Mike Lee: I am coming home

His pro debut took place in May of 2010 at UIC Pavilion in Chicago. Four years later Chicago’s hometown hero Mike Lee is back to fight at UIC for his 13th professional boxing bout. Notre Dame’s undefeated light heavyweight will make his Windy City return against Massachusetts-based slugger Paul Gonsalves. Their fight will open the worldwide telecast on ESPN 2 at 8 pm CT on Friday, July 25th. A few days before the bout Mike tells “Russian Chicago” about his long awaited return home; his recent camp changes and signing with IMG.

Mike, you are coming back home. What does it mean for you to fight back in Chicago?

My last fight here was in 2010. It was my pro debut – and here we are thirteen, lucky number 13, fights later. That means a lot to me. This is my hometown. That is where I was born and raised, and up until January I lived here. I had a place here in the city for years and years, and now I am in southern California. Just the familiarity of the city, the people, the venue, the support – I am blessed! I am so happy to fight back home.

Some fighters do feel a lot of pressure fighting in their own backyard. What emotions are you going through?

There is always a little bit of pressure, but I feel that I use it to my advantage. I am just a huge proponent of positive thoughts, even when you are feeling at your worst. So instead of thinking if that or this happens and worrying about it, I just envision the best possible scenarios, you know, while training hard, not taking anything for granted. So all the pressure is not really on me; if anything, it is going to help me. I know, once I get in the ring, listen, I need to prove to everybody, I can fight. Hopefully, I could get a big knockout win.

Do people keep asking you for tickets?

Huh! (smiling). Every day people ask for tickets. They think everything is comped. They think I can have a big bowl of free tickets that I pass out. They don’t realize, it doesn’t matter who you are, the promoters rarely give you more than four tickets. And after my immediate family, they are gone – I can’t help you.

Is there any specific person you would really like to see in the stands? 

My mom! My mom has been with me through this entire journey. And although she is in Chicago, and I am in California, I really don’t get to see her as often. But I love her to death and I’m proud of her, as much as she is proud of me. It means a lot that she is there to support me. I know, it can be tough for her sometimes to see the blood, to see me get hit, but I love that she is there. Deep down I know things will be ok, if she is there.

You had not fought during 2013. How thirsty were you to get back into the ring in April of this year? 

So thirsty! I am thirstier now for this fight than I was for the last one. My rhythm was off for the last one. It takes a while to get back. And finally I had that fight under my belt and I am so excited to fight again.

Since the beginning of 2014 you started working with legendary southpaw and former IBF Heavyweight Champion Chris “Rapid Fire” Byrd. As well as next to you is Health and Fitness coach Phil Landman who was born in South Africa, but based in LA and who used to work for quite a while with Miguel Cotto… How do you guys get along, and why did you switch your coaches and started, so to say, from scratch?

They are great! Chris saw things in me that I needed to do better, saw the defense I needed to work on. I was too far forward on my front foot; he wanted me to come back. He did not want me to get hit as much, which I am all for. I admire Chris for his incredible career, and he is a huge boxing fan. He knows the sport better than anybody I have ever met. And that is someone you want to spend your time around. You want to spend your time around the best and learn from them. The same is with Phil. He has been in the game forever. He worked with Miguel Cotto. I really trust his input into the strength, and conditioning, and diet. We all are a great team. There were no fights; there were all laughs, all jokes, which is rare in boxing. Team really gets along.

You were mostly working with Andre Dirrell and Denis Grachev in the gym. Talk a bit about your sparring routine, and how the work with those two were going on?

Work with them was great. Andre has phenomenal hands. He had a layoff too having some contract issues even longer than me. But that kid is one of the best fighters in the world. Trust me, when Andre Dirrell gets back into action, he will be a dangerous fighter. Denis Grachev is great fighter as well. We sparred a lot for this fight. Denis is a strong, very strong kid.

You recently signed an agreement with IMG, a global leader in sports, fashion and media. In your opinion why can this signing be beneficial specifically for you?

I think it brings a lot to the table. It takes things off my and my dad’s chest. We do not have to worry about calling for sponsorships, calling to get deals. IMG is the best in the world at taking their athletes and introducing them, interconnecting them, going out to the brands. More importantly I always wanted to get into commentating and do things during my career outside of just boxing, I want my hands on a lot of different things. And IMG can really put me out to the world and give me so many fun opportunities. I am all for it. If it is fun, if it promotes my brand, I say, why not? Lets go for it! So I am really honored that I am part of the IMG team now.

Recently you attended the ESPY Award. How was that experience, and could you name the moment that touched you the most?

Oh, it was amazing! I got to meet Drake. It was a really cool moment for me. I have got a chance to see Blake Griffin. I have done a lot of commercial shoots with him, and we became friends over the years. I saw Kevin Durant… Just a bunch of cool people who were having a good time. But the defining moment for me was Stuart Scott. I was sitting right behind him. And when he got up outhere and had that speech I had tears in my eyes…

Who didn’t?.. 

… Because he stole the show. Not to shed light on him, but to shed light on the fact that I love when he said, don’t give up, don’t ever give up! I mean that should be the mantra just for everybody in life no matter what you are going through. This guy almost died a week before the ESPYs and here he is on stage, telling people, no matter what, don’t give up. I think that was one the most powerful moments of my life. It was incredible.

You mention that you would like to do a lot of things outside of boxing, but you already do: you graduated from University of Notre Dame with degree in finance, you do charity work, commercial shoots and so on… How do you keep up with all this?

It is not difficult, because I think I’m blessed with a mind and a personality that likes to do these things. If I just do one thing, I get really bored. If I only trained and slept, and trained, I would not be really excited and be as good of a fighter as I am. I love training and then not doing things that take away from boxing, but I like working with charities, doing Subway commercial shoots, and just having my hands on a lot of different things. Boxing is my number one priority, but there is a lot of the off time in the sport too. When I am busy, I am at my best, no matter what I am doing. That is the long story short.

During your off time what do you like to do?

I like to travel, hang out with friends. After Friday’s fight I spend some time here at home, then I am going to Boston to see some friends, then we are planning to go to Mexico. I like to take little trips, get my mind off boxing for a couple weeks and then start to figure out my next game plan, my next fight.

What are your thoughts on a Friday opponent Paul Gonsalves?

We studied tape on him. I know he fights out of Massachusetts. He is 7-3. We watched the tape with Chris Byrd. He is the man at breaking down styles. I think I am too fast, too strong, and I want it more. That is the dangerous combination. I don’t discount anybody. I know he is a good boxer, and he is here for a reason. But I am on a mission on Friday. That is for sure.

And lastly, why do you box? What does boxing bring to your life?

Boxing brings energy and happiness. I think to me, and I always say it, tomorrow is promised to no one. I can get hit by a bus tomorrow and never even get to a fight. But I want to know that I did take every risk and did everything that makes me excited before I die. Because I do not know, if it could happen tomorrow or in 50 years. Boxing gives me that ultimate adrenaline rush and excitement that I need.

Viktoryia Bulakhava
Photo credit: Tom Barnes

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