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Boxing: ND grad Mike Lee readies for bout in ‘Friday Night Fights’

Kelsey Manning | Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When 2009 Notre Dame graduate and professional boxer Mike Lee called world-renowned trainer Ronnie Shields with the hopes of getting Shields in his corner, he was asked when he could come down to Texas for a tryout. Lee responded in a fashion indicative of his entire boxing career.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll be there tomorrow.

“He laughed because he thought that I was joking, but I wasn’t,” Lee said. “I spent a week down at their training camp in Houston. I remember I finished a workout with my dad there, and after the workout I ran over to a garbage can and threw up. I turned to my dad and said, ‘This is it. This is the camp. We have to be here.’ No one had ever pushed me that hard.”

It is that level of dedication and work ethic that has not only gained Lee a trainer — one who has worked with the likes of world heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield — but has catapulted the 23-year-old into the professional boxing spotlight. Lee’s heavy hands have earned him an undefeated 4-0-0 record, including three knockouts thus far in his budding career. Most recently the light-heavyweight-class fighter knocked out Pablo Gomez in the first round of a bout at The Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, and was subsequently featured in a two-page spread in ESPN The Magazine in March.

Friday Lee will fight in his most publicized match yet, taking on Gilbert Gastelum at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, a fight that will be featured on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.” Rather than letting the pressure of his network debut along with an undefeated record get to him, Lee said he is looking forward to showing the country what he can do.

“Every fight I’ve had cameras in my face and my last fight was nationally televised, but ESPN is a whole different animal,” he said. “But I am definitely one of those athletes that performs better and looks forward to pressure situations and a bigger stage. [The pressure] doesn’t seem to phase me. I know I’m going to put on a good show. We have been working really hard and with this ESPN fight I’m starting to show people how good I’ve gotten and that I should be considered a top prospect in the division.”

Lee attributes this mentality in part to his time at Notre Dame competing in Bengal Bouts.

“When I started to fight outside of Notre Dame in the amateurs and other tournaments, I was really grateful that I had that Notre Dame experience under my belt because the Bengal Bouts stage was so huge,” Lee said. “I think that got me ready throughout the amateurs and even now in my pro career it got me used to fighting in front on big crowds.”

After spending his freshman year of college at University of Missouri, Lee transferred to Notre Dame for his second year, fulfilling a lifelong dream of being a member of the Fighting Irish. After training for Bengal Bouts during the summer, Lee joined the club and met immediate success, winning the 175 lb. weight class championship his sophomore year by a knockout. During his junior year, not only did Lee become a boxing captain but he also won his weight class once again and earned the Notre Dame Boxer of the Year award, an honor generally reserved for seniors. Captaining the club and winning at finals night once again his senior year, Lee started considering boxing as a professional career. Once Lee defeated five opponents in the 2009 Chicago Golden Gloves to win his class, the decision became clearer.

“Mentally and physically I felt ready and I had been told by a lot of top trainers that this was something I could and should do,” Lee said. “It was one of those things that came naturally to me and I fell in love with. There wasn’t an exact moment [I made the decision to go pro], but after I won the Chicago Golden Gloves and I started getting offers from some top promotion companies, that was when I sat down with my family and told them that this was what I wanted to do.”

Since that moment Lee has never looked back. He graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in finance, signed with Top Rank promotion company, had his father come on board as manager, moved to Texas, started training with Shields and started winning.

All the while Lee has not forgotten his alma mater. He is spearheading an event for next fall — the first professional boxing event on Notre Dame’s campus, to take place Friday Sept. 16, the night before Notre Dame takes on Michigan State on the football field.. All proceeds from the event will go to Notre Dame affiliated charities, something Lee is equally passionate about.

“I’ve always said throughout the whole thing that I’m chasing a dream and I want to become a world champion, but I want to try to help people along the way too,” he said. “There are a lot of athletes who do that and there’s a lot of good that comes out of it and I just want to be a part of that good.”

Lee also started a fund to donate to the Holy Cross Missions after he traveled to Bangladesh through Bengal Bouts the summer before his senior year. Top Rank’s CEO Bob Arum summed up Lee’s dedication to both the sport of boxing and charitable work.

“Mike Lee is a great example of the graduates who Notre Dame produces,” he said.

Lee will represent Notre Dame as he defends his undefeated record at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights” this week.