Andy Lee coming in from the cold

Inherent in Andy Lee’s make-up is a remarkable and understated ability to bounce back from adversity.

Albeit his derailing defeat to Bryan Vera in 2008, seeing his world title dreams collapse at the brick fists of an oversized Julio Cesar Chavez Jr four years later, or the untimely death of his mentor and father figure Emanuel Steward that same year, Limerick’s former Olympian has faced a plethora of major setbacks only to ultimately reap vengeance against the pesky narrative which seemed hellbent on rendering him a nearly man.

Tonight at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the 32-year-old will embark on another path towards retribution following a career-long 15-month absence from the ring.

One way or another, his comeback scrap with America’s KeAndrae Leatherwood will see one of Irish sport’s most grossly under-appreciated stories break new ground; for the first time, Lee will enter the contest as a ‘former’ world champion, freed of the ‘always the bridesmaid’ tag and any financial concerns, with an already illustrious career in the rear-view mirror.

Lee finds himself at a scarcely-reached juncture in his craft, whereby he can both box for the love of it and walk away at any point. Even should all go to script tonight, he will hang up the gloves within three or four fights, to enjoy a future with wife Maud that he earned the hard way.

When he does retire, he’ll leave his chosen profession with no enemies – not even the felled recipients of his famed right hook.

This, he told The Irish Examiner yesterday, will remain his proudest achievement in boxing, world title inclusive.

His amiable personality has doubtless cost him headlines both in print and on fight cards. But in a sport where flagrant chicanery and brash antics saw a fight between David Haye and Tony Bellew generate 13 million pounds – over half of which was split 60:40 in Haye’s favour, Lee’s vehement intolerance of gobshite behaviour has been his cross to bear.

In December 2014, he became the first Irish boxer since the great Jimmy McLarnin 80 years earlier to win a world title on US soil, rightly returning to a hero’s acclaim in his native Limerick. Lee was, at last, front page news – for a day, at least. His inevitable Late Late Show slot arrived at the show’s tail-end, lasting about 15 minutes. He hired an agent only to discover endorsements weren’t as forthcoming as one might have imagined – pro boxing’s lowly standing in the Irish sporting hierarchy putting paid to any significant commercial gain out of the ring.

And then came the Thomond Park debacle, where his homecoming fight with Billie Joe Saunders was initially postponed and later moved to Manchester. Lee was indeed genuinely sick at the time, but ticket sales had become a concern for promoter Frank Warren. Poor planning, lack of hotel rooms in Limerick, and BoxNation’s low viewership in Ireland also played their part in the Thomond clash failing to come to fruition.

Nonetheless, there was an indignation in seeing Lee having to travel to England for his first world title defence, not that the fighter himself complained even remotely, instead apologising to those who had purchased tickets. None of this is to suggest there’s a tragic undertone to his boxing journey, of course. The 32-year-old has already achieved his life goal, owns a couple of properties in Dublin where he lives with his wife, and is lauded both in Irish boxing circles and the pugilistic world over for both his ability and the manner with which he conducts himself. He has loved every second of it, give or take a couple, and he’s far from finished yet.

The real tragedy is the idea that the more casual sports observer might have missed the boat on one of Irish sport’s most evocative and enthralling tales. In such nefarious times, there’s solace to be taken from Andy Lee – the walking, breathing exception to life’s ‘nice guys finish last’ rule, and the last of a dying breed. We should enjoy him while we have him.

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