“Everybody has a plan,” Mike Tyson once philosophised, “until they get punched in the mouth.” With 32 seconds to go in the very first round of his big-money bout against Kid Chocolate Peter Quillin back in April, Lee was hit with a ferocious looping right hand that left him more than just dazed and confused. He was concussed.
There’s hardly a word that has grown so exponentially and now prompts as much alarm in sporting discourse the past year or so as that C word.
If it was in a rugby stadium, like where his next fight will be, he’d have been whipped out of the action right away.
As it was, it looked as if his participation was going to finish there and then.
For only the second time in his pro career, and just the third in his entire life in the ring, Lee was sent to the canvas.
He’d gone out “a bit macho”, looking to assert his dominance, beat Quillin to the first punch. Only Quillin was thinking the same and beat him to it.
“That doubled the impact, when you throw a punch and get hit with a punch yourself. It could just as easily have him going down.” Only it wasn’t.
Somehow Lee scrambled to his feet before the count of 10, but, he can say now with even a smile, “I was knocked out really. I was up on my feet, boxing, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I was concussed.” Even when Lee somehow made it to the bell, wobbling against a neutral corner’s padding when it sounded, his trainer Adam Booth doubted whether his fighter would be coming back out.
“I walked up the steps,” Booth says, “with this feeling inside the fight was over.” Imagine being Andy Lee at that moment. Your first fight since winning the belt and then not even making it to the first round, in a fight on NBC, primetime US TV, in a jammed Barclays Center, one of the finest and newest indoor arenas in the vast American sports landscape, and essentially Quillin’s own backyard. The scale of that collapse. The humiliation. There’s nothing glamorous about that.
There’s hardly anything more lonely or frightening in sport than that.
George Foreman called it You Alone moments. No one else was on that floor in Zaire. No one else was on that canvas in the Barclays that night. Only Andy Lee. Somehow a voice in him told him to get back up. When it somehow also guided him to his own corner, Booth looked in to his fighter’s eyes and calmly said to him, “Talk to me.” More than three times. It took Lee about 20 seconds to respond and even then Booth’s own mind was whizzing.
“I was making those really quick assessments. Even when he stood up for the start of the second round I was looking at his legs and whether he’d got his stability again. Because I had never seen Andy hurt like that before.” He’d seen him hurt before alright. A key point in the revival of Lee’s career was his fight against John Jackson in Madison Square Garden last summer. In the first round of that fight he was also knocked down.
“That’s when I learned Andy is teak tough, so much tougher than he looks because he’s tall and long. Everything was in that shot of Jackson’s yet when he stood up, he didn’t fudge. He just nodded to the referee.” This was different.When I got knocked down against Jackson,” says Lee, “I was still fully there, I was totally there: as soon as I got up I was fine. Against Quillin, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was going on instinct.”
That Lee not only survived but managed to scrape out a draw is still not probably fully appreciated. Repeat: the guy was concussed. For Booth, it just reaffirmed that for all Lee’s pretty-boy looks, there hasn’t been a tougher sonofabitch to come out of Ireland. And the wisdom of Mickey Duff’s old line, “Anything can happen in the first round.” You have to be prepared for anything in the first round.
“The one thing we’re training for in this fight with Billy Joe [Saunders],” Booth says, “is being ready for any situation.” Back when he was training David Haye in his prime for the fight against Jean-Marc Mormeck, they worked on how to be comfortable being uncomfortable, even knockdowns.“We did this thing where David would do roly-polys forward and backwards across the ring and have to stand up. You do four or five roly-polys four or five times, everything is dizzy. But David would have to stand up, defend against punches coming at him and all the while pick me up, walk me across the ring, put me back down, step back and be clear-headed again. We’d rehearse overcoming a bad moment in a fight.”
It says everything about a fighter how they respond to those moments. When Tyson was later asked to expand on his famous quote, he’d say most fighters “stop in fear and freeze, like a rat. Normally people don’t deal with it that well.” Lee clearly isn’t most people, but like most people he did have that moment of doubt. In more than one fight he’s had that voice of doubt enter his head. At some point in every fight one fighter has those moments, and in some bouts, both fighters will.
“In the (2011) fight with Craig McEwan there was an internal panic at one point and a realisation that I was going to lose. I had just signed a contract with (HBO chief) Lou DiBella before that fight and all that stuff was going through my mind: ‘This is my first fight on HBO and I’m losing, I’m blowing it!’ I managed to turn it around but all that stuff was there.” Ultimately he’d stop that fight against McEwan by TKO in the 10th round. It took until about that stage in the Quillin fight for him to fully come around.
“It wasn’t until the start of the 11th round I kind of came back to myself and looked up and realised what round it was. I said to Adam then, ‘How’s the fight looking? Should I go all out and try to knock him out and take a chance?’ But Adam said to me, ‘No, you’re in the fight, just keep boxing.’” How he got to that point was just through sheer experience, grit and instinct. That was one of the achievements of the fight and also one of the frustrations. He didn’t get to fight like he has fought and trained under Booth.
“For those middle rounds I really boxed like the fighter I was before I teamed up with Adam. Because in those moments of panic you revert to your default. I was very upright, very straight and that’s the way I used to box. “It wasn’t until the later rounds I got my senses back and started to box more in the new style of boxing – low set, more dynamic and more athletic.
