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ND grad joins pro boxing ranks

MATT GAMBER | Friday, February 19, 2010

It wasn’t long ago that gaining admission to Notre Dame was Mike Lee’s top goal.

Less than four years later, with a degree in finance and three Bengal Bouts titles to his name, the recent Notre Dame graduate returned to campus to announce his intention to become a professional boxer at a press conference in the Joyce Center Wednesday. And Lee made it clear that he once again has one goal in mind.

“Now my goal is to become world champion, and as crazy as that may sound, getting into Notre Dame sounded crazy to me,” Lee said. “It’s going to be a long process, but I don’t want anything else. Four years ago, all I wanted was to get into Notre Dame. I succeeded, and I fully plan on succeeding with this goal.”

Lee has signed a professional contract with Bob Arum’s Top Rank, the boxing promotional giant that represents current world champion Manny Pacquaio and previously promoted legends like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya. Lee is also teamed up with respected veteran trainer Ronnie Shields, who trained former world champions Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.

Lee, Arum and Shields all said they were excited about the team they have assembled.
“In order to be successful in this sport, you have to have a good team,” Shields said. “Top Rank is the best promoter in the world … I told Mike, they’re going to take care of you. They know how to match you, they know how to build you. All you have to do is get in the gym and learn how to fight.”

Lee said the strong team around him has made the infant stages of his transition into professional boxing run smoothly.

“To have them promote me and worry about every aspect outside of the ring is comforting,” Lee said. “Knowing that, every day I can go to the gym and the only thing I need to focus on is getting better.”

That’s where Shields comes in. For the past month, Lee has been living in Houston, where boxer and trainer have begun the process of developing a raw amateur into a polished professional.

“The first thing Ronnie told me when I came down to the gym was, ‘I don’t train anybody who I don’t think is going to be a world champion,'” Lee said. “I know it’s his reputation on the line, so the fact he wanted to train me and saw potential in me means a lot.”

Both Lee and Shields said while they are excited about the future and what they might accomplish together, the end results won’t come easy — or necessarily soon, for that matter.

“I’m really excited about this, but it’s a process, it’s not going to be easy,” Shields said. “We feel that Mike one day has the potential to be champion of the world, but we’ve got to take baby steps.”

Those steps began with a phone call from Lee to Shields, who had never heard of the Chicago-area native but became interested as he learned more about the Notre Dame graduate, whose career path has accelerated since winning the amateur Chicago Golden Gloves light heavyweight title last spring.

Shields was impressed with Lee’s commitment before the two even met. Shields said when he asks prospective fighters when they could make the trip to workout at his gym in Houston, they typically offer non-committal responses of “next week” or “next month.”
Not Lee.

“He said, ‘I can come tomorrow. I’m ready to go,'” Shields said. “I told him this is my job. I love the sport of boxing and I take it very seriously, so I want you to do the same … I’m going to make you work hard, and he said ‘I’m willing, I’m able and I’m ready to do it.'”

Shields said Lee followed through on that promise from Day 1, when “he was there for the whole time” through a tough opening workout meant to test his limits.

“Normally when I get a guy the first time, he can’t hang with me on the hand pads because I push them real hard,” Shields said.

Lee said his typical day now begins at 5 a.m. and includes 6 a.m. cardio workouts, a few hours of sparring in the early afternoon and, on some days, strength and conditioning work at night.

“It’s a full day,” Lee said.

Those who know Lee know he can withstand those physical tests — it’s what boxers have to do, said former Irish football captain and current Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski.

“It’s a big day for this University to have a kid going into professional boxing because you can’t be forced to fight no matter where you come from,” said Zbikowski, who scored a first-round knockout in his only professional fight with Top Rank. “Mama can’t tell you to do it, daddy can’t tell you to do it, brother can’t tell you to do it, sister can’t tell you to do it. It’s something that you’ve got inside, and Mike’s got that, regardless of his background.”

There’s no doubt Lee is a unique figure in the boxing world, and he said his Notre Dame background, and especially his relationship with the Bengal Bouts, is going to continue.

“I knew that although I left Notre Dame and I had just graduated, Notre Dame is one of those schools that will never leave me,” Lee said. “So I’m very proud and excited to say that I plan on donating and giving back percentage of my fight proceeds and sponsorship proceeds to the Holy Cross Missions of Bangladesh.”

His January trip to Bangladesh “opened my eyes,” Lee said, and it made it apparent that he needed to use his professional career “as a platform to give back.”

Current Bengal Bouts co-president Chris Cugliari said Lee’s presence in professional boxing will bode well for the future of the Notre Dame program and, more importantly, for the future of the Holy Cross Missions.

“Notre Dame’s never seen somebody from the Bengal Bouts really take the boxing world by storm like this, so it’s great to see one of our own make it big,” Cugliari said. “I think Mike can have a huge impact in generating awareness of the Holy Cross Missions and the impact we can have.”

If one thing becomes clear from hearing Lee speak, or from hearing others speak about him, it is that his passion for the sport gives him more than just a fighting chance. And while he has a lot of work before his professional debut, scheduled for May 29 at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, those close to him are excited about what lies ahead.

“If you have the opportunity, come out and support Mike, because I really have a feeling that his career is going to really take off,” Arum said. “And there’s nothing like seeing a career right from the beginning.”

So what can those tuning in to Lee’s professional debut expect?

“I know by May 29th I’m going to be a machine,” Lee said. “I have one goal, and that’s win that fight.”