There’s room to dream in Texas, where the horizon feels like it is limited just by the power of your own eyes and even skyscrapers are placed far enough apart so that each seems to be a city unto itself.
Beneath the broad expanse of the state’s night sky, where stars dot the black canopy like keyholes, a 25-year-old boxer sees himself as a champion. His gloved fists have finally delivered a knockout blow and his weary legs propel him to the top of the ropes around the ring, with dozens of whirling and flashing cameras and millions of eyes in the arena and around the world watching the belt passed to him.
But Mike Lee ’09 doesn’t have time for his dream right now. Right now, he has to punch a bag.
It’s the week after Thanksgiving, and Lee is training on the outskirts of his adopted home of Houston. In the absence of a human sparring partner, he bounces between exercises timed to rounds like a real fight, from shadow boxing in a ring to hitting a bag to punching foam noodles flipped at him.
With his short, dark hair, three-day beard and blue eyes, Lee is cast from a 50-year-old fight poster — except for his adidas boxing shoes, Air Jordan shorts and a shirt advertising the training facility, Plex. It is a cavernous, airplane-hangar of a building where professional athletes from all different sports come to get in shape. There are spaces for weights and aerobics, a basketball hoop with a half-court, and artificial turf fields. The energy far surpasses what is found in a local YMCA, and when someone passes you wearing a Houston Texans or L.A. Clippers shirt, it’s easy to believe it was actually issued from the team.
Lee, however, is contained in a world within that world. Hovering around him at all times is the shadowy presence of Ronnie Shields, a veteran trainer who worked with Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. Soft-spoken, his quiet commands to Lee cause an escalation in force and volume, from where to hit the bag to Lee’s exclamation when landing a punch.
“Move your head side to side, then punch,” Shields says.
“Hut!” Lee shouts.
Bang! Lee’s gloved fist connects to the bag like a hammer on an anvil, the power of the strike running through the bag’s top and sending its chain into wild oscillations.
“Step left. Punch.”
“In his chest, right there.”
Several minutes pass until a buzzer signals the end of the “round.” Standing in a 5-foot radius of his own sweat droplets, Lee waits for his “cut man,” Creed Fountain, a 45-year veteran of the boxing world, to come over and wipe his face with a towel. It’s a surprisingly caring gesture that sticks out from exercises designed to make someone better as a fighter, and a window into the intimacy Lee has cultivated with Shields and Fountain, two members of his boxing “family.”
“I keep him pretty,” Fountain says during the workout. “If your fighter bleed, call Creed.”
This won’t be the only workout for Mike Lee on this day. In the afternoon, he’ll be back for a separate session outside the ring with Danny Arnold, the director of Plex and Lee’s performance coach, and go through sets of paired exercises that are designed to increase his explosive power in the ring. Arnold considers his expertise to be in “humans” instead of a single sport.
“We don’t jog. We don’t do crash [diets]. It’s a system,” Arnold says. “I tell them, question everything. It’s going to help us keep him healthy.”
One exercise has Lee alternating fast bench press repetitions with high-knee running. Another involves switching between moving his feet in quick steps and punching the air while grasping small medicine balls.
It’s a life done in increments, from the tick of seconds to the count of repetitions. Lee’s life is measured so he can achieve the immeasurable. It’s the life for a man trying to make himself into a world champion.
Mike Lee, an undefeated light heavyweight with 11 wins, six of them knockouts, might be the nicest guy you could ever meet who would be able to break your nose, ribs and jaw with three punches. He is the sort of person who is always imagined to come out of Notre Dame — intelligent, earnest, socially gracious, with a good sense of humor and a dedication to keeping himself in shape. Between workouts, he helps counsel a middle schooler, and he takes pride in how the boy’s career goals have shifted from professional basketball to medicine.
“The progress I’ve seen in him is really cool,” Lee says.
Lee grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, and started embracing boxing when he was cut from a high school basketball team and visited the Windy City Gym in Chicago with family members. A spectator at the 75th anniversary Bengal Bouts, Lee transferred to Notre Dame from the University of Missouri in 2006 and proceeded to become a captain and three-time Bengal Bouts champion. Pro boxing started becoming a reality after winning his class at the 2009 Chicago Golden Gloves and performing well at camps.
“Something about the movement and rhythm, I had it,” Lee says. “I love feeling the impact. I just love that.”
The media take an almost sociological view of him, rarely failing to make note of his 3.8 GPA, finance degree, and interest in The Wall Street Journal and CNBC. There are headlines like USA Today’s “Wall Street can wait: Mike Lee ready to make his mark in the ring” and “Degree from Notre Dame nice, but Lee wants light heavyweight title”; meanwhile, The New York Times opines, “who would have thought the Irish might be able to boast of a world boxing champion before they claim another national title in their signature sport?”
Lee does demure slightly at the image that begins to form in these dispatches of a suited man who can walk straight from a computer screen with stock quotes to a ring with a hulking opponent. But in a sport stereotypically linked with poverty and the desire born out of desperation to overcome bad circumstances, Lee is made out to be a stranger in a strange land.
