Boxer Mike Lee seeks to inspire as he battles autoimmune condition
Light heavyweight Mike Lee came out and offered up a heavy-duty side of his backstory, one that gives better insight into the Chicago product, who graduated from Notre Dame and currently is edging into the top tier of the rankings stations at 175 pounds.
He is now 20-0, with 11 knockouts, after turning professional in 2010. He will be in a title shot position in short order, if he keeps on keeping on.
“Let me tell you something that 99 percent of the people in my life don’t know about me. I wake up every single morning in pain. Every. Single. Morning. Some days are worse than others, but whether it’s my back, my head, my knees or my elbows, some part of me is hurting the moment I open my eyes. Yes, I’m a professional fighter. But, no, it’s not from the punches. Or the grueling training. The source of this pain? An autoimmune disease known as ankylosing spondylitis,” wrote the 30-year-old fighter, in a piece which ran on The Players Tribune.
I checked in with Lee, who I know a bit, as we both worked the booth on the July 15 Facebook Fightnight Live streamed show, which was a Roy Jones Jr. promotion, unfolding in Phoenix, Arizona.
Lee seemed fully upbeat about his future fighting prospects and gave no hint of the out of the ring travails he’s been dealing with. I chatted with him yesterday to get some more details on his condition, and the reaction to people taking in this side of his story.
“I felt that I needed to share it and, honestly, I’ve gotten so many messages already from people struggling with different auto-immune diseases and much worse saying it inspired them . . . and I’ve heard many of them saying, ‘I’m gonna hit the gym today!’ That really made me feel good to connect with these people, and help them even a little bit. It’s been inspirational for many people reaching out to me, sharing their story/struggle. I just don’t want it to be a piece feeling sorry for me or anything. I just want to motivate people.”
So, when was Lee’s lowest period? “Probably the end of 2013, after a year of no progress and symptoms/pain/depression, as a result, getting worse,” he told me.
Between 0.1 and 1.8% of the adult population suffers from the condition, for the record.
This was not a short-term source of aggravation, by any means. “From the end of 2012 to about 2014 I was searching . . . in and out of hospitals, my body shutting down on me, out of the ring and in training,” Lee told me.
So, this ankylosing spondylitis. As Lee put it to The Players Tribune: “The disease is a form of arthritis that causes inflammation that leads to moments of severe, chronic pain as well as fatigue.”
So, how much is his condition in his head . . . how much or does it loom over him, speak to him and whisper dark negatives in his ear? “Considering I’ve won my last maybe 6 or 7 fights – I’m very confident. I’m in whole new mindset now. That has been the key for me, I matured a lot mentally in those years.”
And is that mainly because he just has an attitude of gratitude now?
“Yes, but it’s been more of constantly focusing on what I WANT; the good, positive, exciting things and goals in my life. Not letting pain be the constant thing on my mind. Your mind can either help or sabotage your body. Look at the physical damage stress alone can do to a human body physically! Who is to say the mind can’t do the opposite and HELP heal? Your brain makes perception into reality- so you can choose what to focus on.”
And he was moving in that direction – the power of mind over matter – even before he got that diagnosis, which was a relief, being that his symptoms had been a mystery for too long a spell.
“It wasn’t really like one A-ha moment,” said Lee, ranked as high as No. 7 by the WBO and No. 11 by the IBF. “Everything has been kind of a snowball effect. But getting the diagnosis definitely helped.”
Lee’s agent Mike Borao talked to RingTV.com about what Lee has gone through and a bit about where he goes from here.
“Mike is rated as high as No. 7 in the world, plus he’s a huge attraction/ticket-seller, so we have many options available. Most likely, we will fight again in January or February and look to challenge for a world title mid-2018. Unlike most other boxers, Mike attracts a mainstream audience. He brings a young, vibrant demographic. If a boxer can’t fill an arena, how can a network expect to do big television ratings? Mike CAN fill an arena and will deliver huge ratings and excitement when he challenges for a world title.”
Intangibles, unmeasurable or perhaps hard to detect traits or patterns can be a larger influence on what heights an athlete can scale. Whereas we might think that an auto-immune diagnosis might lessen a fighters’ chances to elevate to the tip top of a division, it might well be that Lee’s battle with this, and his choice to turn the negative into a positive, should have us upping our estimation of his chances at getting to the 175 apex.
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