“There were times when we were exchanging and the bell would ring and I’d do a little Ali shuffle, just to show him I wasn’t hurt. It’s mad! When I think about me as a person and then how dominant I am in sparring and the fights I’ve had where it’s almost like a Rocky film or [Arturo] Gatti fight – it’s just hard to believe me that’s me in there doing it. “It’s like it’s a different person. It’s not me, you know?”
The Quillin fight was particularly difficult one to process and unwind from, going from that last guy you’d want your son to have a scrap with back to the first guy you’d want the daughter to arrive home with.
“It does take awhile to adjust to normal life. When you’re training you’re self- absorbed. As soon as you wake up, you’re thinking what am I going to eat, when am I going to sleep? You’re in such a tunnel vision. When you come back out into the real world and have to deal with people, especially your wife and family, it takes about a week or so to get back to being considerate.”
Eventually, he’d get back to that place. Have downtime with Maud, chill out, eat what he wanted, let the body and mind recover. His bicep needed six weeks to fully heal from the swelling and collision with an elbow of Quillin’s. The face had also been cut while the head in general has benefited from having more than just the mandatory three-month layoff that goes with concussion protocol.
Two weeks ago he started back in camp, this time in Booth’s home of Surrey, rather than his more glamorous base of Monte Carlo used for his previous two fights. This time he’s the champion, the one who has to most push the promotion, so he has to be within an hour of Dublin or Limerick. Surrey is fine with him.
“It’s good because when you physically leave and travel somewhere to train because it’s like a mental switch. You’re in a different environment. I’ve found it very hard to train when I’m at home or to eat clean or do anything with the same intensity because at home that’s the place I associate with relaxing. Heading away, over to Adam’s, it takes the choice away.” That said, this fight is all about home. Limerick. His entire professional career Andy Lee had just two dreams: to win a world title on the road, then defend it in front of his own, in Thomond Park.
His entire career he’s had to enter the lion’s den: fight Julio Cesar Chavez in El Paso, Quillin in Brooklyn. Now mandatory challenger Billy Joe Saunders is the one entering Lee’s turf. Lee knows he won’t have it all his own way, just as he didn’t in the negotiations; Lee had to give up cash to take this one to Thomond. But ultimately he feels he’ll get what he wants.
“Billy Joe will be tricky and I’ll have to match him in terms of his output, pace and punching. But I have a good strategic plan and I know how to beat him. I’ve fought fighters like him and I know exactly how to beat him.
“If the fight goes the way I want it go, it’ll be a tactical fight and I’ll be jabbing the head off him, boxing him.As many fights as he’s had, I’ve got knockouts and a wealth of experience. He’s a young fighter, he’ll learn a lot from fighting me. I’m not underestimating him in that sense because with that undefeated record he does have, he’s going to bring that passion and hunger. To beat somebody that’s never been beaten you’re going to have to make him accept the defeat before you physically beat them. You kind of have to make them know they’re going to lose in their mind and accept it first. That’s the first place where they lose it.” Where do you do that? In the lead-up?
Trash-talking isn’t exactly the Andy Lee way.
“In the ring, when we’re boxing, that’s where he’ll know. In the past he would always have been on the favourable side of the match-making, he’d always have been the favourite to win. But when he’s losing rounds and getting hit with shots that are hurting him and he’ll say ‘This is a hard fight, I’ve never had this before, I’ve lost another round, I’m under pressure now.’” If anything, that’s where Lee’s defeats come in useful. He’s encountered that doubting voice throughout his career. He overcame in fights like McEwan and Quillin because when he was younger he didn’t in others. At last month’s press conference when it was put to him his record compared to Saunders that still features that magical zero, Lee replied, I’ve been armoured by my defeats.” That goes for those back in the amateur days. The second-round defeat in the 2004 Olympics to Hassan N’Dam was a painful lesson in the importance of emotional control fighting in front of a large crowd rooting for him.
“I was in the third round before I realised I was in the fight. My first fight in the Olympics there had hardly been anyone in the stadium and I beat the guy handily. But the second fight wasn’t for another week and over that week a lot of other Irish fighters and sportspeople had lost. I was the last remaining Irish fighter so everybody that was out there came to this fight. There were tricolours everywhere and guys in leprechaun suits.
“I walked into the arena and I wasn’t prepared for it all. It really took me out of my stride.” And then there was the first time he hit the canvas. Before Quillin, before Jackson, there was Michael Sweeney up in Mayo when he was just 15.
When Thomond Park hosted a press conference with Lee and Saunders a few weeks ago, Sweeney was there. A source of support, a reminder of his roots and his growing pains.
“We travelled to Castlebar that time and I was like ‘Oh, I’m going to beat this guy easy.’ I’d seen him when we were in Irish training camp together. I was drinking Red Bull and everything on the way up.
“So we get up there, I get kitted out and won the first round well. But I used to have this lean-back style and I leaned back and next thing I was on the ground.
“It was the first and only time before the Jackson fight I’ve ever been down. I got up but the referee said, ‘No, stop the fight.’ “So I walked out of the ring and said ‘That’s it’ and I gave up boxing!” It would take six months for him to return to it. Shane Daly, another old friend that was in the crowd at the Thomond press day, called up to the house and cajoled him back. You’re too good to pack it up. There are a couple of new fellas in the gym now. You’ll get better sparring. Get back up there. So he did. The story of his life.