For Limerick’s longtime middleweight contender Andy Lee, the moment has arrived.
On tonight’s Bradley-Chaves undercard at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, he fights for a vacant 160lb. world title against ex-amateur great Matvey Korobov.
Lee’s route to this point has been a long and circuitous one, taking in the Athens Olympics, a 9-year pro career that has often flattered to deceive, and a switch to trainer Adam Booth after the death of his mentor Emmanuel Steward.
As an amateur, Lee was accomplished. He won a European bronze medal, and went on to beat Alfredo Angulo at the 2004 Athens Olympics, before losing on countback to future professional titlist Hassan N’Dam. Rejecting overtures to remain amateur for the Beijing games, Lee instead opted to turn pro under the tutelage of the legendary Manny Steward of Kronk gym and Tommy Hearns fame. The Limerick lad was off to Detroit, and acquired a reputation as one of the sport’s top prospects.
He won his first 15 fights as a pro, most notable among those a stunning one-punch knockout of faded ex-titlist Carl Daniels.
Steward and Lee had developed a close relationship, which Steward would later describe as the closest bond he had ever formed with one of his fighters. In 2008, Steward boasted that his young charge was already capable of beating the likes of, then middleweight king, Kelly Pavlik, and Jermain Taylor.
However, just a month after making that statement, Lee suffered his first setback, tiring and suffering a stoppage loss at the hands of the unheralded Brian Vera.
Shaky performances against the likes of Alexander Sipos and Affif Belghecham followed over the next couple of years, as the lustre began to fade, even as he continued to win. Complacent, widespread opinion that Lee was a “world class” fighter, despite a complete lack of evidence to support this, began to propagate, and it is a view still held by many fans, and even some noted figures in the fight game, today.
Eventually, a chance on HBO arrived against unbeaten Scot Craig McEwan. After a torrid 8 rounds, Lee was trailing on the cards and facing likely defeat. A heavy knockdown in the 9th, followed by a knockout in the 10th and final round rescued the situation for Lee and gave him the noteworthy win he had been waiting for. McEwan’s career subsequently went into freefall, as the once-prospect succumbed to a series of ignominious losses.
Lee then avenged his defeat to Brian Vera in comprehensive fashion in another HBO showcase. This led to his first world title shot.
In June 2012, he faced the son of a legend, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. for the latter’s middleweight belt. While it is questionable if Lee had faced the right opposition to prepare him to enter the lion’s den in partisan Texas, Julio Jr. was similarly untested.
After a solid start, Lee began to tire quickly, and was overwhelmed by the larger, if crude, Chavez. The stoppage defeat came in 7 rounds.
For more on this fight, and the post-fight drug testing controversy, this article is worth perusing: https://pound4poundireland.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/kelsey-mccarson-asks-what-happened-in-texas-the-definitive-article-on-the-chavez-jr-lee-drug-testing-controversy/
This disappointment was followed by the untimely passing of Manny Steward, and Lee relocated to London to train with Adam Booth.
While they have compiled 5 straight wins as a partnership over limited opposition, the road has been rocky. Rounds were dropped to Anthony Fitzgerald in an underwhelming points win. The opening moments against journeyman Ferenc Hafner were punctuated by Lee absorbing a head-snapping flurry. Lee scraped by natural-welterweight Frank Horta in a majority 8-round decision in Denmark, failing to block every shot of a 5 punch combination at one point.
How did this title shot come about?
Andy was set to fight the fearsome Gennady Golovkin in April for his middleweight belt, a suicide mission if ever there was one and a likely career-ender for the Irishman. However, the death of Golvokin’s father forced a cancellation, and Lee instead continued his 154lb. experiment with a fight on the Cotto-Martinez PPV undercard against unknown prospect John Jackson.
In a torrid battle, Lee was dropped in the first round, outboxed and reeling on the verge of defeat, when a single right hook flattened Jackson for one of the year’s most stunning knockouts, and certainly the year’s best comeback.
This win alone was not enough to get a title shot though. Lee can thank Jay-Z and Al Haymon, among others, for that.
Al Haymon charge Peter Qullin was the longtime holder of the WBO’s 160lb. title. Top Rank’s Matt Korobov was the mandatory challenger.
When this potential fight went to a purse bid, Jay-Z’s (holder of an old grudge against Haymon, dating back to the latter’s time in the music business) Rocnation promotional group bid big for the contest, resulting in the ignominy of Haymon ordering Quillin to vacate his title by pulling out of the fight, and a payday more than 3 times what he has earned before.
This left Korobov in need of a foe for the title.
Enter unbeaten contender Billy Joe Saunders, promoted by Frank Warren. He was next in line in the WBO’s rankings and was set to face Korobov, until, out of nowhere, the co- promoter of WBO 154lb. titlist Demetrius Andrade, Artie Pellulo, filed a petition to allow his man to step in and fight for the title at the higher weight.
The WBO acquiesced and Andrade-Korobov seemed ready to go. However, Andrade later changed his mind and opted to stay at 154lbs., which once again left Korobov-Saunders as the likely fight (http://ringtv.craveonline.com/news/358143-andrade-to-stay-at-154-korobov-saunders-in-play-for-fury-chisora-card).
However, while the Andrade drama was playing out, Frank Warren had been working behind the scenes to make an anticipated grudge match between Billy Joe Saunders and Chris Eubank Jr. (which would ultimately be sanctioned as a final eliminator for the Korobov-Lee winner), and even when a title shot was again on the table, he opted to pass for now, instead finalizing the domestic fight, one which would increase Saunders’ profile in the UK considerably.
Thus, the title shot fell in Lee’s lap, and he moved back to middleweight to take it.
What are Lee’s realistic chances in his title fight?
This is a similar situation to the Chavez fight. Two fighters who have yet to show that they can win at world level will contest this title.
Whether Lee has improved under Booth is highly questionable. Certainly, we have yet to see in-ring evidence of any major changes. While his body looks in pristine condition, the same stamina problems, defensive liabilities and inability to keep his boxing together still undermine Lee. He is just 30, but maybe he has accumulated too much wear and tear over the years in gruelling Kronk sparring sessions and harder-than-expected fights.
What of Korobov then? He is not the same man he once was either. He twice won world amateur titles, and was considered one of the best pound for pound amateurs in the world. He was a gold-medal favourite at the 2008 games, only to be upset in the early stages. He left the amateurs with a reported record of 300-12.
As a professional, Korobov was the most heralded Russian amateur to turn over since Kostya Tszyu. Signing with Top Rank, he scored knockouts in 8 of his first 10 bouts, and seemed destined for the fast track to world honours and stardom, in much the same way that Gennady Golovkin and Vasyl Lomachenko have done since.
However, the knockouts dried up and the performances grew more one-paced and less explosive, as he failed to move beyond 8-round level (he has only had two fights scheduled for 10, and gone that distance just once). Multiple switches in trainers have also hampered his progress.
He has undergone surgery for breathing problems, but perhaps his failure to transition smoothly to the professionals can be put down to the age-old ‘complacency of the good life’ problems that seem to plague many star amateurs who come to the West to ply their trade for pay. Whatever the case, it has been a long 6 year wait for his first title shot.
Could his diminished foot-speed and lack of experience in long, hard fights cost him against Lee? It’s certainly possible, and his chin was almost cracked by the limited Derek Edwards when they met a year ago.
Whatever happens, I do not expect Korobov to turn back the clock and suddenly replicate his 2007 amateur form.
A Sisyphean Task
However, the smart money has to be on Korobov prevailing. My pick is for Lee to win a few rounds early, but to tire by halfway and eventually lose a clear decision.
On a night of two big fight cards in Vegas, with plenty of compelling storylines, in this writer’s opinion, Korobov-Lee stands out the most.
In Greek mythology, the figure of Sisyphus was punished by the gods by being compelled to roll a giant boulder to the top of a slope, the stone always escaping his grasp near the top and rolling down again. Given the punishing nature of the sport of boxing, this could be taken as an apt metaphor for the trials and tribulations of the perennial contender. oftentimes climbing the ladder with great difficulty, only to fall short when nearing the summit.
Simply put, it’s childhood dream or bust for Andy. New horizons will be conquered tonight, or his dream will roll inexorably away.