By Thomas Gerbasi
As Mike Lee approaches tonight’s bout with Jose Hernandez at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, the light heavyweight contender is finally able to start talking about a future that could include a world title shot if he keeps on the path he’s on. It’s been a lot longer road than many thought there would be when he turned pro in 2010, so I wonder if Lee thought this day would ever come when title shots were in the conversation.
“There was a time when I wasn’t sure if I could get out of the hospital bed,” he said, referring to his bout with the autoimmune disease ankylosing spondylitis. “So being a world champion, there was a time in my darkest moments when I was in pain and hooked up to IVs that boxing wasn’t even on my radar. Just becoming a healthy young man and getting out of the hospital was what I was hoping for.”
According to spondylitis.com, the condition “is a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, although other joints can become involved. It causes inflammation of the spinal joints (vertebrae) that can lead to severe, chronic pain and discomfort.”
In other words, it’s a debilitating disease for anyone, let alone a professional athlete. AS cost Lee a year and a half of his career, but once he returned in 2014, he had hope once again.
“As momentum started carrying me through and I started getting healthier and healthier, and I ultimately got the right diagnosis and how to treat it, that’s when the dream started coming back,” said Lee, who is more than thankful for his second chance to chase a world title.
“You need to be grateful,” he said. “Sometimes I get frustrated with the lack of progress, but I’m so grateful to be here. I know other people who have either had this disease or gone through other things are not in the situation I’m in. I got my dream back. All I want is a chance to go for it. I want the chance for the bell to ring and for me to fight for a world title. I know that God has given me a chance to get back in the ring and that’s all I ask for. I’m content with that. I’m working as hard as I can and giving everything I have and I know I’m getting better and better every fight. That’s all you can ask for in this business – a shot. And then on any given night, anything can happen. That’s the beautiful thing about sports.”
Since his return, Lee has added nine wins to his 20-0 record, and it’s been in his last three fights that the 30-year-old has been making the move from prospect to contender with wins over Chris Traietti, Justin Thomas and Aaron Quattrocchi, opponents with a combined record of 49-5-1. On Friday, he’s got the 19-3-1 Hernandez, who brings a seven-fight winning streak into Lee’s backyard.
Lee is expected to get the job done against the 35-year-old Californian, but at this point, every fight is a title fight for the Notre Dame grad, as a loss would drop him down the 175-pound rankings.
“I don’t take anybody lightly,” Lee said. “And honestly, you can see that by the shape I’m in. I don’t care if he’s 3-19 or 19-3, I’m working so hard because it’s not just about June 8th. It’s about the fight after that and the fight after that. I respect everybody who gets into that ring, I honestly do. But I’m working too hard to lose. I’m too fast, I’m too strong, I’m too smart in there, and I perform the best when the pressure’s on.”
Most importantly, he’s fighting, able to control his own destiny once again. That makes Mike Lee happy. Just don’t confuse that with being content.
“I’m the kind of person, for better or worse, that’s not really content until I get a chance to fight and I win the title,” he said. “I’m constantly hungry and I’m not satisfied yet. Am I grateful to be where I’m at? Yes, but I’m not satisfied. I don’t feel like I’ve made it by any means. I think the day I feel that, I’ll probably retire, and I won’t feel that until I win a title and achieved a few other things that I want to achieve. I still have that hunger in me and I feel like I got a new lease on life.”