Saturday, October 24, 2009

When the Next Big Thing Goes Bust

At one time, Andy Lee appeared to be a can't miss young prospect. He now faces a rebuilding process.

A couple years ago, Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward was telling anybody with ears that his latest protege, Irish middleweight Andy Lee, was soon to be the future of the 160-pound division.

Steward claimed Lee had unlimited potential and that his punching power was crippling. He even went so far as to make the incredulous statement after Lee's 15th professional fight that, "He would beat Winky Wright and I'd match him with Winky right now."

But a peculiar thing happened on the road to Steward's predictions of superstardom. Lee was brutally dispatched in the seventh round of a colossal upset loss to the unsung Brian Vera.

To be fair, Lee entered the ring that night at the Mohegan Sun under the influence of the flu virus or some other malaise. But that was of little consolation to Steward, who seemed embarrassed by the slow meltdown of his charge. It didn’t help that the fight also happened to be beamed live by ESPN2 to a surprised television viewing audience.

After the shocking turn of events that night in Connecticut, try as he might, Steward was unable to mask his disappointment. He came to the painful realization that the fighter who he figured was a sure bet to someday win it all – went bust in front of his very eyes.

No longer was Lee the most promising middleweight prospect in the sport; he wasn't even the most promising 160-pound prospect from Ireland. John Duddy possessed the more solid claim to that title.

The apprentice southpaw that Steward proclaimed was one of the best prospects he had ever seen, that sparred with stablemate heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, and whom Steward said would go on to surpass the feats of some of his former all-time great champions, was turned into a bloodied mess with a humiliating loss in only his 16th pro bout.

Brian Vera proved to be Lee's undoing. Since then, however, the Irishman has rebounded with four straight wins.

Steward realized what everyone else did; that no matter what Andy Lee was able to do in the future, everybody would remember the name Brian Vera and the fight would forever mar Lee's record.

In the 19 months since the loss to Vera, there has been a long and slow period of rebuilding for Lee. There have been four wins, but he suffered a very serious cut over his right eye that was sustained in his first fight back after the Vera loss, a 10th round stoppage win over Willie Gibbs.

The gash required 17 stitches to close as well as the work of a plastic surgeon. As a result, Lee was forced to the sidelines for eight long months. To add insult to injury, the cut was re-opened in the very first round of his next fight, a March win over Alexander Sipos. Since then, Lee has picked up two more wins over Olegs Fedotovs and Anthony Shuler.

So with the setbacks and injuries apparently behind him, Lee emerged last week at a press conference in Limerick, Ireland to officially announce that he will face off against reigning European Union and French champion Affif Belghecham on Nov. 14 in that city. For Lee, it will be a chance to move forward in the middleweight rankings and to re-board the fast track train to fulfilling Steward's once grandiose predictions.

"If I end up looking good in winning it will really put me back in the picture if I do a job on this guy," said the well-spoken, 25-year-old Lee. "That's the real motivation, you know, going out and beating him and maybe stopping him. He's never been stopped before and that would make a statement. He's definitely ahead of me in the ratings. Obviously if I beat him, I'm number fourteen now in the WBA, if I beat him I probably move near the top ten. It's definitely a step in the right direction. It's not like I'm fighting a guy who is way down with a built up record. He's tough, a seasoned-pro and I'll have to be at my best."

Heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward and Lee smile for the camera while in the midst of training.

Lee arrived in New York City earlier this week and will train under the tutelage of Steward assistant and former world champion Joey Gamache. The Kronk wizard will not be in the corner as he has broadcast duties with HBO for the Manny Pacquiao – Miguel Cotto bout on the same night in Las Vegas.

"I'm going to train with Joey," says Lee. "Training has been going well before now and I'm going to get lots of quality sparring in New York. There is no shortage of good sparring there. I'm supposed to spar with Yuri Foreman, the Jewish boxer who is due to fight Daniel Santos. I'll be sparring with Joe Greene, who is a southpaw the same as my opponent."

Should Lee make it by Belghecham, there are standing offers from his promoter Brian Peters to fellow Irishman John Duddy and to Vera for a rematch. But Peters claims Duddy was not overly interested in an all-Irish showdown and that Vera is having managerial issues, thus leaving them with the fight against the unknown Frenchman.

Lee is still young, so he has the opportunity to reset his place in the world of young contenders. The best case scenario is to of course secure an impressive victory over Belghecham. The plan for next year is to build on this year's momentum and move into a high-profile fight with Duddy or British middleweight champion Matthew Macklin. But none of that is a certainty and anything having to do with Andy Lee’s future plans is contingent upon him winning every fight from here on in.

So for Andy Lee, there is only one certainty; it's a long road back when the next big thing goes bust.

October 2009

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