“People think he’s crazy, but you have to be crazy to be a fighter,” Shields says.
Like anyone else his age, Lee’s relaxation time includes visiting his girlfriend and family, watching comedies like Family Guy and The Office, and fishing with his coaches. Also like anyone else his age, moving to a new city after college was initially isolating.
“It’s been really difficult at times,” he says. “[But] it’s been worth it.”
The Mike Lee you meet outside the ring is markedly different from the Mike Lee you meet inside it. A bout last year showed how someone can change from CPA to shark.
In the second round of a fight against Tyler Seever in Las Vegas, Lee hit his opponent on the left side of the head and knocked him down, but the match wasn’t over at that point. It was over when Lee hit Seever on the right side of the jaw, and Seever’s buckling, awkward shuffle indicated how badly hurt he was. Lee then went after the proverbial blood in the water, knocking Seever down again, watching the referee end the fight, and running to the ropes and moving his gloved hand across his throat in the universal athletic gesture for “I win.”
It is worth noting here that Lee says he once led a youth hockey team in penalty minutes as a 10-year-old kid, despite the fact he played goalie.
“There is just something about sports,” he says of his competitive nature.
This duality — educated nice guy out of the ring, tough guy in — is undeniably a bonus in sports. Lee is also stepping toward a rare ubiquity for a relatively inexperienced 21st century boxer, starring in commercials for Subway alongside such stars as New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck ’05, Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, and Olympic gold medalists Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin.
He is proud of his work ethic and drive, but developing patience will be more important. Lee admits he can get antsy and bored, so working out constantly helps keep him on track.
“I’m that person that always needs something to do,” he says. “I’ve always prepared for a game or a fight. I’m so used to working toward something.”
Managing those traits partially falls on the shoulders of Shields, who drove Lee so hard in their first workout that the boxer vomited into a garbage can. Shields doesn’t consider Lee a “natural,” and wants to be careful when picking opponents and developing nascent skills.
“This sport will eat you alive if you don’t know what you are doing,” Shields says. “Mike did every other sport but boxing. It’s a lot harder on Mike. A guy like him can’t afford to take shortcuts.”
But Lee’s tenacity and an opening field in the light heavyweight division have Shields seeing the promise.
“He wants to learn,” Shields says. “He is on the right track.”
Lee says the team around him helps “keep me in line.”
“I have a lot more to learn. I do have a plan,” he says. “The competition is getting harder and better.”
The modern boxer, however, has more to fight against than an opponent in the ring. He also has the wild world of promoters and pay-per-view and, in America at least, a largely apathetic public. Although international audiences may still flock to matches and cast their fighters as heroes, America’s landscape has clearly shifted.
Boxing enthusiasts posit many reasons for the sport’s decline from the early and mid-20th century to today, from the lack of contests aired on network television to the byzantine championship belt system and picayune squabbles that squander potentially historic matchups, such as the drug-testing dispute that submarined a potential bout between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
If the reasons are debatable, the fall in popularity is much less so, crystallized last year by a disastrous Olympics. While such icons as Muhammad Ali and George Foreman once started building careers with gold medals for America, the U.S. men’s team left London failing to medal for the first time, and the event was tarnished by protested fights and referees being thrown out. The Associated Press noted that television coverage of boxing, exiled from main NBC properties to CNBC, was the only area where Olympics television ratings fell from four years prior.
There is also boxing’s inherent violence and the heavy history of deaths in or from the ring. Boxing, that most primal of sports, could probably trace its roots back to the very beginnings of human conflict and competition. Peter Arnold notes in his History of Boxing that fist fights are referenced in both The Iliad and The Aeneid, with the ancient Olympics sponsoring matches by the end of the seventh century B.C. Even though many other contests have the possibility of death or serious injury — race car and motorcycle racing, even surfing and equestrian events — boxing stands apart because the single goal of the sport is not to score touchdowns or cross a finish line but to force opponents into submission or hit them more than they hit you.
Decades later, some matches still reverberate as examples of how boxing’s brutal dance can turn, quite literally, funereal. The end of the 1962 fight between Benny Paret and Emile Griffith is one of the most famous. Shown live on ABC, and easily found on the Internet now, Griffith eventually corners Paret and lands blow after vicious blow, still hitting even when his opponent’s head sags back against the ropes. Paret died 10 days later, but it’s just as easy to imagine him dead as his limp body slowly collapses onto the canvas.
Lee admits that he at times worries about the physical toll. His plans involve trying to avoid too many fights or too many brutal fights in too short a time frame.
“I guess it always sits in your mind,” he says. “You know when you lose a step. . . . The key is recognizing that.”
This is one place where Lee’s unusual background is an unmitigated bonus.
“The fact that I can walk away from this is an asset,” he says. “I’d rather go hard now and do what I love. I have a very short window to do incredible things.”
