The Big Interview: Andy Lee, boxer

Winning a world championship was a dream for Andy Lee, all the more so after two major career-threatening defeats and then the passing of his legendary mentor Emanuel ‘Manny’ Steward. 

The Big Interview: Andy Lee, boxer

Don’t let the belt or his cleancut look and gentlemanly manner fool you though. Nothing has been sated. At 30 and working under the tutelage of Andy Booth, the man this week honoured as Limerick Person of the Year reckons he is now an even better fighter than the one who knocked out Matt Korobov in Madison Square Garden last December.

This isn’t Detroit. This sure isn’t the Kronk gym where he used to operate out of with Manny with its metal-grilled windows that used to block out the burned-out cars and dilapidated buildings which it itself resembled from its rundown red-brick exterior.

When Andy Lee wakes up these mornings it’s to the stunning view of Mediterranean blue. The sea is one of the many things Monte Carlo has going for it but for him the biggest is Adam Booth.

This is where his English trainer now works out of so it’s now where Lee works out of too. Since January 12, less than a month after he brought home the WBO belt to Limerick, he’s been here in training camp.

Or ‘jail’ as Marvin Hagler used to call it when he was preparing for a big fight like Lee’s first WBO middleweight title defence against the unbeaten Peter ‘Kid Chocolate’ Quillin in New York on primetime US TV this day fortnight.

Monaco is too lovely and Lee too jovial for him to ever describe this part of process as grimly as Hagler but don’t for a second think Lee came to the playhouse of Europe to live it up having finally become world champion.

This is where he came to grind and prepare to take that WBO belt off the previously unbeaten Russian blockhouse Matt Korobov last December in Madison Square Garden.

It’s where he and Booth had to deconstruct and reconstruct his entire career and style when in 2012 another shot at the world title had slipped by and Manny had passed away too.

Teaming up with Booth and heading to Monaco was never about entering some comfort zone. It was about exiting one.

It’s been a theme of Lee’s whole life. There mightn’t be more of a gentleman in or out of the sport than the pride of Limerick but discomfort is something he’s never shirked.

He was the first Olympian the high performance unit on the South Circular Road produced.

When Gary Keegan ran a piece of red tape across the floor, stood one side of it and asked who was joining him where the quest for high performance lay, a lot of boxers hesitated.

“There was a lot of resistance from the older lads,” Lee recalls, “and it put an end to their careers.”

The teenaged Lee though gladly bounded the divide, and soon after was sleeping on the same gym’s floor, the method of accommodation the unit’s boxers used to circumnavigate budgetary constraints and still facilitate their full-time regimen and Olympic dream.

After Athens Lee took another bold leap by declining a generous grant from the Sports Council and leaving the familiar environs of the National Stadium for Detroit. Motown. Manny.

Emanuel Steward was not just any trainer. He was the ultimate ring whisperer: confidant and coach to the champs, from his local boy Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns, to Mike McCallum, Gerald McClellan, Oscar De La Hoya, Julio Cesar Chavez Senior, Naseem Hamed and heavyweights like Evander Holyfield, Michael Moorer, Oliver McCall and Lennox Lewis right up to Vladimir Klitschko. Not even his fellow Eddie Futch protégé, one Berry Gordy, across town produced more big hits and stars.

And yet for the last eight years of Steward’s life Andy Lee was the fighter who lived with him. Andy Lee was the fighter he wanted to train.

It began with the 2002 world junior championships in Havana. Steward was meant to fly in to see US champ Jesus Gonzales breeze through to the final, but a hurricane cancelled that flight and then upon landing he’d learn Gonzales had encountered a hurricane himself in his middleweight semi-final bout. Steward was intrigued more than he was annoyed.

“A tall skinny kid from Ireland beat Jesus Gonzales?!” He had to see him. In time he’d have to work with him.

Through their mutual connection, Damian McCann in Belfast, the pair met up, hit it off and at the end of 2005 signed up together. Goodbye Ireland. Hello, Kronk. The Kronk (pronounced Kronx or Kronks) is one of the most fabled gyms in all boxing folklore, the kind a motorway of Hollywood celluloid has tried to recreate.

