena while tonight's undercard is in progress. (Because both are being nationally televised in Ireland, the Lee-Belgecham main event won't even start until after the final whistle of the soccer match.)
“The Irish people have proven over the years that they are warriors,” said Belghecham. “Unfortunately for the Irish, both myself and the French footballers are on a different level than our opponents this weekend.”
Besides Lee, fellow Limerick boxers Jamie Power and Willie Casey are slated for action on Peters' six-bout card tonight. Light-heavy Jamie Powers (6-1), who boxed for Lee's amateur club, St. Francis, will be looking to bounce back from his first pro defeat (a TKO loss to Michael Sweeney on September's Poonsawat-Dunne card in Dublin) when he faces Latvian Aleksandrs Dunecs, while 27 year-old featherweight Willie Casey (2-0), a longtime local amateur standout, meets Englishman Michael O'Gara.