Book Review: Fighter by Andy Lee (with Niall Kelly)

Thu, Dec 20 2018

Fighter by Andy Lee Credit: Michael Dwyer

Macdara Ferris reviews the autobiography of Irish Olympian and former WBO middleweight world champion Andy Lee.

When I was planning my trip to the Athens 2004 Olympic games as a spectator, I mapped out Irish medal hopes and secured tickets for our best prospects – Sonia O’Sullivan on the track, Gillian O’Sullivan in the walk, Sam Lynch and Gearóid Towey out on the water and Andy Lee in the ring.

It really didn’t work out very well for Ireland at the games – summed up by winning an individual showjumping medal only for it later to be stripped due to the horse failing a drug test.

Sonia got lapped and finished dead last in the 5,000m final.

Gillian O’Sullivan, World Championship silver medallist in 2003, was injured and didn’t make the games.

Lynch and Towey were one of the favourites in the lightweight double skulls – so much so that Pat Hickey was there that day to hand out the rowing medals but the Irish duo failed to make the final. 

Andy Lee was the only Irish boxer at that games but agonisingly, via countback, was eliminated just before the quarter-final – the round I had got myself a ticket for.

I selfishly cursed Lee for the loss.

But you can’t stay angry at Andy Lee for long! Watching his career progression and the ups and downs he faced over his career you can't but warm to him. Is there a nicer man in boxing? I don’t think so. 

Lee built his reputation in the professional game in the Kronk Gym post-Athens, learning his trade from the legendary trainer Emanuel Steward. 

Irish sports fans have got to know a side of Lee when he was a panellist for RTÉ during their Olympic coverage and from his appearances on radio (Newstalk’s Off the Ball) and podcast (Second Captains). His insight into the fight game have very much informed the Irish sporting public.

But readers now get the chance to know more about Lee through his recently published autobiography. Working with Niall Kelly (deputy editor of the42.ie) this is a wonderful written tale of Lee’s life.

It is a beautifully evocative book that takes you into the Olympic Village, the Kronk basement gym and the ring at Madison Square Garden.

Twice the fighter rebuilt his career after defeats, losing his 15thpro-fight and then the title fight against Julio Cesar Chavez Junior in El Paso.

On a couple of other occasions Lee needed to find the resolve to dig out a devastating punch via his hammer of a right hook to down an opponent when he has trailed on the judges scorecards. 

The description of his come-from-behind win over John Jackson will have you searching YouTube so you can relive the dramatic conclusion: 

“He (Jackson) steps in with an executioner’s intent but he’s slightly out of distance. I bend my legs, making him miss and at the same time creating an angle, and let my right hook go…I don’t need to look at the spoils of war; the referee doesn’t need to count. He’s out cold on the canvass…Game over.”

The book describes his first workout in the Kronk when he steps into the ring to the call of “fresh meat, fresh meat” and, respect earned, steps out to the comment that “This white boy can box”. 

Emanuel Steward plays the surrogate father to Lee during his time in Detroit. Having lived in the Steward family house for several years, it is difficult to read how the pair drifted apart. It makes the reconciliation with the trainer on his deathbed even more poignant. 

Lee’s wife Maud meanwhile plays muse to man who has called London, Limerick and now The Liberties his home down the years.

The pair first see each other at Áras an Uachtaráin when Lee is there for a reception for the Irish Olympic team after the Athens games. The romance blossoms and overcomes some early issues when Lee, a member of the travelling community, brought a settled or ‘gorgey’ girl home to meet his family. 

She is with him on the good days and on the bad days.

Good days like the Christmas Eve in Dublin after just signing his pro contract where Lee recounts that on George’s Street the pair “stop at the ATM as the crowds rush on around us. I enter my pin code and the two of us stand, staring at the balance on the screen.”

Bad days like the defeat to Brian Vera which saw Lee left with stiches and bruises from his first pro-defeat which also left his career hanging in the balance.

And the very best of days when on a redemptive night in Las Vegas in December 2014, under the watchful eye of trainer Adam Booth, Lee fights for the WBO Middleweight title against Matt Korobov. 

The career-defining win was predicted by the man himself as Lee in the run up to the bout constantly wrote in his notebook – law of attraction style - “I will become world champion.” 

When referee Kenny Bayliss steps in front of Lee during the sixth round to stop him punishing Korobov any further, an Irish fighter has won a world title on US soil for the first time since 1934 to earn the gold belt. It proves that nice guys like Andy Lee can really win. 

Fighter by Andy Lee with Niall Kelly is published by Gill Books.