Friday, March 24, 2023  |



Lee’s boxing challenge continues on Pacquiao-Margarito undercard


Until he racks up at least a dozen victories, Mike Lee will have to be patient with boxing writers, all of whom ask the Notre Dame graduate why he decided to pursue professional boxing after earning a degree in finance from one of the more-prestigious colleges in the country.

Lee (2-0, 1 knockout), who will fight Keith Debow in a four-round light heavyweight bout on the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito undercard Saturday at Cowboys Stadium, hears that question every time he’s interviewed, and his answer is always the same: for the challenge.

Long before the 23-year-old Chicagoan ever stepped foot in a boxing gym, he set a goal of attending the University of Notre Dame after watching the movie “Rudy.” And though Lee never played football for the “Fighting Irish,” his challenge to himself led to a four-year degree from his dream college and the discovery of a new passion: boxing.

His new passion led to a new, lofty goal, becoming a successful pro boxer. Some would say Lee is unlikely to achieve it, but he's not the kind of guy who backs down from a challenge.

Lee was an athletic standout in high school, where he was an all-conference linebacker, but his grades were not up to snuff for Notre Dame. He wound up attending the University of Missouri, which is a respected four-year college in Columbia, Mo., but not what the ultra-competitive Lee wanted.

“I had set that goal to get into Notre Dame a long time ago, and I wasn’t going to let go of it,” Lee told “My grades in high school were kind of mediocre, I’m sorry to say, but the goal of attending Notre Dame inspired me to focus on my academic standards.”

Lee hit the books at Mizzou and improved his grades so much that he was able to transfer to Notre Dame after his first year. He maintained a 3.8 GPA until his graduation last year, but he never walked onto the football field as he once dreamed. Instead, he found collegiate boxing with Bengal Bouts, the annual charity event founded by legendary football coach Knute Rockne in the 1920s.

Lee had already been bitten by the boxing bug while in high school, but participating in the Bengal Bouts tournament, which benefits the Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh, hooked him on the Sweet Science.

“I visited a boxing gym in Chicago with my cousin, Lou Hall, when I was 16,” Lee said. “Being there around the fighters and hearing the sound of punches on the bags gave me an instant adrenaline rush. I wanted to give it a try, but I never got the chance to compete while in high school.”

Lee got the chance in college at the advanced age of 19, but the natural athlete — he also participated in hockey and basketball in high school — quickly picked up the fundamentals of boxing and won the 16 amateur bouts he engaged in.

Lee, who won the 2009 Chicago Golden Gloves title (in the novice division), is still extremely green by professional standards and Top Rank, which signed him early this year, is moving him accordingly. Debow, who has an 0-2-1 record, suffered knockouts in both of his losses.

However, Top Rank, a promotional company that is lauded for its expertise in developing young talent, plans to keep Lee busy. The six-footer is already scheduled to appear on the Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-Alfonso Gomez card on Dec. 4 in Anaheim, Calif.

Lee, who earlier this year relocated Houston to work with veteran trainer Ronnie Shields, admits he’s still raw but believes he will improve quickly.

“I’ve already improved my technique so much working with a pro’s pro like Ronnie,” said Lee. “I can’t wait to see what I’m like a year or two from now.”

Lee says he’s developed more during the eight months of working with Shields than he did in 16 amateur bouts.

“I’ve always fought kind of like a pro,” said Lee, who an aggressive boxer-puncher who likes to go to the body, “but I’ve gotten used to the pro style in the last few months, and I think that’s because of all the talent I’m around at Ronnie’s gym.

“I’ve sparred with the Charlo brothers (Jermell and Jamall), who are both undefeated pro prospects, and I get to watch Guillermo Rigondeaux train, which is a real treat. He’s the best I’ve ever seen. He’s just incredible, a perfect counter-puncher, and his speed is ridiculous.”

Lee will never come close to equaling the talent and skill of Rigondeaux, one of the best amateur boxers ever, but he has some attributes that the junior featherweight from Cuba can only dream about.

Lee is a born-and-bred American from the Midwest who is as articulate as he is engaging.

He has a good face, a good story, a good personality and he’s dedicated to good things, such as his involvement with Champions for Children's, a charity event which benefits Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital.

If he can fight just a little bit, the good folks at Top Rank can develop him into an attraction.

His new challenge to himself is already off to a good start. Lee’s pro debut on May 29, a four-round unanimous decision over Emmitt Woods at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, drew more than 3,000 local supporters.

Tonight, he might fight in front as many as 70,000, a reality that has only begun to sink in.

“It’s exciting and it’s humbling,” Lee said. “The enormity of the event probably won’t hit me until I get in the ring.”

Lee’s bout with Debow will be streamed live on (no charge). The webcast begins at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT).