Monday 11 December 2017

Andy Lee not yet done with his ring dreams

Boxer Andy Lee and Singer Christy Dignam at the opening of Cabra Boxing Clubs new premises. Photo: Steve Humphrey.
Boxer Andy Lee and Singer Christy Dignam at the opening of Cabra Boxing Clubs new premises. Photo: Steve Humphrey.
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The blow-heater chews up electricity, but it's still cold enough in here to see his breath ghost above the bright press of strangers.

Andy Lee has come through a marriage of persistence and coercion, a flicker of Hollywood enticed through a heavy, wrought-iron gate at the bottom of Bannow Road. He dips down in fake weigh-in pose with tiny, grinning wraiths. He squares up playfully to adults of every weight-division. He smiles that matinee-idol smile for a small eternity of selfies.

There is a dignity and elegance to how he interacts with people. Why is he here? Because they asked. Lee has no connection to Cabra Boxing Club beyond the superficiality of Twitter correspondence and the knowledge that a group of members went to Manchester last December to support him against Billy Joe Saunders.

"What is it but a couple of hours?" he shrugs. To him, maybe. But to the kids, he has come floating in here from an alternate universe.

Cabra BC is a young club fighting old obstacles. It is just over two years in existence and, only now, in possession of premises it can access seven days a week. On February 4, they moved into the derelict shells of two, breeze-block buildings previously used as an industrial paint shop. Two weeks later, they had a fully functioning gym.

Maybe 90 people will come through the doors tonight, from the kids' academy to an adult keep-fit session to the bread-and-butter of their existence, the senior boxing class.


Founded by Damien Flood, a former Army boxing champion, the club's priorities stretch far beyond what might be achievable in a ring. As club chairman David Murphy surmises: "This is about kids boxing in a deprived area. Our whole objective is to take them off the street, away from anti-social behaviour, away from drugs, away from gangs.

"You've, say, 25 kids in here tonight. What would they be doing at home? Out hanging on a street corner? They're in here getting an education in boxing. They're being disciplined.

"With all the bad news stories around boxing lately, you've a former world champion walking in the gate tonight who doesn't know this club from Adam. That tells you a lot about boxing."

Lee himself says that he is touched by the reception encountered. Maybe two months on from that defeat by Saunders, he reflects: "To be welcomed like that when I came in here, all the kids....after a loss picks your spirits up."

He is 31 now and focusing on his next move.

In the dream, he would have defended his WBO Middleweight crown against Gennady Golovkin, the unbeaten Kazakh currently considered one of the best pound-for-pound boxers on the planet.

Instead, Lee faced a mandatory defence against Saunders. And, if it was originally to have happened at his dream venue, Thomond Park, he ended up as the "away fighter" three months later on a bill in Manchester after two postponements.

Hindsight now curses him with thoughts of what might-have-been.

After two early knockdowns, Lee won the majority of rounds against Saunders but lost his belt on a majority decision. "By the time the fight came, it had all taken so long, been so dragged out," he reflects now.

"I don't know if how I performed on the night was a result of all that stuff. To be a hundred per cent honest, I haven't spoken to anybody about this. But the few days before the fight, I don't know what it was, but I just had this lull in confidence.

"It was the middle of December, the weather was bad and you're dehydrating and starving yourself. All of that can have an effect...

"And for whatever reason, it was never a fight I could get excited about. It was always something I just had to get out of the way because he was a mandatory challenger. I had to fight the guy or vacate.

"And to be honest, I would have preferred not to fight the guy. I was never really inspired by the fight. So all that stuff was going on in the back of my head....even in the dressing-room beforehand. In my head, I remember thinking 'I'll work it out when I get in there.....'

"In the end, it was like an out-of-body experience. I was boxing but what I was doing wasn't what I had trained to do."

He has a vivid recollection of the first knockdown, of looking over at his corner and hearing the urgent chime of voices telling him to "hold, hold, hold". Just a week earlier, he'd seen Peter Quillin suffer a first-round stoppage against Danny Jacobs by ignoring that very same instruction. If in crisis, the only smart refuge for a boxer is to chase breathing-space and time.

Standing there as the referee counted, Lee had that image of Quillin in his head. The stupidity with which he ignored his corner. Then he went and did the same.


"My first thought was to hold but then, when he came at me, I said 'No, I'm going to let him have it!'" he remembers.

"Because I wanted to show him that there was a threat there, to make him think twice about just coming in. Even though I was seriously hurt. Then he caught me again in the exchange and that's ultimately what cost me the fight."

He believes now that he was concussed after the first knockdown. When he fought Quillin in Brooklyn last April, Lee also almost certainly suffered concussion in a first-round knockdown despite fighting his way to a 12-round draw. Three of his last four opponents have put him on the canvas and he is not indifferent to the implications.

"When you're knocked down like ... your brain gets switched off for whatever amount of time," he acknowledges. "And the harder you throw a punch, the more susceptible you are to being hit.

"The least little touch will knock you down because your own raw power is going against it, doubling the impact.

"If I'm honest, I don't really like talking about it. But that's what boxing does, that's the name of the game, isn't it? To knock the other person out."

The loss of his belt to Saunders hasn't been easy to rinse from Lee's system. He admits "it's easing", but pain still lingers. "For weeks after, I wouldn't even try to go to sleep without listening to something first that would take my mind off things," he says. "Even if I was in the kitchen, I'd put the radio on because I didn't want to be left alone to think about it.

"It does eat you up. Say, had I fought Golovkin and lost to him, it would have been an honourable loss because he's considered the best in the world. But, no disrespect to Billy Joe Saunders, he didn't beat me. I beat myself.

"Not to take away from his victory, he won the fight. But I had a big part in him winning that fight.

"I haven't watched it since and I probably never will. You know the plan was to beat him in Thomond, then fight Golovkin.

"And, win or lose, that would have been the perfect moment to say goodbye to boxing. But you know, God laughs when you make plans, isn't that what they say?"

Maybe the worst thing about defeat is how you carry it in your body after and Lee needs to be free of that feeling now.

He is likely to fight WBA champion, Jacobs, in New York next June, perhaps as a farewell to arms. "Part of me feels that, if I win that fight, I'll just walk away as a world champion and retire," he smiles. "It's a title fight, a chance to redeem myself. But there'll always be that Golovkin fight out there too..."

When his coach, Adam Booth, first got in touch about fighting Jacobs, Lee said to him 'Well, I'll win this one and we'll call it a day!" Booth laughed at the simplicity of the notion. "Well, I know what you're like," he said.

Still the fighter with a dream.

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