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Golden Child Mike Lee Finally Gets the Chance to Prove His Doubters Wrong

Bernard Fernandez

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Mike Lee

Most professional boxers, for whatever reason, have nicknames. With as unadorned a given name as Mike Lee, you might think that the guy who on July 20 will challenge IBF super middleweight champion Caleb Plant, whose nickname is “Sweethands,” would also have a catchy nom de guerre. Ah, but what would it be? “The Fighting Would-Be Stockbroker”? “The Subway Kid”? “The Golden Domer”?

Lee (21-0, 11 KOs) is now 31 and he’s heard all the snide and very likely envious remarks since he turned professional on May 29, 2010, with a four-round unanimous decision over Emmit Woods at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion. From the outset of his pro career, Lee’s background stamped him as markedly different from most other fighters who are obliged to start at the bottom and, hopefully, work their way up to some degree of recognition and decent paydays. For Lee – affluent white kid, University of Notre Dame graduate with a degree in finance (he had a 3.8 grade-point average and offers from Wall Street) and backing from a powerful promotional company (Top Rank) – it must have seemed that he was starting at the top and would have to demonstrate he had enough of what it takes to avoid sliding toward the bottom.

And then there were all those television commercials he did for the Subway sandwich shop chain, the most prominent of which drew a massive audience when it ran on Super Bowl Sunday in 2013. Although he was just one of several athletes in different sports to appear in such spots during a marketing campaign that lasted several years – some of the others were football stars Michael Strahan, Ndamukong Suh and Justin Tuck, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, baseball slugger Ryan Howard, NBA standout Tony Parker and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart – Lee, who at that point had accomplished little of note, was clearly an outlier, famous mostly for being famous.

But Lee said those who resented him for taking advantage of the kind of exposure that almost never is afforded anyone who has not painstakingly established his bona fides would have done exactly what he did.

“I wasn’t going to turn down these amazing opportunities that I had outside the ring, and I don’t think anybody would, but obviously you get doubters and haters,” he once said of the criticism he has had to deal with solely because he does not fit the profile of what many think a fighter ought to be.

It has been years since Lee last appeared in a Subway commercial. The attention he once routinely drew for being different has been tamped down. But enough residual animosity remains to make him a target for some of the same thinly veiled or outright putdowns. At an introductory press conference in New York attended by both Lee and Plant, as well as Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman who fight on Fox PPV following the Lee-Plant match on Fox and Fox Deportes, Plant (18-0, 10 KOs) depicted himself as the dues-paying traditionalist who has had to scrap for everything he’s ever wrung out of boxing, while Lee’s education and prominence allows him any number of fallback life options should his first shot at a world title result in a crash-and-burn scenario.

After Lee, speaking first, said he has “nothing to lose” in a bout in which he is a significant underdog, Plant turned toward his smartly dressed opponent and said, “I’ve been doing this (boxing) for 18 years straight – no breaks, no distractions and no Plan B. I commend you for this, but there’s no college degree for me. No high school sports, no acting gigs, no Subway commercials. Just boxing, day in, day out, rain, sleet or snow.

“You may have a financial degree, but in boxing I have a Ph.D. And that’s something you don’t know anything about. If this guy thinks for one second that I would let him mess this up for me and send me back (to his hardscrabble beginning) … unlike him, I have everything to lose.”

Lee has heard it all before. As intimated by Plant and others, he arrived from Notre Dame’s Golden Dome with a silver spoonful of caviar stuck in his mouth. As such, he is merely dabbling in the fight game, which outsiders see as his hobby rather than his vocation, until it’s finally time for him to take advantage of his degree, put on thousand-dollar suits and head to work every morning carrying an expensive leather briefcase rather than a gym bag. And that could happen yet.

There is no shortage of evidence to suggest that Lee still is the beneficiary of circumstances that have always made him such a marketable commodity. For one thing, he has fought as a light heavyweight his entire pro career, yet is getting a world title shot in his first bout at a new and lower weight class. That in and of itself suggests some level of preferential treatment for someone who is not ranked in the top 15 at super middleweight by any of the four major world sanctioning organizations.

Without doubt, Lee’s path to the precipice of the world championship he has long believed to be his destiny has been comparatively obstacle-free. A multi-sport star at the exclusive Benet Academy in Wheaton, Ill., he first drew attention as a boxer after winning three straight Bengal Bouts titles at Notre Dame, his “dream school” to which he transferred after spending his freshman year at the University of Missouri. The Bengal Bouts were started in 1920 by legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne on the principle that “strong bodies fight, that weak bodies may be nourished.” Toward that end, in Lee’s senior year the Bengal Bouts raised more than $100,000 to combat poverty in Bangladesh, where Lee traveled for two weeks to teach English and mathematics.

