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updated: 5/5/2011 4:02 PM

Wheaton boxer, N.D. grad Lee hits spotlight

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  • Notre Dame boxing champion Mike Lee of Wheaton scored a resounding first-round TKO over light heavyweight Pablo Gomez in Las Vegas on Feb. 26, 2011. Lee fights again on Friday night in an undercard bout on ESPN.

      Notre Dame boxing champion Mike Lee of Wheaton scored a resounding first-round TKO over light heavyweight Pablo Gomez in Las Vegas on Feb. 26, 2011. Lee fights again on Friday night in an undercard bout on ESPN.
    Courtesy of Chris Cozzone/Fightwireimages.com

  • Light heavyweight boxer Mike Lee of Wheaton is 4-0 as a pro fighter and gets his first TV exposure on Friday as one of the matches on ESPN's Friday Night Fights. Lee was a Golden Gloves champ.

      Light heavyweight boxer Mike Lee of Wheaton is 4-0 as a pro fighter and gets his first TV exposure on Friday as one of the matches on ESPN's Friday Night Fights. Lee was a Golden Gloves champ.
    Courtesy of Chris Farina/2010

 
 

It's no big deal leading your hockey team in penalty minutes.

But it is when you're only 10. And you lead by a wide margin. And you're, um, the goaltender.

Yeah, it was clear to Mike Lee's friends and family that he was a bit different as a youngster, even if they hadn't quite figured out then that he'd become a professional boxer.

At 23, Lee is now a top-rated light heavyweight with a huge future -- not to mention a Notre Dame grad with a big following among Irish alumni -- and this week he steps into the big ring when he gets his first national TV bout on ESPN2's Friday Night Fights (9 p.m.).

"I was what you call 'scrappy.' I loved to hit, but in some sports and in some situations, it doesn't quite fit," Lee says now with a laugh. "The problem is, I was that way in every sport."

It worked in football, where the Wheaton native was a star linebacker for Benet Academy -- practicing opposite close friend and QB Dan LeFevour -- but not so much in basketball, where he failed to make the sophomore team.

"When I got cut it was devastating,'' Lee said. "But everything happens for reason. I found that out then."

He was encouraged by a cousin and his father to try boxing. They took him to a gym, and the rest is recent history.

"Everything seemed to click for me in the ring," Lee says. "I can use my athleticism and power and I've always had the right demeanor and the mental capacity to fight through pain.''

So at 16 he started boxing, but it wasn't until he transferred from Missouri to Notre Dame that he began to wonder if he had a future in the sport.

"You're gonna laugh, but ever since I saw 'Rudy' when I was 5 or 6, I dreamed of going to Notre Dame, but my grades were never good enough," Lee explained. "My senior year in high school I got serious, and then my freshman year at Missouri I got straight A's.

"To be honest, I didn't think I'd get into one of the toughest schools in the country, but I did. Little did I know how much it would change my life."

Lee could have headed directly to Wall Street after graduating at the top of his class with a 3.80 GPA and a finance degree from Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business.

"I still relax by watching CNBC, and I read the (Wall Street) Journal," Lee says. "I'm the calmest guy in the world until the bell rings."

Three straight years at Notre Dame he was the 178-pound champ of Bengal Bouts, which raises money for the children of Bangladesh, and in 2008 Lee spent two weeks in Bangladesh as part of the university's Holy Cross Missions.

By 2009, he was the Chicago Golden Gloves Champion at 178, and two years later, he's 4-0-0 (3 KO) as a pro with a national TV fight at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Promoted by Top Rank and trained in Houston by one of the best in the game, Ronnie Shields, it seems Lee is well on his way.

"This is a big one for me because it's my network debut," Lee said. "I'm really pumped because everyone back home in Chicago can see me do my thing."

As for his style, Lee says he's a power-puncher who can box, very aggressive with a natural right hand and left hook.

And after a first-round knockout of Pablo Gomez in February at the Palms, Shields says, "He was right back in the gym the next day. The great thing about Mike is he's training for his career, not just for individual fights. He's here full time, working hard every single day."

As is the case for every Lee bout, regardless of city, there will be a large Chicago and Notre Dame contingent at his Friday Night Fight vs. Gilbert Gastelum.

Among those spotted at previous matches were Golden Tate, Ricky Watters, LeFevour and, of course, Rudy Ruettiger.

"The support from the alums only grows every city we go to," Lee said. "I'm doing my best to give back to the school and shed a positive light on Notre Dame."

He will do more than that on Sept. 16 at the Joyce Convocation Center on the Notre Dame campus, when he headlines a major boxing event following the student pep rally on the eve of the Michigan State game -- with all profits going to N.D. charities.

"The key there will be controlling my nerves," Lee said. "With 10,000 people screaming the night before a football game, wow. I just can't thank the Notre Dame fans enough."

So what about a fight here in Chicago before the hometown fans?

"I'm exited about that possibility, maybe four or five fights from now," he said. "I'd love to come home for a fight."

But he's not getting too far ahead of himself, or wondering about a title fight.

"I'm a few years away," Lee said. "There's a lot of positive happening, and I have a terrific promoter and one of the best trainers in the world.

"But I have to be patient. Ronnie has so much to teach me and I have so much to learn. Anyone who says they're at their peak or done learning in this sport is lying or ignorant.

"It's going to take a few years, but I'm 23 years old. When the time comes to fight for the belt, I'll be ready."

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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