“You walk in,” says Lee, “and at first it’s very quiet, all you might be able to hear is some kids playing basketball. But once you walk down those couple of flights of stairs you’re hit by this unbelievable heat and chaotic noise of guys punching the bags and speedballs and skipping rope.”

It was tiny, basic: just two bags, one ring and a mirror under a very low ceiling, but its red and yellow painted walls seeped attitude, history, intent.

On the metal door leading into the gym was ingrained the epigraph: THIS DOOR HAS LED MANY TO PAIN AND FAME.

Inside on the gym walls were plastered other slogan such as WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH THE TOUGH GET GOING. THE BIGGER THE REWARD THE BIGGER THE SACRIFICE. TURN UP THE HEAT. Anywhere else that might have seemed trite, clichéd, corporate speak. Here it was real.

Staring out at you were the photos and eyes of tens of world champs. Slumped against the wall were other old-timers and trainers. Everyone there was judging you.

“My first time there I was supposed to just work out, no sparring, just to get a feel for the place. I’d walked in with Emanuel and everyone wanted to impress him so the call went round. ‘Fresh meat! Fresh meat!’“Emanuel looked at me. ‘You ready to spar now?’ He knew I was hyped for it. All I had was my mouthpiece. I had to borrow some boxing boots and headgear from Tommy Hearn’s son, Ronald.

“Next thing I’m going at it for four rounds with Cornelius Bundrage, the current IBF light middleweight champion.

“Then afterwards Emanuel says to Tommy Hearns, ‘Tommy, would you do some padwork with Andy?’”

Any doubts he had about quitting Dublin for Detroit dissolved right there.

He’d learn so much there and from Manny who’d welcome him into his home and let him stay for nearly eight years. The man was so generous, genial, a genius.

His mastery was in the little details. He’d instruct Lee how to put sellotape on his laces and protective cup so they didn’t come loose or fall down during a fight. Instead of putting Vaseline on his face, Lee was to apply cocoa butter. “Everyone laughs at me when they hear that,” says Lee, “but I don’t get cut anymore.”

Nothing lasts forever though. A few months after Lee lost the second fight of his professional career – a seven-round technical knockout to Julio Caesar Chavez Junior in El Paso for the WBC middleweight title in the summer of 2012 – Steward fell ill from a stomach disorder with severe complications.

Lee at the time was in London with his wife, Maud, but upon learning of Manny’s condition flew to Detroit and headed straight to the hospital. When Emanuel was moved to Chicago, Lee went with him.

“I spent 10 days with him. I’m very lucky to have had those days with him. His health deteriorated rapidly from the day I was there. I knew when I left I wasn’t going to see him again.

I said, ‘I’ll stay with you, Emanuel’, but he said ‘No, get your flight. We’ll see each other again.’ But I knew we wouldn’t.”

Lee knows that had he stayed in Detroit, he wouldn’t even be boxing, let alone world champ, now. He had to move, begin again, make another bold leap.

He’d been good enough to get a shot at Chavez’s world title and be ahead on the scorecard before the fight was stopped in the seventh, but the bottom line was he hadn’t been good enough to be world champ.

“It was either try something new,” he says, “or die the old way.”

For Lee there was only one trainer for him: David Hayes’ trainer, Adam Booth. He’d never met the man but having observed him through the years on TV, Lee was impressed by how calculated, calm and precise he was.

Booth, on the other hand, wasn’t as enamoured by what he’d seen from a distance. It wasn’t so much that the rest of the boxing world saw Lee as damaged goods after the Chavez fight. It was his technical style. It was all over the place.

“I remember looking at him [Lee],” Booth has said, “and thinking, ‘I don’t know how I can work with a guy like this.’” But once again Damien McCann (whose own Kronk gym in Belfast Lee would visit with his WBO belt last January) was a mutual friend who opened a door. Once Booth met Lee he was won over by his sincerity, humility and work ethic.

The progress they’ve made over the last two years is striking. Just last Tuesday Booth remarked that the previous night he’d watched Lee’s fight with Chavez again, something Lee never has.

“It’s scary to see the changes you’ve made as a fighter,” Booth told him. “You’re a different fighter.”

