By Ryan Songalia
At one point, Andy Lee was about as close to indomitable as a prospect could be. Lee was a 6'2" southpaw middleweight scoring early knockouts from long-range, like Tommy Hearns with a right hook for his primary weapon. With a strong amateur background coming from the 2004 Summer Olympics, Lee's trainer Emmanuel Steward boldly predicted that he would be the man to end Kelly Pavlik's middleweight championship reign.
And then Brian Vera happened.
Few thought the rough middleweight from Austin, Tex. stood a chance when they met on March 21, 2008 - just days after St. Patrick's Day - on ESPN2. Vera was best known for being knocked out in two rounds by Jaidon Codrington on The Contender reality show, and was seen as an ideal candidate for Lee to display his boxing ability against.
Instead, Lee fought with his heart, spurred on by the sizable Irish contingent on hand at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. After dominating early, Lee found himself in a toe-to-toe battle that left him vulnerable to Vera's wild, but effective blows. After being stunned several times, referee Tony Chiarantano stepped in to stop the fight in the seventh round. The defeated Lee was landing a blow just as the referee interceded.
"I was young as a professional to that stage," explained Lee, 27, who has a record of 26-1 (19 KO). "Not green to the ways of the ring, but I was more concerned about losing a round than losing a fight. I had never lost a round up until that point in my career. When he hit me with a good shot, I retaliated right away and it turned into a slugging contest. There was a lot of bravado, I was playing to the crowd and trying to be macho. Those things you don't need in the ring. You need to control your opponent and be the boss."
Lee will get his chance at redemption against Vera this Saturday, October 1 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. on HBO (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT).
The show will be headlined by middleweight champion Sergio "Maravilla" Martinez defending against undefeated Englishman Darren Barker. Given the dearth of middleweight contenders known to American audiences, Lee could emerge as a viable contender to Martinez with a strong victory here.
Despite their unfinished business, a win over Vera does little to further Lee's career. Lee is ranked number two by both the WBA and WBO sanctioning bodies, making him a top contender to German titlist Felix Sturm, as well as undefeated Russian Dmitriy Pirog. Vera on the other hand is rated number 11 by just the WBO, and his 19-5 (12 KO) record doesn't exactly jump out of the computer screen.
"To be be honest with you, I offered him other alternatives," said Lou Dibella, Lee's promoter. "Because once a guy beats you, it has an impact on you. But Andy's attitude was the opposite, 'I need to beat this guy because he beat me.'"
"I don't have to fight Vera to further my career," said Lee, agreeing with his promoter. "This is more for my own personal well-being, to beat the man who beat me. To show how far I've improved since my last fight compared to our last fight."
It can be said that Lee's career, despite the diminished luster, is as good as it's ever been. Lee has won 11 straight since his lone career setback, including a come-from-behind knockout of Freddie Roach-trained Scottish prospect Craig McEwan, who owns a victory over Vera, in his HBO debut earlier this year.
Vera is also on a bit of a roll. After losing three straight following the Lee victory, Vera stopped highly-ranked Canadian contender Sebastien Demers in three rounds before dropping a decision to Ukrainian Max Bursak. Earlier this year Vera pulled off another upset, this time against former junior middleweight champ and fellow Contender alum Sergio Mora.
"It's an interesting matchup," said Joey Gamache, a former world champion in his own right who was Lee's assistant under Steward for close to four years before returning to New York to train his own fighters. "Boxing is a game where you discover who you really are. The beauty of this game is you get to redeem yourself.
"A fight of this magnitude being on HBO, the opportunity is there but the exposure as well. I feel this is a chance for him to put things straight about what he really is about. Everything comes full circle, so no matter how someone builds you up, the truth is inevitable.
Lee, who prepared for this bout at the KRONK Gym in Detroit, says he is far better prepared for Vera the second go-around. According to Lee, problems in sparring, as well as a cut heading into the fight, hindered his preparations in 2008, as did weighing in at 158 3/4 pounds to Vera's 162 for the bout.
For this camp, Lee has sparred with IBF junior middleweight champ Cornelius "K-9" Bundrage, as well as Chicago-based junior middleweight Carlos Molina, who defeated Kermit Cintron in his last outing and held Erislandy Lara to a draw.
Dibella says a matchup between Lee and Martinez could come to fruition in the future, provided both pass their tests on October 1.
"I think that 'Maravilla' Martinez and Andy Lee is inevitable if Andy can get by Vera. He'd have to put on a great performance and look really, really good.
"Matthew Macklin and Lee really might pit two of the top four middleweights in the world against each other in an all-Irish matchup. I think that fight would sell tremendously around St. Patty's Day. Andy Lee against Felix Sturm, who I think lost to Macklin and got his ass kicked, that would be a tremendous fight."
Lee may not be banking on the Luck of the Irish, but he's certainly banking on the luck of Emmanuel Steward. To Lee's knowledge, Steward has never lost a rematch, from Aaron Pryor's knockout of Alexis Arguello the second time around, to Lennox Lewis' conquests of Oliver McCall, Holyfield and Hasim Rahman, to Tommy Hearns' "draw" with Sugar Ray Leonard, and so on.
"I know it's cliche to say I'm in the best shape of my life, but this really is the best shape of my life and the best training camp," Lee said with a wink.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected] . An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com . Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.