Mike Lee Bringing New Fans to Boxing

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Chicago Sun-Times - At this point in his career, the story Mike Lee brings to the ring is as important as the skills he uses once inside it.

If he can develop the skills it will allow him to become what his adopted sport so desperately needs, a crossover star who can draw a new demographic to boxing.

"What I'm starting to capture is a lot of sports fans who aren't necessarily boxing fans," Lee said. "That's really what the sport needs. There are so many little kids and guys who come up to me after fights and say, 'This was our first boxing match. We'll be at every one of your fights from now on.'"

Mike Lee is coming home, not to Wheaton, where he grew up, but to Notre Dame, where on Friday night the light heavyweight will headline the first professional boxing card staged on university grounds. All proceeds of the six-bout card, which will be held at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center, will benefit the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation and the Robinson Community Learning Center.

It's appropriate venue because it was on the campus known for its gilded dome that a child of privilege earned a finance degree after graduating near the top of his class only to discover that he wanted to pursue a sport dominated by athletes on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum.

"There's something about the electricity of fight night," Lee said. "I can't explain it."

His story is what makes him unique. He started out playing multiple sports like a lot of suburban kids but struggled to channel his aggression. When an opposing hockey player spit in his face, for example, Lee punched him and a brawl ensued in the post-game handshake line of a youth hockey tournament.

His cousin took him to Windy City Gym after Lee had been cut from the sophomore basketball team. The sound of speed bags and the smell of sweat was intoxicating.

He was a standout linebacker at Benet Academy in Lisle but didn't have the size or speed to attract major colleges. It was before his senior year he realized he wanted to attend Notre Dame. His grades weren't good enough, so he enrolled at Missouri with one goal in mind.

"I just took that year and got the best grades of my life," Lee said. "I was constantly on the phone with Notre Dame trying to figure out what I needed to do in terms of classes, whether my credits were matching. I got straight As while boxing, too. I didn't want anybody to tell me no."

He became a three-time winner of the "Bengal Bouts," the intramural boxing tournament at Notre Dame started by Knute Rockne in 1920 that now benefits the poor of Bangladesh.

"What the Bengal bouts did more than anything was give me experience fighting in front of a big crowd," Lee said. "A lot of pros, whether they have huge amateur backgrounds, a lot of athletes struggle with that limelight. Top Rank has thrown me into some huge cards early in my career. Those Bengal Bout experiences mentally prepared me for that."

He was also discovering that he loved the discipline and training the sport demands while driving back and forth to Chicago gyms. The one thing he didn't have was amateur experience, so he entered and won the 2009 Golden Gloves. Winning the Bengal Bouts was one thing, the Golden Gloves quite another. He was sparring with local pros and holding his own when his father encouraged him to take a year off and see where boxing might take him.

"He called me up," said Houston-based trainer Ronnie Shields, who has worked with Mike Tyson, Pernell Whitaker and Evander Holyfield. "Normally, when I say, 'When can you come down', they say they want three weeks to get in shape. He said, 'I'll be there tomorrow.' It surprised me. I've never had a guy who had to be there tomorrow."

Shields put Lee through a grueling workout that ended with Lee vomiting in a garbage can.

"The average guy I work with has maybe 100-150 amateur fights," Shields said. "Mike had 16. But he showed me a lot right from the beginning. Technically, he was raw. But he was a lot better than a lot of guys I've seen with 16 amateur fights. There's something there. We've just go to smooth it out."

He's a kid from the rich suburbs succeeding in a world where it has long been believed the toughest fighters come from the toughest neighborhoods. That he is white can't be overlooked in a sport that often promotes racial stereotypes. That he has a finance degree from a famous university with a national following makes him a promoter's dream.

Whenever he fights, Notre Dame fans in "Team Lee" T-shirts flock to watch him.

"Sometimes you have kids in certain areas that turn pro and have big followings," said Carl Moretti, vice president at Top Rank, which promotes Lee. "He draws Notre Dame alumni and fans and people who read his story and want to see him fight. The local kid would never have that advantage."

While people may be drawn to his story, for Lee, it has always been about the boxing.

"I've always had this determination," he said. "Ever since I was a little kid I've hated to lose. When I step in the ring I'm not afraid of getting a broken nose or anything else. I'm afraid of losing. That's what drives me. I don't want to let people down."

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