Monday 26 September 2016

Andy Lee: 'I was like a kid watching Paul O'Connell and Munster sing Stand Up And Fight'

Published 01/08/2015 | 02:30

World middleweight champ has backing of rugby legend Paul O’Connell
World middleweight champ has backing of rugby legend Paul O’Connell
WBO world champion Andy Lee defends his title against Billy Joe Saunders

His intelligence is simply too keen for trash-talk ever to become a natural refuge, so Andy Lee can't help but chuckle at the adversarial message now rolling from his lips.

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Next week, Katie Taylor will be confirmed on the undercard of his world title defence against Billy Joe Saunders at Thomond Park on September 19. Saunders seemed to be living in a cave last week given his observations on women's role in society, with even Taylor sufficiently antagonised to tweet: "I feel sorry for his wife and daughter if that's his only view of women".

The Englishman retreated subsequently from his Neanderthal stance, declaring admiration for the Olympic champion.

But the suspicion of a philosophical gulf separating champion and challenger now is one that Lee is not inclined to retreat from. "I made a point of wanting to have Katie on the bill because of who she is and what she's achieved," he reflected yesterday.

"I've always been a big advocate of female boxing. And I aim to give him (Saunders) a bit of a lesson for all the women out there (laughing) and put him in his place."

The WBO world middleweight champion is back in Limerick this weekend, ticking some promotional boxes en route to next month's title bout, a fight expected to draw a capacity 34,000 audience to the home of Munster rugby.

WBO world middleweight champion Andy Lee and Paul O’Connell at St Francis Boxing Club in Limerick yesterday as part of the build-up to Lee’s title defence against Billy Joe Saunders at Thomond Park on September 19
WBO world middleweight champion Andy Lee and Paul O’Connell at St Francis Boxing Club in Limerick yesterday as part of the build-up to Lee’s title defence against Billy Joe Saunders at Thomond Park on September 19

Belt

Lee, a big Munster fan, had hoped for Paul O'Connell to carry his belt to the ring, but the Irish captain will be in Cardiff that day, Ireland facing a World Cup afternoon kick-off against Canada.

The boxer was guest of honour at Munster's Pro12 game with Leinster in Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day, just two weeks after his sixth-round KO of Russia's Matt Korobov in Las Vegas last December. He'd been honoured there before too, prior to representing Ireland at the Athens Olympics in 2008.

But it was his visit last December that sowed a seed in Lee's mind of the perfect venue for a title defence.

"I got to sit with Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony in the stand that day," he remembers now. "Then, at full-time, they invited me into the dressing-room which was totally unexpected. So I got to sit in there, listening to Anthony Foley give his talk, praising the lads for a big victory. Then they all just stood up and sang 'Stand Up and Fight'.

"My jaw was hanging open. It was like being a kid again because I so admire these guys."

He remembers being especially taken with O'Connell's presence in the dressing-room after and the manner with which he gravitated towards the younger players with words of encouragement. It was, Lee recalls, a portrait of innately natural leadership.

So having O'Connell at ringside would have felt perfect. Not simply for Andy Lee, but for O'Connell too.

WBO world champion Andy Lee and Billy Joe Saunders after a press conference ahead of 'The Showdown' at Thomond Park on September 19th. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
WBO world champion Andy Lee and Billy Joe Saunders after a press conference ahead of 'The Showdown' at Thomond Park on September 19th. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Yesterday the big Young Munster man, who takes up a two-year contract with Toulon after the World Cup, reflected: "I'm a big fan personally. I love the struggle Andy's gone through to become world champion, having lost two big fights.

"Limerick people, I think, love his perseverance and I know it's a bit of a cliché about boxers but ... the warrior spirit ... to be able to lose two big fights, yet come back and win a world title, that's what I really love about him anyway.

"I also love that he's after going out of his way to bring this fight to Limerick. He's not fighting a run-of-the-mill boxer, he's boxing someone who's unbeaten, the mandatory challenger. It's just going to be an unbelievable occasion for Limerick.

"So there are so many things that work with this. I think Andy obviously is a Munster fan. I'd say in the back of his mind he's always wanted to win a title, then defend that title in Limerick. All his hard work has paid off now with the fight to be held in Thomond Park.

"It's going to be great to see a packed house there, Munster fans, Irish fans, Limerick fans, Andy Lee fans, all coming together and making it an unbelievable occasion for Limerick. And an unbelievable occasion for Andy. I think it's important that everybody in Limerick gets behind him and just respects him and shows gratitude to him for what he's done.

Katie Taylor added to the undercard for Andy Lee's showdown with Billy Joe Saunders
Katie Taylor added to the undercard for Andy Lee's showdown with Billy Joe Saunders

"I'm really disappointed I won't be there but Mick Kearney, our manager, has already agreed to get the fight on TV. We've a job I suppose that day as well but, after it, we'll be stuck to the TV."

For Lee then, this will be a tumultuous homecoming, one freighted with all manner of heavy consequence and emotion.

"That's something I'm going to have to deal with," he reflected yesterday. "I've thought about it. I mean it would be a disaster if I lost with all the hype building and everything that's coming behind it, you know this great feeling of momentum.

"In the back of your mind, it's, 'What if I lose this fight?' I just can't afford to lose this fight, that's the honest truth. So I have to deal with the occasion, the atmosphere, then deal with the fight itself.

"But when there's nothing on the line, even when you win, there's no big thrill. You don't really take pleasure in it.

"These fights where everything's on the line, these are the ones that really mean something. And everything's on the line in this one!"

Saunders is unbeaten in 21 pro contests and inclined to toss incendiaries at his opponents' feet.

Six years younger than Lee, he has described the Limerick man as someone "coming to the end" of his career. The bait, however, won't be taken.

"What he's saying about me, that's just stuff he has to say," suggests Lee. "I've heard him say this stuff before and it doesn't bother me. He and I both know that once we get in the ring all the talk is just that ... talk. So I take it with a pinch of salt. He's in quite arrogant form. He's gone on record before as saying he'd never lose to an Irishman, but it's just not my style to respond. It would be totally out of character for me to get involved in that kind of stuff even though I've had it thrown at me before in past fights.

"That kind of stuff has to be natural, anything else just doesn't come across right. I prefer to do my talking in the ring."

Lee will return to his Surrey base on Tuesday where he continues to thrive under the guidance of Adam Booth having spent eight years in the Detroit gym of the late, great Emmanuel Steward.

He dedicated his world title victory to Steward, one of his dreams fulfilled. Now retaining that title in his home town would be another.

Special

"It's hard to put into words how special this is going to be for me," says Lee. "I don't think I'll really understand the full impact until it's over and I can sit down and look back at it. I always dreamed of winning a world title and defending it in Limerick. And the natural place for that was Thomond Park.

"I'd often be driving by there and just say to myself, 'I'll fight there some day!'

"I mean I could have had this fight at West Ham but it was important for me to come back to Limerick, not only to have home advantage but just as a life experience that I could look back on. To be able to say that I defended my world title in a stadium in Limerick.

"So it'll be a pretty special occasion for me. No matter how much I would have made from a fight in America or maybe fighting Billy Joe Saunders in London, what price can you put on defending a world title in your home town?

"It means so much to me."

Tickets for the WBO world middleweight fight between Andy Lee and Billy Joe Saunders at Thomond Park on September 19 are available on www.ticketmaster.ie/showdown starting from €30

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