“Bangladesh opened my eyes,” Lee said of that experience. “To go to a Third World country like that and see people that are really struggling for simple necessities that we take for granted, it made me extremely grateful and, I think, a more charitable person.”

It came to the attention of Top Rank founder and chairman Bob Arum, who transformed blimpish Eric  “Butterbean” Esch and Latina hottie Mia St. John into TR undercard staples, that there were a couple of amateur boxers at Notre Dame that might also someday prove useful to his company’s bottom line. One was Tommy Zbikowski, an All-America safety and punt returner for the Fighting Irish who had had his first sanctioned amateur bout at the age of nine but had retained his love of boxing even as his reputation as a big-play-maker in football increasingly steered him in that direction. Arum paid Zbikowski $25,000 to make his pro debut, as a smallish heavyweight, on June 10, 2006, in Madison Square Garden, where he stopped Robert Bell in one round.

Arum said his interest in Zbikowski was piqued not only because he was a star football player, but because of his college affiliation. “Oh, absolutely,” Arum said in acknowledging that “Tommy Z” probably wouldn’t have gotten the Garden gig had he played at, say, Weber State or Northern Iowa. “Notre Dame has a cachet to it in athletics and popular culture.”

Although Zbikowski wound up having eight pro bouts, seven as a cruiserweight, and won them all with five KOs, he remains better known for his football exploits at Notre Dame and with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, for whom he was voted special-teams player of the year in 2009.

And the other Notre Dame fighter to draw interest from Top Rank? It was the handsome, bright, personable kid who had helped build schools and health-care facilities in Bangladesh, a veritable Mother Teresa in padded gloves. If anything could transform Mike Lee into a prepackaged star, it was Bob Arum’s always whirling hype machine. And, for a while, it was a mutually beneficial arrangement, Lee compiling an 11-0 record for Top Rank until his contract ran out and he was unable to negotiate an extension to his liking.

Not that Lee ever was the phony creation as some have depicted him. Yes, he has a background of wealth and privilege, but it was not always so; his father, John Lee, served 18 years in the Army, most of those with the 101st Airborne Division, before he entered private life and made his fortune as the manufacturer of barcode machines. John reveled in his only son’s love of contact sports, and he did not object when Mike indicated that he’d rather try his hand, at least initially, as a pro boxer than as a wheeler-dealer on Wall Street.

“Both my parents grew up in the city (Chicago) under tough upbringings,” Lee noted. “My dad didn’t even graduate high school. And that’s how I was raised, not with a suburban vanilla outlook on life.”

Still, Lee’s career choice must seem confounding to some. But who’s to say someone, anyone, should not follow his heart?

“Boxing brought out an adrenaline rush that I was seeking,” Mike said of a passion that for him the business world could never duplicate. “I always excelled in different sports, but there’s nothing like boxing to me where it’s one-on-one. There’s no excuses, there’s no timetable.”

So fight fans have to view Mike Lee from two perspectives. One is that he’s the pampered suburbanite who was born on third base, in a manner of speaking, and will think he hit a home run if he advances another 90 feet to home plate. The other is that he’s as gritty and committed as anyone who gravitated to boxing from the ’hood or barrio. How many fighters of any stripe would or could have dealt with the nearly two years of debilitating pain that kept him sidelined until, four years ago, he received the correct diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, which is similar to rheumatoid arthritis and causes inflammation, fatigue and headaches that made him feel as if his skull was about to explode.

“This is the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice, pain, in and out of hospitals,” Lee said of the journey he has undertaken to get to this point. “Most importantly, getting somewhere no one thought I could get to. A lot of people didn’t think I could get to 10-0, 20-0, let alone (a shot at) a world title.

“I’m fine being the `B-side,’ the underdog. I feel like I got nothing to lose in this fight. I’m coming out with everything I got. This is everything I ever wanted. I plan on making it my moment, and I’m going to keep proving people wrong.”

