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

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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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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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