Wheaton native Mike Lee got a finance degree. But now he seeks boxing's super middleweight title.
On the brink of his biggest fight, Wheaton native Mike Lee keeps it simple.
"I just need to be the best Mike Lee possible," he said by phone from his home in Santa Monica, California, where he was training for Saturday's International Boxing Federation world super middleweight title bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Lee, 21-0 with 11 knockouts since his professional debut at Chicago's UIC Pavilion in May 2010, is challenging reigning IBF super middleweight champion Caleb Plant, who has a career mark of 18-0.
The fight will be televised as the main event on Fox Sports' Premier Boxing Champions at 6 p.m. Saturday. It precedes the pay-per-view welterweight title bout between Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman.
A former Chicago Golden Gloves champion, the pride of Benet Academy and the University of Notre Dame -- Lee graduated with a 3.80 grade-point average in finance but pursued boxing after winning three 178-pound titles in Notre Dame's charity-based Bengal Bouts -- will be viewed as the underdog.
That is a great motivator.
"I took this fight because I know I can win," said Lee, 32, who previously has captured two junior light heavyweight belts. He went down a weight class to face Plant for a world title.
"I know I'm athletic, I know I'm powerful, I know I can box. So I'm just excited to show the world that. Everything I've worked for is for this world title. At the end of the day, I'm about to achieve and accomplish what very few people in the world have ever done," Lee said.
Certainly none from Wheaton. Rob Kroehnke, a physical education teacher at Edison Middle School who taught Lee in class and coached him in basketball, is a Wheaton lifer.
He did not see this coming.
"You would not say, 'Oh, here's a tough kid that would become a professional boxer.' That never came to mind. He was just a typical middle-school kid, very energetic," said Kroehnke, who also coached former Olympic volleyball player Sean Rooney.
"It's one of those stories, having a kid from your hometown do something. It's been just a lot of fun watching those kids through the years and watching what they've become," Kroehnke said.
In his senior year at Benet, Lee started at linebacker in football. His coach, current Benet athletic director Gary Goforth, said Lee had the intangibles that serve him in boxing -- hardworking, hard-nosed, coachable.
"I'm impressed with what he's done. Did he have the mindset to do that, from a football aspect? I'd say yes," Goforth said.
"He didn't back away from any challenge."
Lee proved plenty tough beyond the broken hand and busted ribs he's suffered in the ring. He didn't fight for 18 months between late 2012 and early 2014 after a sudden, mysterious back pain buckled him while sparring. After going "in and out of hospitals," Lee said, the malady eventually was diagnosed as the autoimmune disease, ankylosing spondylitis.
The Spondylitis Association of America describes it as a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, causing inflammation of the vertebrae. Lee said the incurable but treatable condition was not caused by boxing.
In his journey through pain management he encountered cannabidiol oil. CBD oil not only complies with Voluntary Anti-Doping Association standards but also took him from "eight prescription medications all the way down to zero," he said.
He was so taken by the treatment that he and his entrepreneur sister, Angie, founded the Soul CBD company.
"I created Soul CBD because I'd been in so much pain and I wanted to help other people get out of pain and show them there's another option outside of prescription pills. That was my mission, to help people," he said.
He's also done that through boxing, whether in missionary work in Bangladesh during his Bengal Bouts days or donating $100,000 to charity after his seventh pro fight in Notre Dame's Joyce Center in 2011.
"He's what Notre Dame stands for, he's what Wheaton stands for," said his father, John Lee, Mike's manager.
John Lee hinted at a healthy purse for Saturday's challenger, but money isn't what Mike Lee stands for. "I want to leave a legacy, and that legacy is that I went for it," Mike Lee said. "I put all the chips on the table and I didn't let fear stop me from anything, and that I helped people along the way."