Wheaton's Mike Lee pushes through pain as he chases boxing world title
Mike Lee knows pain. Obviously.
The Wheaton native can rattle off a list of impressively violent injuries he has pushed through in his professional boxing career to date: a broken nose in a fight televised on ESPN, a broken hand in front of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden, and so on.
But Lee said the broken rib he suffered in Round 2 of his June 8 fight against Jose Hernandez at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont tops the list of most pain he has felt in a boxing ring.
Not that it mattered, though. In the end, Lee battled through a full eight rounds after the rib-snapping blow to defeat Hernandez.
"Honestly, what was going through my mind was, 'I'm not losing this fight,' " Lee said. "I have something in me, I don't know if it's competitive nature or what, but I'd rather be carried out on a stretcher than lose."
And, so far, the pain of defeat remains unfamiliar to Lee. With that win at the Allstate Arena, the 31-year-old light heavyweight boasts a 21-0 record with 11 knockouts.
While Lee is unable to pinpoint exactly where his relentlessness comes from, he remembers feeling the same way at 8 years old, the first time he stepped into the boxing ring.
"I sparred a 10-year-old kid and he gave me a bloody nose," Lee said, laughing as he relived his first fight. "Sometimes I wish my parents gave me a golf club instead of boxing gloves. I don't know what it is that I've always had in me -- instead of quitting, it made me mad. I kept working and working until a few months later, I took it to that kid.
"I just hated to lose. And I still do."
Lee grew up in the Chicago suburbs, attending Benet Academy in Lisle. However, he said his parents' South Side roots meant that he was raised differently, and they allowed -- or encouraged -- him to channel his energies into boxing.
"When I got my driver's license -- most kids are coddled and told not to go here, not to go there -- I was driving in the inner city of Chicago, through some of the worst neighborhoods, to Windy City Gym to spar professionals," Lee said. "They didn't coddle me, and they knew that I loved boxing, I loved to fight."
Lee's passion for boxing followed him to the University of Notre Dame, where he was a three-time champion in Bengal Bouts, the charity men's boxing tournament that dates to the 1920s. He graduated with a degree in finance in 2009, but after he began fighting in tournaments nationwide and won his class in the Chicago Golden Gloves, even the lucrative promise of Wall Street couldn't pull him out of the boxing ring.
"It definitely wasn't what I went to school for, but I knew that if I didn't go after boxing, I'd wake up as a 100-year-old man and still regret it," Lee said. "I really believe if you're passionate about something, then you make it your Plan A.
"I know that that's probably not the safest call, but I get punched in the face for a living, so obviously I throw caution to the wind."
Lee kept winning as a professional, fighting at venues such as Cowboy Stadium and Madison Square Garden, with victories televised on ESPN, HBO, CBS.
About four years ago, Lee faced a new type of pain, one that could not be fought off with fists: He was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called ankylosing spondylitis.
In a 2017 essay for The Player's Tribune, Lee said the disease caused him to "wake up every single morning in pain." It also cost him 18 months out of the ring during the prime years of his career.
Yet he returned, and now says the experience made him mentally sharper and stronger, capable of enduring even more pain than he had thought.
He used the time spent in and out of the hospital to dive into sports psychology and science, devouring books by people such as life coach Tony Robbins and neuroscientist Joe Dispenza, and learning a visualization process that Lee says powers him through big fights, high-profile speeches and more.
Lee's health issues also inspired him to cherish the opportunity to help others dealing with illness, particularly through a nonprofit called Family Reach. Immediately after his June 8 fight, Lee was joined in the ring by a 7-year-old boy, Taveon, who is battling cancer. Around him, Lee placed the belt he had just earned.
"These kids are little fighters, too," Lee said. "His grandma said it was one of the best days of his life. If I can do something like that, to affect a kid, I'd do it as much as possible. … In a small way, I understand what that hospital life is like. A little bit of a boost goes a really long way."
Lee stayed in the Chicago area for roughly a week after his victory over Hernandez, being nursed back to health at his mother's house and spending a bit more time with Taveon before returning to his Los Angeles home.
The recovery for his broken rib is expected to take 6-8 weeks. Currently ranked third in the World Boxing Organization's light heavyweight division, Lee already is looking ahead to his next fight, pain aside.
"Even though I'm injured, I think my ranking will go even higher," he said. "I think a world-title opportunity is honestly one phone call away."