Notre Dame's Mike Lee stays undefeated

By danmurphy

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Notre Dame graduate Mike Lee moved to 4-0 in his promising young boxing career Saturday night with another first round TKO against Pablo Gomez in Las Vegas.

Lee, who was a three-time Bengal Bout champ and won the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament before turning pro, is being groomed to be a title contender in the light heavyweight division. As a member of Top Rank Boxing, he trains with Ronnie Shields who has previously molded former champs like Kermit Cintorn, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson.

Saturday night, Lee and Gomez were the top undercard fight on a title bout between Brandon Rios and Miguel Acosta. After being stunned by a strong right from Gomez in the opening seconds of the fight, Lee regained his composure and twice sent the stepping stone Gomez (1-3-1) to the canvas with rights of his own. The first sent Gomez’s mouth guard soaring through the air and the second sent Lee to the winner’s circle.

It was the second time in as many fights that Lee needed less than a round to get a victory. He knocked out Keith Debow in front of 10,000 fans at Cowboys Stadium in November when he was an undercard for the Manny Pacquiao vs. Antonio Margarito fight. Shortly after the fight, I talked to Mike and wrote an article about his budding career and his strange place in the boxing world (not many pro fighters have Notre Dame finance degrees). The story is posted below if anyone is interested in learning a bit more about his career…

H ighly-touted boxing historian Bert Sugar once famously described his sport as a “social staircase” — a chance for young men to quite literally fight their way out of a cycle of poverty and oppression. For over a century, one has needed to look no further than the inside of a boxing ring to determine what ethnicity sits on the bottom step of that staircase. Why else would you sign up to be bludgeoned for a living?

Mike Lee has his reasons.

The 23-year-old fledgling fighter was born and raised in Chicago’s comfortable west suburbs. He attended the well-respected Benet Academy, a private Catholic school in Lisle, Ill., before earning a finance degree from the University of Notre Dame with a 3.8 grade point average. Then he decided to try his hand at professional boxing.

Lee made his decision with the support of his family and few others. Many wondered if he was committed enough to take his career in the ring seriously. Success in boxing is paid for with gallons of blood and sweat, grueling workouts and training regimens that are often only completed because the fighter has no other options. Lee has options. He answered endless questions about why he would pass up job offers from some of the finest institutions on Wall Street to duke it out with the boys of Bert Sugar’s “mean streets.”

“In the beginning everyone was asking me, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Lee said. “It’s kind of nice now that those questions have sort of gone away. People are starting to figure out this is for real, it isn’t a joke.”

The six-foot, 175-pound middle heavyweight signed with promoting legend Bob Arum and Top Rank Boxing in January and has since silenced many of his doubters by winning his first three fights in convincing fashion. Lee made his debut in front of a packed house at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend, winning a unanimous decision in a four-round fight against Emmit Woods.

The performance impressed the more than 2,000 fans that showed up specifically to see him fight as well as ESPN’s Dan Rafael.

“He kept his hands nice and high and threw a lot of combinations,” Rafael wrote following the fight. “For a pro debut, it was a fine performance. With his popularity, all-American back story and potential, he’s a guy to keep an eye on.”

Since then, Lee’s heavy hands haven’t allowed an opponent out of the second round. A strong left hook to the ribs caused the referee to stop Lee’s Sept. 11 contest with Alex Rivera in Las Vegas and Keith Debow decided not to stand up after running into an overhand right from Lee in the first round last weekend in the new Cowboys Stadium.

The most recent fight, which pushed Lee’s professional record to 3-0, showed that the folks at Top Rank are grooming him to be a legitimate contender in the future. It also gave the young boxer a taste of the big stage. The match-up was on the undercard for the biggest pay-per-view fight of the year, Manny Pacquiao vs. Antonio Margarito. Lee, who was a linebacker for his high school football team, said walking out of an NFL locker room in front of a crowd of 15-20,000 fans was a surreal moment.

“I just wish the fight went a little longer. I didn’t get a chance to soak it all in,” he said with a hint of disbelief still lingering in his voice. “I do remember thinking when I stepped into the ring that this is the reason I train so hard. When everyone asks why I decided to fight, this is why.”

The fight also came with a few memorable perks like a good luck phone call from Pacquiao and a face-to-face congratulations from fellow Notre Dame graduate Regis Philbin. Not too bad for a kid who first stepped into the ring less than five years ago.

Lee got his first taste of the sweet science while visiting Notre Dame’s campus the spring of his senior year of high school. He went to watch the school’s 75th annual Bengal Bouts boxing tournament and decided he needed to come to Notre Dame and he needed to box.

The Bengal Bouts began in 1931 under the command of legendary football coach and athletic director Knute Rockne. The program was heralded as the sport at its most pure, operating with “a lack of any commercial taint” according to a 1955 Sports Illustrated article by columnist Bud Schulberg. All of the money raised during the annual fights — which has regularly eclipsed the $100,000 mark in recent years — is sent to Catholic missionaries in Bangladesh (formerly Bengal).

