By Thomas Gerbasi
Mike Lee’s first world title fight is still a month away, but IBF super middleweight champion Caleb Plant has already started firing at the challenger.
There are no family insults, off-color remarks or anything of that nature, but Plant has made it clear that he believes he and Lee have taken different paths to their July 20 bout on the Manny Pacquiao-Keith Thurman card in Las Vegas.
“Mike Lee may have a financial degree, but in boxing, I have a Ph.D,” Plant said last month at the press conference to announce the bout. “That's something he doesn't know anything about. I came from very rock bottom, where nobody makes it out. If he thinks I'm going to let him mess this up for me, he's not half as educated as I thought he was. I have everything to lose. Every night from now until July 20, I hope Lee and his team are envisioning the words ‘and still,’ because that's all anyone is going to hear on fight night.”
And then there was this during a recent media breakfast in Las Vegas:
“Good luck to Mike Lee,” said Plant. “I hope he shows up. He's going to be getting a mattress sponsorship, because July 20 he's going to sleep. This isn't going 12 rounds.”
There’s nothing wrong with a little pre-fight gamesmanship, and the 26-year-old Plant isn’t lying when he talks about getting to the top the hard way – both in the ring and in life. In fact, the Tennessee native has one of the great stories in the sport, one that hit its early peak in January when he decisioned Jose Uzcategui to earn his IBF crown.
Lee has a great story too, one that has been told countless times. Yet to the boxing community, it’s a story often greeted with sneers. To them, Lee is a media creation, the Notre Dame grad and early Top Rank signee walked through 21 pro fights while getting more attention for Subway commercials than his work in the ring.
Those are the kind comments. The worst ones say that Lee’s first title fight will be his last one, that after nine years as a pro, it’s time to cash out. Or maybe it’s that he doesn’t even belong here, that unlike hosts of other contenders, he hasn’t paid his dues.
That’s a shame. Especially when such comments come from Lee’s fellow boxers, people who should know better than anyone what it takes to walk up those four steps. But such courtesies aren’t paid to those who get a big early push from a major promoter or national commercial campaigns, both of which would be refused by such critics if placed in the same position.
So Lee isn’t a “real” fighter. He’s a marketing campaign with gloves. But man, has he faked it well, because having covered his career since the early days, he’s certainly talked and acted like a fighter.
“I want this so bad that I’ve completely dedicated myself, and this is just my personality,” Lee told me in 2011 when he was 4-0. “And although it is my career, I’m not doing it to get out of an extreme poverty situation; I’m going because I love it and I want to be a world champion one day. That goal right there just drives me. And I’ve always been that kind of person that’s always pushed it, whether it was academically or in sports. I’ve always given a hundred percent, and it sounds cliché, but that’s the way I was raised and I think people are gonna see that in my fights as well.”
They did. Now let’s not mince words, Lee’s record does not contain a Murderers Row of opponents. Not close. But he’s found a way to win every time out, making the most of what he had in a sport he wasn’t born into. And what many don’t realize is that whether an opponent was 18-1 or 9-19-1, a win over the kid from the Subway commercial would be a career altering one for that opponent.
So try fighting every fight from four rounds to ten with a target on your back. That’s gotta take some toughness, right? Dealing with ankylosing spondylitis as a professional athlete can’t be easy, either. If you’re a music fan, you may have heard of ankylosing spondylitis as the disease that has afflicted Motley Crue guitarist Mick Mars for years. And yeah, playing arenas around the world can be stressful, but nothing like having a trained prizefighter aiming missiles at your head. And Lee loved being able to dodge those missiles again after nearly losing his career.
“There was a time when I wasn’t sure if I could get out of the hospital bed,” he told me last year. “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. And as momentum started carrying me through and I started getting healthier and healthier, I ultimately got the right diagnosis and how to treat it. That’s when the dream started coming back.”
Now he’s one month away from that dream. And at this point, nothing anybody says matters. Not Caleb Plant. Not the media. Not fight fans. On July 20, Mike Lee may not become a world champion, but he’s got the chance to put that belt around his waist. If you don’t think he deserves this chance, he’s got it. If you don’t think he paid his dues or is tough enough to leave Las Vegas as a champion, he’s got 12 rounds or less to prove you wrong.
He’s here. He’s fighting for a world title. And it’s just up to him and Plant now.
“The beauty of this sport is that it's only me and Caleb in there,” said Lee. “Everyone else can only talk. I've been in the ring through adversity and stuck it out, because that's the kind of person I am. I know that if I come on July 20 as the best Mike Lee possible, that I can win.”
If he does, maybe he will prove that the idea that you have to rise from nothing to become something in boxing is a myth, that perhaps the most dangerous fighter is the one who is here not because he needs to, but because he wants to.