Brute force and the possibility of serious injury hardly seem to impinge on the popularity of other sports. One often debated factor on boxing’s decline is the growing interest in mixed martial arts, or MMA fighting, which gets prime spots on Fox networks and was memorably labeled once by Senator John McCain as “human cockfighting.”
And despite the growing evidence of its deadly physical and psychological toll, the NFL has become the gold standard of American gladiatorial combat, with linebackers, running backs, safeties and wide receivers replacing heavyweights as the apotheosis of physical competition in our own national sporting scene.
Millions may have gasped at the hit Patriots running back Stevan Ridley took from Ravens safety Bernard Pollard in this year’s AFC Championship game, a hit which turned Ridley into an unconscious spinning rag doll, but that didn’t stop millions more from tuning in to the Super Bowl just two weeks later.
The open question is whether boxing is, at its core, somehow a step too far in the present world for the American fan. And if the sport is seen as confusing, deadly and bereft of young talent, where can it go? Strength of narrative is one of Lee’s solutions, and judging from past media coverage and the Subway commercials, he has shown the capability of breaking through some of the 24/7 sports noise as a prizefighter.
“They like stories in boxing,” he says. “When people had American heavyweights, they wanted to root for them.”
The subtext is whether Lee’s story can have sustaining power and be married to his athletic exploits. Can he cross the interest divide, a man who chose boxing for love and not survival, fashioned his skills in a charity tournament at Notre Dame, and decided to put his finance degree on the shelf, even though he is still in a sport where his commercials are more accessible than many of his fights?
Christmas decorations have gone up and holiday songs are playing on the radio, but it’s already hot and humid in early morning Houston. The December weather makes the area around Plex look even flatter and drier, and adds a surreal touch to an already bizarre mix of nearby condominiums, shopping centers, corporate plazas, Hispanic grocery stores, check-cashing businesses and a blazing white Hindu temple complex festooned with towers and domes.
Along one side of Plex are large doors that pull up and essentially turn it into an open-air facility. Today, however, the gym is already beginning to take on the aroma of a thousand childhood basketball camps, a sickly sweet combination of sweat, rubber, plastic, steel and cleaning products.
Lee joins a group of athletes for a workout that mixes different exercises together into a circuit of stations. At intervals, they run through a ladder, jump and twist in midair, flap heavy ropes, throw medicine balls down a field, and then sprint back through. These combinations are the essence of Lee’s training, to build up strength along with agility.
Three minutes generally does not sound like a long time. But it becomes an eternity when you are lying on the ground, abdominals stretched, listening to a trainer tell you what to do: toe touches to flutter kicks to scissor kicks to toe touches to crunches to toe touches to scissors to crunches to flutters to toe touches to flutters to toe touches to crunches to scissors to flutters to toe touches to crunches to scissors to flutters to toe touches to scissors to crunches to toe touches to scissors.
And . . . time.
During these workouts, Lee gets a wide-eyed grimace on his face, a seeming mix of incredulity at the strength and endurance his body is capable of mixed with the determination to get better. By the time he heads to a stationary bike for interval sprints, he has also become the waterfall that a gym compatriot termed “Sweaty Mike.” Lee jokes that a mop might be needed to clean it up and it could be an inspiration for an as-yet-to-be-decided ring moniker.
“I can’t give it to myself. That’s corny,” he says while in between sprints. “Maybe that should be my name — ‘The Mop.’”
As a professional athlete, Lee does struggle with trying to make sure he does not overtrain, reminding himself that sometimes doing a round of stretching may be better for him than an extra run. His long involvement in sports has left some scars and the ghosts of past injuries, so Lee likes Plex’s emphasis on warming up muscles prior to training sessions and the availability of therapies like a machine that wraps around the legs and pumps ice-cold water past the muscles to relax them.
It’s a body-conscious life, one of chicken, fruits and vegetables, and one where sugar is an enemy. (“The worst.”) By appearing in Subway commercials, Lee acknowledges he is beginning his career in the spotlight, providing a target for his opponents and a light for fans hoping he has the secrets to getting in shape.
On a minute-to-minute basis in Plex, the stakes do not appear high. It is, basically, a group of people running, lifting heavy things, and trying to make their arms incrementally stronger, their legs incrementally faster, their minds incrementally better at ignoring weakness and pain. But athletes’ jobs — their lives — are founded on the light-year separation of physical ability from the general human population and then the minute distances that create champions versus second-place finishers. And beyond that are the even smaller shades which divide champions from legends.
So in the warmth of the beginning of a Texas winter, a man who might be champion can’t afford to let up. He has to hit bags, he has to lift weights, he has to throw medicine balls, he has to jump and twist and sprint, all in the hope that one day the pain and rivers of sweat from a normal day in the arid outskirts of Houston, away from opponents and referees and judges and announcers and cameras and fans, will turn into what he dreams beneath an unlimited night sky.
The dream is intimidating. But the dream is possible.
“It’s going to take everything I have,” Lee says. “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.”
Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of this magazine.