“Our program has much less to do with boxing than it has to do with life,” said head coach Tom Suddes. “It’s just more about the discipline and the focus. They put on a good show and we raise some much-needed money.”

In recent years, The amateur tournament has drawn the likes of Teddy Atlas and Muhammad Ali to the doorstep of the northern Indiana campus as it begins to thaw each spring. It expanded rapidly during Lee’s time at Notre Dame with approximately 300 students signing up to fight on a yearly basis. Lee’s senior year was the first time in the program’s history than any of the boxers got the chance to see the fruits of their labor in person. In January of 2009, he and then-club president Mark Weber spent 14 life-changing days touring the schools and villages that had been built using money raised by the Bengal Bouts.

Weber and Lee, a pair of white, American boxers in a land devoid of tourism, were greeted like rock stars. They attracted a crowd of hundreds when they stopped to join in a pick-up cricket match with some local boys and were the subject of countless curious smiles as they toured the country. Whether they were in the slums of Dhaka, home to more than 12 million people, or in outlying mission on the Indian border both visitors were blown away by the happiness they found in a world of poverty and oppression.

“They were smiling non-stop the whole time we were around,” Lee said. “Everyone was so grateful for the money and that we had made the trip. When you can witness first hand what is going on, it just makes you that much more motivated.”

A month later, Lee was back in the ring and on his way to a third consecutive Bengal Bouts championship. And a month after that he brought home the crown in the 178-pound division of Chicago’s well-respected Golden Gloves tournament. Suddes, who has been a part of Notre Dame’s program since he started boxing as a freshman in 1968, said he doesn’t remember anyone who has been as motivated to turn boxing into a career as Lee is.

“I’m not sure it’s ever happened quite the way that it’s happening for Mike right now,” he said. “He’s just so committed, his attitude in the gym has always been very impressive.”

Lee’s new team of trainers has been equally impressed with his work ethic. Exactly one year after returning from Bangladesh, he found himself surrounded by the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip in the office of one of boxing’s best-known promoters. Bob Arum, Top Rank’s CEO, said his newest boxer was “a great example of the graduates Notre Dame produces” and immediately put the faith of his fighting empire behind the promising, well-educated Lee.

Lee moved to Houston shortly thereafter to begin training with Ronnie Shields. Shields, who has previously worked with champs like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, has told reporters he thinks Lee is going to be something special. He said Lee’s willingness to try anything that Shields shows him has helped him improve at a very quick pace.

The up-and-comer has plenty of good examples to learn from. The gym in Houston is a common training ground for fighters like “Sugar” Shane Mosley, Juan Diaz and Kermit Cintron — all of whom Lee studies whenever he gets the chance. He credits his education with giving him the discipline to try to learn something each time he works out.

“I think that I can use my head and my education to my advantage, especially when I start getting into longer fights,” he said.

In that respect, Lee is not alone. College-educated fighters, as rare as they may be, have found success at the very pinnacle of the boxing world. In 1999, heavyweight Vitali Klitschko became the first man to ever hold the title of Dr. World Champion. Klitschko, who currently holds the WBC heavyweight title, earned his doctorate in sports science from Kiev University in Ukraine. The following year Vitali’s younger brother, Wladimir, became the second Dr. World Champion when he outpunched American Chris Byrd for the WBO championship.

New Jersey native Bobby “The Matinee Idol” Czyz, who may be best known as the only member of Mensa to step inside a professional boxing ring, started his career in 1980 in much the same place that Lee has started his. As a well-spoken and intelligent white man, Czyz was a marketing dream but critics questioned if he could hang in the middle heavyweight division. Six years later, he was a world champion.

Lee said he hopes to join Czyz someday and win a title before he is done with boxing — a dream that could turn into reality if he continues to harness his unique intelligence.

Weber, a forming sparring partner, agreed that Lee’s sharp ascent into boxing relevance was due to his willingness to learn. He described his partner’s approach to boxing by borrowing the mantra from Bryce Courtney’s novel about a young South African boxer, The Power of One: “First with the head, then with the heart.”

Lee’s career choice didn’t make sense to many, but those that know him well are not surprised at his success.

Each year a small group of the Bengal Bout fighters spend a weekend training and doing team-building exercises at a high ropes course in Eagle Creek, Michigan. Lee, who had a fear of heights, first made the trip as a sophomore. Suddes said the first time Lee climbed the 20-plus foot ladder at the start of the treetop obstacle course he barely made it. Those heavy hands of his gripped the wood so hard that Suddes said he made indents that are still there.

“But three years later he was flying across that course,” Suddes said. “That transformation was pretty impressive to watch. It’s just his willingness to push himself, it impresses the hell out of you.”

Lee does not know yet when his next fight will be or how long he will continue to fight, but if he keeps pushing he may soon be leaving his mark in far more visible places that the treetops in Eagle Creek.

Follow Lee’s career at his website or on his Facebook page.

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