Lee might be the next big thing in boxing

Emanuel Steward, the old patriarch of Detroit's Kronk Gym, has never feared the ridicule of the mob.

When it was fashionable to disparage Lennox Lewis as just another overhyped heavyweight, the latest example of Britain's big men not quite measuring up, Steward declared that Lewis might have been the most blessed heavyweight in history aside from Muhammad Ali.

He has been proved right more often than wrong, and he always has trusted his instincts. So when he compared Andy Lee, an emerging middleweight from Ireland, to Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest fighter of them all, he backed his judgment by opening his Detroit home to the young boxer he was training.

For three years, Lee has lived with Steward, absorbing knowledge and making sufficient progress in his fledgling career to persuade many observers to take note.

John Duddy will challenge Kelly Pavlik for the world middleweight title in June, according to Pavlik's promoter, Bob Arum. But, ultimately, the man from Derry is likely to be surpassed in his efforts by his southpaw compatriot, who will face Argentina's Alejandro Gustavo Falliga, 14-3 (4 KOs), on Saturday at the University of Limerick Sports Arena.

Born in the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel and a resident of London until he was 14 years old, Lee has lived the emigrant's life for most of his 23 years. But, like Duddy, he is unmistakably Irish.

As a boy, he followed his brothers, Tommy and Ned, to Repton Amateur Boxing Club in Bethnal Green, the heart of London's East End. His talent quickly bore fruit; he won an Amateur Boxing Association British schoolboys' title in 1998 and accomplished the same again in 1999, the year in which his father, Tom, a tree surgeon, moved the family back to Castleconnell, several miles outside Limerick on the west coast of Ireland.

Lee found it difficult to settle in his new environment, a rural setting far removed from the vibrancy of London and a long way from his friends. But boxing remained a constant amid the upheaval. He joined St. Francis' Amateur Boxing Club in Limerick and continued to build on the early promise he had demonstrated at Repton, even as his brothers abandoned their own aspirations to be fighters.

There were times when Lee's love of the sport waned, too. He went through a stage in which he believed he was no longer learning. And without the intervention of a new, young, enthusiastic mentor, Shane Daley, whose passion was to bring through successful amateur boxers who could represent Ireland with distinction in international competition, Lee might have been lost to the sport as his brothers were.

His father's influence was just as significant. Tom drove his boys to the boxing club every evening until Tommy and Ned moved on to other things. But Andy remained committed. During the day, he worked with his father in the landscape gardening business Tom had established on the family's return from England. In the evenings, he worked on his boxing.

In 2002, he won a silver medal at the World Junior Amateur Championships, having beaten the highly regarded American Jesus Gonzalez in their semifinal bout. Two years later, as a senior, he secured a bronze medal at the European Championships before he set out for Athens to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games. His ambition, which was well justified given his proven pedigree, was to win a medal, but he was beaten in his second bout.

"It was a disappointment, of course, even though competing at the Olympics was a tremendous experience. I could have stayed amateur and represented Ireland again at the Olympics in Beijing [this summer]," Lee said.

But Steward, who had monitored Lee's career since his win over Gonzalez, persuaded him to turn pro instead, signing him up and inviting him to live with him in Detroit when Lee decided he would best learn his trade in America. Since 2005, teacher and pupil have been almost inseparable.

If Steward has to be at a press conference in Las Vegas to announce a fight for Wladimir Klitschko, the heavyweight titleholder he currently is training, Lee will be somewhere around, invariably. When Steward trained world middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, he put Lee in with Taylor for sparring. The Irishman constantly is soaking up the experience of big-time boxing. He has even sparred with Klitschko.

"Wladimir pulls his punches, for sure," Lee said, laughing. "It's just really speed work for him, but for me, it's great experience to be in the ring with a boxer of his caliber, learning different moves. This is one of the benefits of working with a trainer who is as experienced and as highly regarded in the sport as Manny. It's quality work all the time, and I'm developing my skills and taking the steps I need to reach the point where I want to be one day. I have a way to go yet, but I'm working every day to get there."

Lee is charismatic, handsome, articulate and marketable. Duddy, who made his name in New York after making a similar trip across the Atlantic, is the prime example of the fame and fortune that beckon an accomplished boxer from the Emerald Isle.

But whereas Duddy will be an underdog when he steps into the ring to face Pavlik, Lee is being groomed by Steward for sustained stardom.

"I knew that Andy had talent from the moment I discovered that he had beaten Gonzalez in the amateurs," Steward said. "What I found out when I started to work with him is that he has a tremendous work ethic and a real commitment and capacity to learn. He's learning all the time, and physically, he has all the attributes to become a great fighter, which I believe will happen, of course.

"Andy is a good kid. I took him into my home, and I've never had a problem with him. He's just a very good individual with a solid family background and an appetite for this game. He loves to be around the top fighters because one day that's where he wants to be himself, and it's my job to help him make it happen."

Steve Collins, who became a titleholder at middleweight and super middleweight in the 1990s, moved to America 10 years earlier to learn his trade and he has advocated a continuation of Lee's steady progression under Steward, rather than jumping into a title fight before he is ready, as Duddy appears set to do in June.

"Andy's made a smart move by taking the decision to learn his trade in America, which is what I did about 25 years ago," said Collins, who was trained by the Petronelli brothers, Goody and Pat, in Brockton, Mass. "He has plenty of time before he needs to start looking for a title fight against Kelly Pavlik or whoever the champion might be when he's ready for his shot. It's one step at a time and his homecoming fight this week will be a good chance for people in Ireland to see how he's developing as a pro and they'll get behind him with strong support for sure."

On Saturday, Lee will box as a professional in front of his home supporters in Limerick for the first time. To date, he has boxed 14 times, winning each of his bouts, 11 inside the distance. His most impressive victory was against former middleweight titleholder Carl Daniels, whom he stopped in the third round in his eighth fight.

Falliga, who has a reputation for durability, is expected to become his 15th straight victim.

For Lee, it will be an emotional night. He might have been born in London, and he might now live in Detroit, but his Irish identity is something he cherishes. This will be a memorable homecoming.

But what of the future? If he continues to progress, could he and Duddy be on a collision course? Much will depend on Duddy's performance against Pavlik, but Lee should uphold his end of the bargain by soon becoming an established and dangerous top-10 contender.

"I'm trying to follow John Duddy's example and build up the kind of fan base that he has here. He's done this by winning and being exciting, and that's the key," Lee said.

If Pavlik repels Duddy's challenge in June, the middleweight champion should be aware that another Irishman will be looking for his shot in the near future.

Brian Doogan covers boxing for The Sunday Times and Ring magazine.