August 12th, 2004 – by Tomás Rohan
Boxing has been Ireland’s most successful ever Olympic sport and the burden of continuing that success at the Athens Games falls on the shoulders of 20 year old Andy Lee. The Limerick middleweight is the only Irish boxer to have come through the qualifying process to join the other 285 boxers to contest medals in eleven weight categories. The St Francis man secured his trip to Greece back in February by virtue of winning a Bronze medal at the European Championships in Croatia.
Since then Lee has enjoyed further success taking Silver at the European Union Championships in Madrid before finishing preparations with a series of quality training camps.
Now though the moment has arrived and as Lee himself says, “It’s the big stage really, it’s something you always dream about and for it to actually happen is amazing.” Lee is not just a dreamer though and despite his tender years he has the air of a mature, experienced athlete. In fact you get the impression that there is very little if anything that would faze him. There is a quiet but unshakeable confidence about him coupled with a determination to make the most of his undoubted natural ability.
Physically if you could design an amateur boxer from scratch you would probably end up with Lee. At 6 foot 2 inches he will be one of the tallest middleweights in Athens. This gives him a long reach and as a counter punching southpaw he has the perfect style for the controversial computer points system in use in the amateur code. However with the calibre of opponent he will be meeting in Athens Lee knows his style will have to be adaptable. “Obviously your style needs to work for the computer scoring but with the real top class guys you need to change your style a little. A lot of these guys know me now from the Europeans. Going into those championships a lot of people didn’t know what to expect from me and I surprised a few people there. You need to vary things though and take each opponent as they come.”
Lee’s run to a Bronze medal at the Europeans was made more impressive when you consider that he struggled with a hand injury for most of the tournament. “I suppose it was an experience that will stand to me really having to carry an injury like that. We were trying to keep it quiet but I think it was the worst kept secret in Ireland! Everyone was texting me from home asking me how my hand was when I thought nobody knew. “
“For the quarter finals I got a pain killing injection an d even though I could still feel it hitting the pads before the fight it was ok during the fight. I think that combined with the adrenaline meant I didn’t really feel any pain in the fight. The doctors wouldn’t allow me take another one before the semi final though and advised me not to fight but the coaches left it up to me and I decided to go through with it. I knew I’d qualified for the Olympics so it was a bit like winning the lottery and deciding whether or not to go to work the next day! But I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity of fighting in a European semi final either so I went ahead with the fight. I couldn’t really throw the jab properly though so it did affect me more and more as the fight went on.”
The Bronze medal collected in Croatia added to Lee’s burgeoning trophy cabinet which also contains a Silver medal won at the World Junior Championships in Cuba in 2002. Many felt it would have taken Lee time to mature into a World class operator at Senior level and that the Athens Olympics would probably have come too soon. The European Bronze dispelled all those doubts though and ultimately Lee turned out to be the only Irish qualifier. “It was a bit weird alright at first qualifying when so many of the guys I looked up to when I was coming up didn’t make it. You’ve got some really great boxers there like Paul McCloskey but the qualifying competitions are so tough and you really need things to go well for you in terms of the draw. The Olympics themselves will be no different.”
Being Ireland’s sole representative is of course an added pressure but Lee takes it all in his stride. “To be honest I don’t feel under too much pressure. I suppose there’s part of me that enjoys the chance to be in the spotlight a little. I think most of the pressure will actually come from myself. Obviously I’m fighting for my country and I want to do well for all the people who have supported me but I’m also fighting for myself and that’s the kind of pressure and motivation that keeps you focused.”
Aside from the pressure Lee admits that he will miss the companionship of having his team mates around him in Athens. “Obviously I’d rather have a few of the lads over there with me because it can get kind of boring when you’re away at championships on your own but the Olympics should be a little bit different with all the athletes from the other sports around. The experience I’ve gained from the other championships like the World Juniors and the Europeans this year will stand to me. You just get into a routine of watching the other fights, resting and then focusing on your own fight.”
While Lee’s recent achievements suggest he has the pedigree to bring home a medal he knows that the luck of the draw will also play its part. “You need a bit of luck in the draw and then you just have to take your chances. But you could be drawn against the favourite in the very first round so you’ve got to be prepared for that mentally. If that happens then you’ve got to be positive about it because that’s half the battle.
Lee won’t have too much time to dwell on that first round match as he is scheduled to box in the first session at the 8,200 seat Olympic Boxing Hall in the Athens suburb of Peristeri. That bout takes place this Saturday with the draw only being made on Saturday morning.
As always the Cuban team will be strong favourites to top the medals table in Boxing but their middleweight representative Yordani Despaigne Herrera faces tough competition in what looks like a very strong division. Despaigne has won Bronze at the last two World Championships but has yet to taste Olympic success. A recent defeat to the U.S.A. representative Andre Dirrell doesn’t bode well for the Cuban and the more likely medal prospects emanate from Eastern Europe where there are three very strong contenders.
Romania’s Marion Simion previously won a Bronze at the 96 games and a Silver in Sydney while competing at welterweight. He has since made a successful jump to middleweight. Lee knows all about him having suffered a narrow 30 – 24 points defeat to the Romanian in the final of the EU Championships in Madrid in this past June.
Another serious prospect is Genadiy Golovkin of Kazakhstan the reigning World Champion but the Gold medal favourite is probably Russia’s Gaidarbek Gaidarbekov who took Gold at this years Europeans (defeating Simion on the way) and he picked up a Silver medal at the last Olympics in Sydney.
Lee knows all about Gaiderbekov as well having boxed him at a multi nation tournament in Finland last year surprising everyone by pushing the Russian to a close points decision. “I actually thought I deserved it”, recalled Lee. “I suppose he was the name fighter though so it was always going to be hard to get the decision. He’s a good boxer but he has his flaws too like anyone else. He’s big and strong but he’s a good mover too. He’s definitely a tough man to beat but I’d like another shot at him.”
Lee himself is a “good mover” but is also beginning to mature as a fully grown middleweight, a transformation that has added that all important extra punch power without sacrificing speed. A keen student of the game Lee lists current pound for pound claimant Ronald “Winky” Wright as his favourite fighter. “I love watching him fight, he’s a southpaw like me and he had a few fights in England when I was living over there so I’ve always followed him. I like stylish boxers like Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones. I can watch their fights over and over again. The skill and speed they have is unreal.”
Is it also unreal to assume that Lee can scale the heights in Athens and emulate the heroics of Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough in Barcelona twelve years ago? “I’m quietly confident of doing well. It what I’ve been focused on and working hard on for so long now so I’m definitely going there to win a medal. You have to go there with a the right attitude.”
It looks a hard task for Lee though and despite his successes this year most would only give him an outside chance of winning a medal. However if the draw is kind to him and he can remain free of hand problems then I think this impressive young fighter has the ability to add to Irish boxing’s tally of Olympic medals.
He seems to have improved still further from his excellent showing at the European Championships at the start of the year and with such a cool head on young shoulders he is more than capable of dealing with the pressure of being Ireland’s sole representative.
While he lacks the experience of some of the more obvious prospects like Gaidarbekov, Simion and Golovkin I have a sneaky feeling that Athens 2004 might see the birth of a new Irish sporting hero. Watch this space!