photo by Chris Farina-Top Rank
Who goes with Fergus?
In 1998, Tom and Ann Lee, along with their six children, journeyed from London, almost five hundred miles away, to settle in a small village called Castle Connell, six or so miles out of Limerick, Ireland. The Lee family had returned to their homeland.
WHO will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood's woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
As working class families do, the Lee family made use of their hands to earn their wages. Tom Lee worked the soil for a living, and his three sons, Tommy, Ned and Andy, learned their father’s trade. They likely learned many things from tilling the earth – things like the importance sowing seeds, the value of consistency, and that nature can only be mastered by hardworking, resilient hands.
Brothers like to fight. The Lee brothers had learned the craft of boxing at the Repton Boxing Club in London, and when they moved from the bright city lights of London to the darkened nights of Castle Connell, they had to find a new place to apply it. They settled on St. Francis Boxing Club in Limerick.
The youngest of the brothers, Andy, was almost immediately successful when he laced up the gloves for the first time under the careful guidance of his Uncle Cheasie. Three years later, he had his first amateur bout and showed even more promise. After the move to Ireland, his rise continued. Lee honed his craft to become one of Ireland’s most decorated amateur stars, which culminated in him being Ireland’s sole Olympic boxing representative in 2004.
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
Lee did not medal in the Olympics, but his promise as a hopeful contender was such that the Irish Sports Council made him a lucrative offer to remain an amateur for four more years in order to compete again for Ireland at the 2008 Bejing Olympics. Likely influenced by his working class upbringing, and perhaps augmented by his inborn sense of diligence and adventure, Lee decided instead to turn professional after a chance encounter with legendary American trainer Emanuel Stewart.
Stewart had seen the then-unknown Lee upset one of Stewart’s (and America’s) top middleweight contenders at the 2002 World Juniors in Cuba.Intrigued by the rangy southpaw with power in both hands, Stewart and Lee began a relationship in 2003 that culminated in Lee leaving his homeland behind to follow his dream of becoming a great boxing champion. Stewart offered him a five-year contract with a sizeable signing bonus to come to Detroit, as well as the opportunity to live with him along with a slew of other world class fighters who train at Stewart’s world famous Kronk gym.
“I had to decide if I was willing to go out of my comfort zone and come to America,’’ Lee told TSS (Ron Borges) back in 2008. “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.”
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love's bitter mystery;
As in his amateur days, Andy Lee was immediately successful when he turned pro. His first professional contest was March 10, 2006, at the famed Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Lee defeated Anthony Cannon by points in six rounds.By 2007, both HBO and ESPN were praising the undefeated middleweight from Ireland-by-way-of-Detroit as one of the sport’s top prospects.Larry Merchant commended him during one broadcast with “he looks like ten million dollars.” Dan Rafael labeled him a virtual can’t miss superstar, lauding Lee as a fighter “as blue chip as they come.”
Lee’s winning ways continued as his adulation grew. He did everything a future champion is supposed to do. He lived and breathed boxing almost 24/7.He fought various types of opponents in various places in both America and abroad. He sparred against the very best competitors he could find.He stayed undefeated.
By the end of 2007, Lee was the Irish super middleweight champion with not even the sky seeming a limit, but it would soon come crashing down.
Lee was undefeated in fifteen fights when he ran into the crude but unrelenting slugger Brian Vera on March 21, 2008. Things went according to the script in the first. Vera hit the canvas and appeared badly shaken with over a minute left in the round, but survived intact. As the fight wore on, Lee pressed the action with vigor but seemed to overexert himself to the point of exhaustion trying to outslug the slugger. The game challenger Vera capitalized by stopping Lee in round seven with a barrage of heavy shots that prompted referee Tony Chiarantano to stop the fight (albeit too quickly by most reasonable standards).
The luster perhaps now worn, all was not lost for Andy Lee. He rebounded in his next fight by stopping Willie Gibbs in ten, and seemed not to miss a beat in his continued rise towards challenging for a title, even if it would take longer now than previously anticipated. In fact, it’d take him twelve more wins and over three more years for him to get another opportunity to right the wrong he suffered against Vera. On October 1, 2011, Lee met the hard-charging Vera again. This time, Lee used his superior boxing skill to virtually shut-out his opponent over ten lopsided rounds.
Andy Lee was no longer a strapping youth destined for amateur greatness.He was no longer a sought after Olympic competitor, or a can’t miss professional prospect. Andy Lee had become a legit, seasoned middleweight contender, and it showed.
“I showed in the rematch how much better a fighter I am now and how much I’ve improved since the first fight both physically and mentally,” he told TSS back in April.
“I think I was just really immature the first fight, and I fought a silly fight but I’ve learned from that mistake and moved on. I think it was a shut-out against Vera [in the rematch] so it just showed a difference in class really. I’m improving all the time, and I’m still learning a lot. And I’ll have a lot more to show when I fight Chavez.”
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. is the WBC middleweight champion of the world.He’s a plodding, heavyset slugger who uses his famous father’s trademark left hook to the body to barrel in on his opponents and inflict damage.
Chavez isn’t a pound-for-pound superstar. No one confuses him for the lineal champion Sergio Martinez, but he’s a legit world titlist who’s proven his mettle against some of the very best in his division. His TKO win over Peter Manfredo last November proved he wasn’t just a paper champion who would struggle against the kind of fighter he should beat handily, and his clear decision win over Marco Antonio Rubio earlier this year perhaps further legitimized his claim to a title.
And don’t tell guys like Chavez, Jr. and Andy Lee that title belts don’t matter.
“Well, it’ll be the biggest fight of my career, but more importantly I want to be WBC champion,” Lee said about the opportunity to fight for a world title.
“I’ve always seen that belt through history growing up, and it’s been a dream to have that around my waist. Being champion of the world is all I’ve ever wanted to do, and I’m one fight away from doing it.”
One fight away.
Andy Lee, the son of Tom and Ann Lee, younger brother of brothers Tommy and Ned, brother to three sisters, nephew of Uncle Cheasie, Irish amateur hero, Kronk gym prospect, and dream-chasing contender from Ireland, is one fight away from becoming middleweight world champion.
He is not a folk hero. Not yet. But Andy Lee is standing where only a few Irish-born fighters have stood before, and even fewer, men like Jimmy McLarnin, Jack "Nonpareil" Dempsey and Tom Sharkey, have trodden with ballyhooed success.
A win over Chavez this Saturday in El Paso, in front of what is sure to be a hostile, pro-Chavez and Mexican crowd would set up a showdown with aging linear champion Sergio Martinez.
A win over Martinez and, well…who knows? One day there just might be no lore left more sacred in all the Emerald Isle than that of Andy Lee.
[Author’s Note - Who Goes With Fergus? was published in 1892 by Y.B. Yeats, perhaps Ireland’s most celebrated poet.]