Sunday 20 January 2019

Lee didn't get the credit his undoubted talent deserved - but he will always be a champion

Andy Lee is someone who conducted himself in and out of the ring with huge nobility. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Andy Lee is someone who conducted himself in and out of the ring with huge nobility. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Andy Lee always seemed slightly out of step. He was a brilliant amateur boxer when Irish amateur boxing was in the doldrums who turned professional when the pro game barely featured on the national radar. He was an Irish champion who spoke with an English accent, a Limerick hero who never got the big home-town gig he deserved, a Traveller whose background was rarely mentioned in our national media. Above all, he was an articulate, intelligent and gentlemanly figure in an era when boxing and combat sports in general favoured the grudge match and the loudmouth and stepped closer to the gutter.

Hopefully this anomalous tendency in Lee's character has persisted and he will be that rare boxer who's quit at the right time, managing to set himself up nicely without suffering too much damage along the way. He deserves to because Andy Lee (pictured) is someone who conducted himself in and out of the ring with huge nobility.

Lee arrived on the amateur scene at a time when the glory days of the 1992 Olympics were fading from the memory and the new golden era heralded by the 2008 Games was something no-one would have dared to imagine. At the age of 18 he won a world junior silver medal and at 19 a European bronze medal which earned him a spot at the 2004 Olympics where he lost a controversial decision in the second round. Lee was Ireland's only representative at the Games and opted to turn pro rather than aim at the Beijing Olympics.

He joined Emanuel Steward at the famous Kronk gym in Detroit but the absence of an Olympic medal meant the ballyhoo which has attended the entry to the professional ranks of, Nevin, Barnes and Conlan was absent.

The first phase of Lee's career largely belonged to the realm of rumour as it was very hard to see any of his fights. Yet in little over a year he built a 10-0 record before making his Irish debut at the Point Theatre in August 2007, the first of three home fights in six months which brought his record to 15-0. Steward's constant predictions that Lee would become one of the sport's greatest fighters began to be repeated not just in the media but in the national sporting conversation.

Then came the shock seventh round knockout by Brian Vera in March 2008 which, in the way of these things, seemed to garner more attention than any of Lee's victories. The progress to the top of the sport didn't seem such an inevitability any more. Yet Lee's reaction was enormously impressive. In the next four years he won 13 fights on the trot, with a particularly impressive spell in 2011 where in successive fights he knocked out Craig McEwan, a Scottish fighter regarded as another of the sport's top prospects who never seemed the same again, won the NABF title and then gained revenge on Vera.

It earned him a shot at Julio Cesar Chavez Junior's WBC title in June 2012 in El Paso. Stopped in the seventh round while leading on points, Lee suddenly seemed like yesterday's man. A fickle public moved on to new things. Few headlines attended his December 2014 fight for the WBO title against Matvey Korobov, the brilliant Russian who was 26-0 as a pro after a stellar amateur career. But that night in Vegas Andy Lee proved all those earlier predictions of glory correct, winning on a sixth round stoppage.

It's a pity that, like Bernard Dunne, having worked so hard to win a world title, Lee didn't get to enjoy it for very long. The mooted title defence against England's Billy Joe Saunders at Thomond Park would surely have ranked as one of the great occasions in the history of Irish boxing. But that fell through and when Lee did meet Saunders, a year and six days after taking the title, it was in Manchester where he lost a majority decision. He would probably have won it in front of a home crowd in Limerick. As champion, he deserved that chance.

Had Lee been prepared to engage in the kind of tawdry pre-fight theatrics so common in big time boxing these days he might have enjoyed a higher profile and bigger pay-days. But if he'd done that he wouldn't have been Andy Lee.

It's odd the extent to which Lee's Traveller background is ignored while that of his cousin Tyson Fury is harped upon. It suggests a, perhaps unconscious, racism at work, an idea that the man's good character means he can't really be connected with the Traveller community. The racist beam in our own eye is invisible to plenty of people who have no problem paying tribute to Colin Kaepernick one day and castigating the entire Traveller population for the misdeeds of a few the next.

Yet Andy Lee knows the score. Last year, presenting the Traveller Pride award for Sport to national amateur lightweight champ Patrick Mongan, he said, "Travellers are fighting for human rights from the day they are born." And on Twitter last week he was congratulating John Connors who said when winning his IFTA award for Best Actor, "I'm a Traveller, I can't get an agent, but this is still a huge moment for me."

Everything about Andy Lee is impressive. He'll always be a champion.

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