By Jake Donovan
You couldn’t blame Andy Lee for feeling like the unluckiest Irishman on earth this past St. Patrick’s Day, but things have certainly been looking up ever since then.
The middleweight contender is currently walking on air over the news of a June 16 HBO-televised showdown with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Not only is it the best news Lee has heard all year, but that it comes at the point in his career where he believes he’s firing on all cylinders.
“This fight comes at the perfect time,” states Lee (28-1, 20KO) in a statement that could actually take on more than one meaning. The Chavez Jr. clash heads a loaded summer of middleweight action, which includes a planned alphabet unification match between Dmitry Pirog and Daniel Geale.
However, it’s not so much the supporting cast that has Lee excited, but that he is at his strongest while receiving what to date will be the defining fight of my career.
“Physically for me, I’m at the right age and right power for a fight like this. I’m physically peaking. I’m a win away from becoming a major titlist, holding the most prestigious title of all of the sanctioning bodies. I’ve always wanted to be the champion of that (WBC) belt.”
At the start of the year, Lee was anxious to become a champion of any kind. In an era where belts are a dime a dozen, the once-beaten southpaw was fuming over what appeared to be a dead-end point in his career. Separate co-feature slots on HBO in 2011 suggested an inevitable showdown with Sergio Martinez, who made optional defenses in the main event of both shows.
Yet when 2012 rolled around, Lee still found himself on the outside looking in when it came to middleweight title fights. Dubbed as the true middleweight champion due to his title lineage, Martinez was preparing for a St. Patrick’s Day showdown in New York City against Matthew Macklin, a middleweight contender who is Irish by heritage but British by upbringing.
Lee was originally slated to once again serve as the chief support to a Martinez-headlined HBO show. Such a consolation prize was hardly ideal at the time, but a scenario he’d have gladly accepted given what instead took place. When a suitable opponent couldn’t be secured, Lee agreed to remove himself from the show and pursue a possible title shot against Felix Sturm.
The journey turned out to be a wild goose chase, leaving Lee to settle for a stay busy fight in his adopted hometown of Detroit.
Lee relocated to the Motor City to learn the pro game under the keen eye of Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward. The lessons learned have been an extended study in the school of hard knocks, but the latest news is part of a run that has the fighter believing his career has turned a corner.
Landing the Chavez Jr. fight still required a bit of luck. Lee was hardly the first in line to land the assignment. Top Rank originally had the date reserved for another UK fighter in Martin Murray. The fight was accepted by HBO, but fell apart once it was learned that Murray wouldn’t be able to clear up visa issues in time to ensure that he could travel to the United States.
The news was treated as a window of opportunity for Lee, who all along demanded a major fight come sooner rather than later.
“I wanted the fight when it went to Martin Murray. When Murray fell out, my team began putting out the press releases saying we want the fight. Now it’s on. I spoke to Lou and he said the fight is good to go. I finally realize the first part of my dream, which is to ultimately become middleweight champion of the world. I’m now on the cusp.”
The announcement still hasn’t fully sunken in yet for Lee, who remains surprised that he was chosen to face Chavez. In his mind, Top Rank would instead look to match up Chavez Jr. with someone a bit softer, or in-house – or perhaps even both.
Given that mental image, Lee instead began pushing for a showdown with Martinez. Such fight should’ve been easy enough to make, since both fighters are promoted by Lou DiBella. Lee made no effort to mask his displeasure when he didn’t get the assignment on St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s possible that anger and discontent prompted his handlers to aggressively push for a meaningful fight.
By his own admission, Chavez Jr. wasn’t even his first choice, but one that makes the most sense. A fight with Martinez was at the top of the list, but Lee is happy with the way things are turning out. From a divisional standpoint, the current sequence of events makes more sense. Lee and Chavez Jr. now face each other for the right to contend for the lineal championship versus Martinez.
In a sense, Lee gets two fights for the price of one negotiation, providing that he wins on June 16. Whatever lies ahead beyond that date is a long way off in the future.
“I don’t even think about (fighting Martinez). I would fight Sergio over Chavez. First I beat Chavez to win the belt; then I’ll worry about Martinez and the future.”
Lee’s future once appeared in jeopardy after landing on the wrong end of a massive upset stoppage loss to Bryan Vera in March ’08. The shocker came in front of a nationally televised ESPN2 audience, though he has since gain revenge in front of a wider viewing public. Lee avenged the loss last September in outpointing Vera on the HBO undercard to Martinez’ defense against Darren Barker.
In his mind, the next step was title contention. The moves took a longer than expected to make, but everything has now fallen perfectly into place.
What’s left for Lee… is to deliver on fight night. Ask and ye shall receive, but now he has to show that he’s not biting off more than he can chew.
“It’s the pinnacle in my career,” Lee says of the potential fight which – when officially signed – will land at the Sun Bowl in El Paso. “Whatever I’ve done in my six years as a pro will be defined on June 16. I’ll leave no stone unturned. It’s not just my dream to fight for a title, but to become a world champion. This is the first step.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter:@JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]