In a sport that some say has lost its way, optimists will point to Mike Lee as evidence that boxing is moving in the right direction.
For those who don't follow the sport, the 25-year-old Lee is an undefeated light heavyweight fighting on the undercard of Saturday's Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-Sergio Martinez duel. Lee is the best boxer you've heard of but might not have seen fight. He is easily recognizable, having starred in a series of nation-wide Subway commercials alongside the likes of Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard and Olympian Michael Phelps.
And while this will be just his eleventh fight as a pro, Lee's professional career appears to be catching up to his commercial celebrity. He is working with the trainer Ronnie Shields, whose clientele list includes Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. Lee has also signed with legendary promoter Bob Arum's Top Rank promotion company, and one of his first bouts as a professional was on the undercard of another Arum fighter, Pacquiao.
It is unfair to put the burden of an entire sport on one man. Lee has willingly walked into many fights, but not this one. He is an incredibly disciplined, intelligent and savvy fighter. He is full of potential, and due to all the pressure he has faced and challenges he has overcome, he may be more prepared for stardom -- mentally and physically -- than virtually any other boxer with his level of experience. But Lee will be the first to admit that he is not the sport’s savior.
Not yet, anyway.
"I think in terms of maturity, I've grown faster than 99 percent of the other fighters in their first two years because I have been thrown into all these huge fights and these big pressure situations," Lee says. "In that respect I’m happy. But I know that there's a long way to go too."
Lee is so well adjusted at such a young age because he’s been preparing for this for his entire life.
Mike's dad, John, grew up on the streets of Chicago without a father and never graduated from high school. But John went on to serve in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army and carved out a successful career as an entrepreneur. John worked with Mike from a young age, throwing around the football or playing catch at their home in Wheaton, Ill., until it was dark, day after day. Gradually, John instilled a certain toughness in his son.
"At 6 years old, he was like a man," John says of Mike. "All the other kids in sports were daydreaming, and he was intensely focused, like an 18-year-old kid trying out for a Division I team."
Hard work is all Lee has ever known. He took on an extremely heavy workload as a freshman at University of Missouri so that he could eventually transfer to Notre Dame. Lee enrolled in Notre Dame as a sophomore, where he graduated from the Mendoza College of Business with a degree in finance and a 3.8 GPA.
Notre Dame has a strong boxing tradition dating back to the 1920s, when football coach Knute Rockne first organized bouts to keep his players in shape during the offseason. Each year, the Notre Dame men's boxing club puts on the Bengal Bouts, a school-wide tournament staged on the basketball court at the Joyce Center with thousands of people in the stands.
Lee, who had only begun boxing three years before enrolling at Notre Dame and was coming off knee surgery, immediately joined the club. He went on to win his weight class of the Bengal Bouts each year he was at Notre Dame.
Lee turned professional less than one year after graduating from Notre Dame. Without much amateur experience, Lee relies on the mental toughness he learned in Wheaton.
"I'm starting to get more and more experience, but I need to take advantage of my strengths," Lee says. "And what that has always been is my athleticism, and more importantly, my mind. I've been a quick learner, very disciplined and an extremely tough, aggressive guy. I need to basically take my strengths and use them. The things that I have can't be taught. The intangible things like my work ethic and my never-say-die attitude that I have had since I was a little kid."
Lee has another priceless intangible –- he thrives in the spotlight. And he has encountered no shortage of pressure-packed situations in his two-and-a-half years as a professional. He has fought at Madison Square Garden, Cowboys Stadium and even headlined a professional event at Notre Dame.
And now, the expectations for Lee come from more than spectators at packed stadiums.
"A lot of people cower under pressure, and I think I've just been that person that I only work harder and rise to the challenge," Lee says. "If I fought in Nowheresville and it was in front of 200 people, I'd probably have my worst fight ever."
Saturday Night Fights
Lee is determined to become a light heavyweight world champion, but he is the first one to stop outsiders when they attempt to prematurely crown him. He has unfinished business, and the same man who worked for his entire life to get to this point isn’t going to slow down because of an unofficial and unspoken coronation.
After all, relenting in any way now would be going against everything Lee has ever stood for. And that’s good new for boxing fans hungry for a bright future.
“He was never the fastest kid, he was always one of the fastest. But he was the toughest, most disciplined,” John says of Mike. “Kind of a Pete Rose type, where he would just do something over and over and over until he got it right.”
But whatever happens to Lee in his boxing career, he won't have to worry about what to do when he hangs up the gloves. Lee loves economics, and one day may make use of his degree on Wall Street. He is also an avid philanthropist, and he donated $100,000 from his fight at Notre Dame to local charities. And, of course, Lee maintains an undying passion for Notre Dame football.
In fact, Lee has watched the Fighting Irish on TV right before heading to the ring for certain fights. This weekend presents Lee with another conflict, as No. 20 Notre Dame takes on No. 10 Michigan State at 8 p.m. ET, right around when Lee will be fighting.
"I hope we win and I hope it gets done soon so people turn on HBO pay-per-view," Lee says. "It'd be nice if Notre Dame could get two wins -- a Notre Dame win and a Mike Lee win. That’d be the icing on the cake."