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NEWS FLASH: Leon Spinks Hospitalized; Reportedly Fighting for His Life

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The gossip site TMZ is reporting that Leon Spinks is hospitalized in Las Vegas and is fighting for his life. TMZ acquired this information from Spinks’ wife Brenda Glur Spinks after spying her social media post. “It’s been a tough year for us,” she wrote. “Leon has endured a lot of medical problems. I’m reaching to ask that you pray for my Beautiful Husband Leon. So that he may overcome the obstacles that crossed his path.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Leon’s son Leon Spinks III who posted this message on his facebook page: “My Dad isn’t doing so good now and his wife Brenda Glur Spinks and I ask that u pray that he weather’s this storm. My dad is all I have left and I really appreciate it if yall let God know that he is not in this battle alone.”

A gold medal winner at the 1976 Olympics, Spinks, 66, is best remembered for upsetting Muhammad Ali in 1978 to win the world heavyweight title. He lost the title back to Ali in his next fight.

This is a developing story. As new details emerge, we will share them with you.

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Crawford-Kavaliauskas is the Main Go, but ‘The Takeover’ is the Stronger Allurement

Arne K. Lang

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Crawford-Kavaliauskas is the Main Go, but ‘The Takeover’ is the Stronger Allurement

Terence Crawford puts his undefeated record and his WBO welterweight title on the line Saturday when he opposes Egidijus Kavaliauskas at Madison Square Garden on ESPN. Kavaliauskas is no slouch. The two-time Olympian for Lithuania is also undefeated (21-0-1, 17 KOs), but Crawford is so highly regarded that he is a massive favorite.

If one were arranging the bouts according to the degree of intrigue, using the odds as the barometer, Crawford vs Kavaliauskas wouldn’t sit atop the marquee. That honor would go the IBF lightweight title fight between Richard Commey and Teofimo Lopez. Moreover, it’s a fair guess that if this fight were to fall out (perish the thought) it would result in more refunds than if Crawford were a late scratch.

The challenger, Lopez, is favored, currently in the vicinity of 9/4, but this is a price that usually translates into a very competitive fight and the stakes are high. The winner will almost assuredly advance to a rich engagement with Vasiliy Lomachenko who holds the other three meaningful 135-pound title belts

Commey (29-2, 26 KOs) won the IBF lightweight title – it was conveniently vacant – with a second-round stoppage of Russia’s Isa Chaniev and stopped Raymundo Beltran in eight rounds in his first title defense. Commey dominated both fights, scoring seven knockdowns in all, but the Russian was a sad excuse for a world title challenger and Beltran, although a solid pro, was past his prime at age 38.

Commey’s two losses came in back-to-back fights in 2016 and both were by split decision. He lost to Robert Easter Jr in Reading, Pennsylvania, and then, eight weeks later, was upended by Denis Shafikov before a tiny crowd at an actual boxing gym in Moscow.

There was nothing controversial about those losses, but in both instances Commey was in hostile territory. Toledo’s Easter brought a large delegation of fans to Reading and Shafikov was fighting on his home turf. The crowd on Saturday will almost assuredly be skewed against Commey again, but it won’t be as pronounced. Commey, born and raised in Ghana, has a home in the Bronx. Lopez was born in Brooklyn, a bond that his Brooklyn-born promoter Bob Arum likes to emphasize, but grew up in Davie, Florida.

Teofimo

At age 22, Teofimo Lopez (14-0, 11 KOs) is almost 10 years younger than Richard Commey. A year ago, at this very venue, he scored his most memorable triumph, a highlight-reel, 44-second, one-punch knockout of Mason Menard that was named the TSS Knockout of the Year. He has won three fights in the interim, most recently a 12-round decision over Masayoshi Nakatani.

Teofimo won comfortably on the scorecards, but his performance left much to be desired. The Japanese was a tall, rangy fighter. In Richard Commey, he is meeting a man of similar height. Both are listed at five-foot-eight.

Lopez has developed a large following in a short time and his in-ring heroics are only part of the story. He’s quite the showman. After each win he adds an exclamation point with a celebratory back-flip and outside the ring his brash persona has enhanced his notoriety.

When a fighter has a common surname, it helps to have a unique first name. The reality is that Lopez would not have built his brand as fast if his first name had been, say, Miguel, or Carlos, or Juan. And he had the foresight to supplement his unique first name with a unique nickname: The Takeover.

The nickname, says Lopez, doesn’t just refer to taking over a specific weight division (he’ll move up to 140 before the year 2020 is over) but, rather, taking over the whole sport in the sense of becoming boxing’s biggest pay-per-view attraction. Early into his pro career, he began calling out Lomachenko.