The first thing Booth did was to give him different heights; pause the Korobov fight at different junctions and you’ll notice that although Lee at 6’2 had four inches on the Russian, his head was often lower than Korobov’s. Before working with Booth, Lee was never comfortable with someone being in close with him; his whole career he’d tried to keep opponents distant from him. Now can fight long and close.

He can take a punch. And he can give one. Not just with his trademark right hook but he’s developed a fine left hand. One jolted Korobov in the third round. Another few just whistled past his chin. If they connect against Quillin on April 11 in front of 18,000 packed into Brooklyn’s Barclay Center...

That’s the plan.

And yet they both know everything hinged on that fight with Korobov. If he hadn’t won that day, the only plans he’d have had would have been of the retirement variety.

“In boxing any defeat is pure devastation. And it’s very costly. A loss in boxing means so much more than it does in any other sport. You lose a football game and you have the next week to redeem yourself. In boxing you might not have a fight for five months. It could take a couple of years for you to get back to near where you were.

“When you’re younger and coming up through the ranks the fear of losing is a lot more prevalent in your life. With that Korobov fight I knew a loss would have been the end of my career. I knew it was all or nothing. But I think there’s a great power in not thinking about anything at all and just doing it. People can become crippled by over-thinking.

“The way I approach it is to take all the little things in life and training very seriously and take the big occasions very lightly. My sleep, my diet, all those small things I can control, I make sure I do them right. Then when it comes to the big event I just relax.”

On fight day against Korobov he just chilled out with Maud, went for a walk around town, then watched How It’s Made on the Discovery Channel for a couple of hours. That’s how he was made world champion.

Just conserving his energy, keeping it loose and fun even in the dressing room with the music on before just going out and doing it in the ring.

That’s not to say he didn’t think about the fight. He visualised it, constantly. Just at the right time and remove.

“I can tell you right now I visualised that finish. I didn’t know for sure it would happen like that but I’d thought about the whole fight and Adam’s instructions. We knew Korobov was a very quick starter from all his four two-minute rounds as a great amateur but we knew that even if I was behind after three or four rounds not to panic.

“I can’t say we knew we’d knock him out; it’s funny, but the more you look for a knockout the more you telegraph your punches and you’re less likely to come with the required quickness.

But I knew as the fight went on I’d get stronger and I’d get a chance to hurt him. And I’d imagined if the chance arose, to go in for the kill. I must have visualised it a hundred times.”

Every morning this past week in Monte Carlo he’s continued to vividly picture his next fight, his next session.

“I usually do it in the morning. I find your mind is clearer instead of doing it late at night and getting yourself hot again and you find then you can’t sleep. I lie in bed and just go through it and after awhile you find yourself twitching and shaking (throwing punches). I believe it’s a very important part of preparation.

"They say the body can’t tell the difference between something you imagine and recreate vividly and something you physically do: that it has almost the exact same benefits. When I had hand injuries as an amateur I would simply go into a room and visualise sparring. Then when I found myself back doing it I was just as sharp with my punching and accuracy.”

Under Booth, like everything else, his visualisation has gone to another level. Last Monday Lee did 10 rounds with spars Booth had brought over from the UK. Lee had gone well, only Booth felt he could have done even better on a few key sequences.

“Just picture yourself doing them right for the next day,” he told him. Throw in one to the head and then a right to the body. Break out to the side and not just pull back straight all the time.

So on the Tuesday morning Lee closed his eyes and found himself executing those sequences in his mind, again twitching and shaking in the bed. Then on the Wednesday he sparred for 12 rounds, watched on by his wife Maud who was over from their new home in Dublin. Lee reckons it was the best sparring session of his career.

So life has gone on after Manny. And life goes on after winning the title which the 30-year-old dedicated to the memory of his old trainer, it coinciding with the 10th anniversary of them signing his first pro contract together.

Thanks to Booth and his own belief and desire, his improvement continues too.

“My goal in life was to become a world champion. Now that pressure is off, I can show how good I actually am against this guy.

“He’s an excellent fighter and he was a champion before so a win over him would show how good I really am.

“I feel there’s a lot more for me to do in the ring.”

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