Emotions to run high in Thomond for Andy Lee's fight
Champ prepared for torrid world title defence at home
"Be careful what you wish for, cos you might just get it. And if you get it then you just might not know what to do with it…" (Eminem)
Andy Lee is on dangerous ground.
Announcing the defence of his WBO World middleweight title against Billy Joe Saunders at Thomond Park, Lee told the press and TV crews, "I would have driven past this stadium countless times and I always dreamed of fighting here. Since I turned pro, the dream was to step off the plane at Shannon with the belt and defend it here in Thomond Park."
Childhood ambitions realised, the dominant tone of Tuesday's media scrum was one of achievement. Job done.
"This is a once in a generation event," said Andy. "If I can become world champion and fight in the stadium then any kid from Limerick can do it. That's a big part of wanting to have the fight in Thomond Park. It's a historic event."
Yes, it is. And well deserved because Lee is widely regarded as one of the true gentlemen of the sport.
But now he has just nine weeks in which to shrug off the sentimentality and suffocating sense of nostalgia that a dewy-eyed public will attempt to smother him with. Nine week in which to banish the warm glow of self-satisfaction and knuckle down to turning his emotions to ice and his fists to granite.
Because England's unbeaten Billy Joe Saunders, six years younger at 25, a former Olympian and currently British, Commonwealth and European champion is the mandatory challenger for Lee's belt. And he's coming with vicious intent to rip it away from the Irishman.
"I've boxed in Ireland seven times and I've had seven wins," he says. "There's a man out there to beat every man. But I believe this ain't the man to beat me. We're two travelling people. This is for bragging rights."
The promoters expect a crowd of over 30,000 to attend what they've dubbed The Showdown. As the hype builds in intensity, Lee needs to remember the price he's paid to get to the biggest stage, and the biggest payday, of his career. It's all on the line.
Shortly after he lifted the WBO World middleweight title in Las Vegas last December, Lee wrote about the life of a professional boxer In Boxing News magazine. He didn't pull his punches. "It's a life full of disappointments," he wrote. "For every up there's more downs; the fights you don't get, the opportunities that other people get, the fights that are cancelled."
Such insight and wisdom was won the hard way by Lee, who's been boxing since he first laced up gloves in the Repton Boxing Club in London as a kid.
Having moved to County LImerick, Andy won bronze for Ireland in the European Championships. In 2004, he was Ireland's only boxer to qualify for the Athens Olympics.
He turned pro the following year and moved to Detroit to train in the famous Kronk Gym under the watchful eye of Emanuel Steward, who'd coached over twenty fighters to world titles.
Steward was a passionate believer in the tall Irishman's talents. He set Lee sparring against middle and light heavyweight champions and told me confidently, "Andy Lee is the best middleweight in the world, bar none. He'll be a world champion."
Since 2006, Lee's had 37 fights, 24 of which were won by knock-out. His two losses dented his pride.
Late last year, when his career seemed in danger of stalling, Andy got a shot at the vacant WBO world title. When Billy Joe Saunders passed on the fight with unbeaten Russian Matt Korobov (24-0), Andy stepped up.
He wasn't favourite and most judges had him losing until a pulverising right hook stunned Korobov and signalled a Lee onslaught that forced the referee to drag the Russian to safety.
Lee was world champion. In his corner coach Adam Booth was ecstatic. At ringside was Marie, widow of the late Emanuel Steward. "The man who made me," credited an emotional Lee in tribute.
A first title defence against the unbeaten Peter Quillin aka Kid Cholocate was downgraded when Quillin failed to make the weight. The fight followed what was becoming a familiar pattern in Lee's fights. The Limerickman was down early in the fight and under pressure but fought back gamely to earn a draw.
The champion has fought just eight times in Ireland. He's comfortable fighting on the road, often in front of hostile crowds. Having the love of an enthusiastic home crowd will be an entirely new experience for the 31 year old. But it's something he insists can give him an extra edge on September 19.
"Fighting at home brings its own pressures," he concedes. "Away from home you have that bunker mentality. At home there's pressure of expectation and media obligations. I anticipate a very hard fight and the crowd could be the difference. Especially in the later rounds, they could give me the extra spur."