On the Deontay Wilder-Artur Szpilka undercard this Saturday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, undefeated light heavyweight Mike Lee returns to action against 11-8-1 Joe Gardner.
Lee is no contender and I hesitate to even call him a prospect at this point. But he is certainly an interesting boxing story.
Lee turned professional in 2010, not long after he graduated from the University of Notre Dame. College-educated boxers are becoming increasingly common, but it’s usually a matter of a guy pursuing his education independent of following his ring dreams. In Lee’s case, his boxing career is very much tied to his legacy as a Fighting Irish Alumn.
While going to school at South Bend, Lee took up the Sweet Science and was a three-time Bengal Bouts Champion. College boxing isn’t close to what it was in earlier eras, and even in the 1920s, the narrator of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises felt it necessary assure the reader in the novel’s very first paragraph that he was not “very much impressed” by Robert Cohn’s boxing title as middleweight champion of Princeton. But the Bengal Bouts were established by the legendary Knute Rockne, so when Lee followed up on his college success by winning the Chicago Golden Gloves, it made him a rising sports star with the diehard, Notre Dame faithful.
Mike Lee’s pro career was launched with great fanfare. He was signed by Bob Arum and Top Rank and pushed hard. At the start of this decade, he was known as “the world’s most popular four-round fighter” and had an endorsement deal with Subway well before he’d moved up to six-round bouts.
But the years have gone by since then, and he only just moved up to scheduled eight-round fights last month, when he knocked out 6-5 Mike Sawyer.
Gardner, Lee’s opponent Saturday night in Brooklyn, is a 40-year-old club fighter. Nearly all of his fights have taken place in Rhode Island or Connecticutt. He’s riding a three-fight losing streak and was knocked out in his last two.
Mike Lee is unquestionably a talented athlete. He’s a strong guy with punching power. But at 28, entering his sixth year fighting the lowest level of talent, it’s pretty hard to see him as a guy who will ever develop into a threat to the Sergey Kovalevs and Andre Wards of the world.
Still, he’s a guy with a finance degree from an elite academic institution. He could have walked into a job out of college for six figures, or close to it. Instead, he’s continuing to make a career out of trading punches. There’s a pretty interesting story in all of that.