Teofimo’s biggest cheerleader is his Honduras-born father and trainer of the same name and the elder Lopez has even more hubris than his son. “My son is too strong for Lomachenko….he would walk through anything that Lomechenko throws at him,” Teofimo Sr. told veteran boxing writer Bill Tibbs prior to his son’s match with Mason Menard. “Liston, he has God-given gifts and he’s simply the best out there. (My son) has the best parts of Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, GGG, Floyd, Andre Ward, all the best of them in him.”

The Lopez that defeated Nakatani would not have defeated Vasiliy Lomachenko. And there are those that think he won’t beat Richard Commey unless he brings his “A’ game. It’s an interesting fight.

—–

The main fights on Saturday’s Top Rank boxing card will air on ESPN’s flagship station. The boxing card, which opens with the rematch between Michael Conlan and Vladimir Nikitin, follows the show in which the Heisman Trophy is presented to LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. The Heisman telecast will begin at 8 pm EST.

The same situation prevailed last year when Top Rank’s Madison Square Garden card was headlined by the fight between Vasiliy Lomachenko and Jose Pedraza. To the consternation of diehard boxing fans, the Heisman presentation show ran late. Don’t be surprised if it happens again.

Photo credit: Stacy Verbeek

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Will U.S. Olympic Boxers Fare Better in Tokyo Thanks to Yesterday’s Ruling?

Arne K. Lang

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The road to the medal round for U.S. boxers at the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics just got easier. But maybe not.

“Russia Banned From The Tokyo Olympics” screamed yesterday’s headline, but reading between the lines there’s more to the story. A more carefully worded headline would have read “Russian Olympic Athletes in Limbo.”

We have been down this road before. WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, recommended banning Russia from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The agency accused Russian authorities of a massive cover-up that erased hundreds of positive test samples.

WADA then did something of an about-face and decided to evaluate each case individually. Ultimately, 278 Russian athletes were approved to compete in Rio; 111 were denied. All 11 Russian boxers who survived the various qualifying events made the cut.

This new ban (which will be appealed) also emanates from WADA which alleges that the Russian authorities continued the massive cover-up using the “disappearance methodology.” But, if upheld, it’s a more severe penalty in that it bans Russia from major international sporting events for the next four years. That would include the World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world by far. The next edition of the World Cup is slated for 2022 in Qatar.

“There’s still…the possibility of clean athletes to compete in the Games,” Svetlana Romashina, a five-time Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming, told Moscow correspondent Andrew Roth of The Guardian. “I believe the punishment of clean athletes to be unacceptable,” continued Romashina. “We have done nothing wrong.”

The reality, as it now stands, is that Russian boxers and other Russian athletes, if deemed clean, will be able to compete in Tokyo, just not under the Russian banner. As is common in some wrestling tournaments, their affiliation will be “unattached.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a big fan of amateur boxing and other combat sports, won’t be there. The ban prohibits Russian officials from attending major international sporting events if their team has been expelled.

—–

Historically, the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team has excelled in the Summer Games. But that’s yesterday’s news. In the last three Olympics, U.S. male boxers won only three medals, one silver and two bronze. By contrast, during the same period, Russian boxers walked off with 10 medals including three gold.

The prognosis for the 2020 U.S. team looked dim once again when the U.S. contingent earned only one medal (a silver by lightweight Keyshawn Davis) at the recent AIBA men’s World Championships in Ekaterinburg, Russia. The host team garnered four medals, including three gold. If one conjoined the Russian squad with former Soviet Union satellites Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the count grows to seven gold medals (of a possible eight) and 15 medals overall.

Russia’s gold medalists at the World Championships were welterweight Andrey Zamkovoy (pictured), middleweight Gleb Bakshi, and heavyweight Muslim Gadzhimagomedov. Zamkovoy and the heavyweight (who will badly need a new name if he ever turns pro) are outstanding amateurs and may have been favored to win their divisions in Tokyo.

Zamkovoy, 32, represented Russia in the 2012 and 2016 Games and medaled in 2012 where he defeated Errol Spence Jr en route to the semi-finals. The heavyweight (a cruiserweight by pro standards) is an ever-improving, 22-year-old, six-foot-four southpaw who has already amassed an amateur record of 60-5.

The competition for the U.S. team at overseas tournaments has gotten a lot tougher in the last two decades as several Eastern European countries have become more like Cuba, investing state resources into their amateur boxing programs with an eye to building a powerhouse. Perhaps the WADA edict will aid the U.S. boxing team in shaking the doldrums in 2020, but that assumption seems premature.

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