| 18.1°C Dublin

'I wanted to break him apart'

Eamon Carr on the night Andy Lee showed the ruthless edge that made him a real champion

Close

Andy Lee after victory over Jason McKay earned him the Irish super middleweight crown at the National Stadium

Andy Lee after victory over Jason McKay earned him the Irish super middleweight crown at the National Stadium

SPORTSFILE

Andy Lee's victory over Jason McKay earned him the Irish super middleweight crown at the National Stadium

Andy Lee's victory over Jason McKay earned him the Irish super middleweight crown at the National Stadium

SPORTSFILE

/

Andy Lee after victory over Jason McKay earned him the Irish super middleweight crown at the National Stadium

Jake La Motta knew a good thing when he saw it.

"The Irish kid's got class," he declared after watching Andy Lee beat up Carl Daniels and leave Madison Square Garden with a third-round knock-out.

The Limerick southpaw was just eight fights into his professional career but already his coach Emanuel Steward was another who knew a good thing when he saw it. The Kronk Gym boss had trained upwards of 20 world champions by the time he added Andy Lee to his roster of talent.

"Andy is the best middleweight in the world, bar none," he told anyone who'd listen.

We already knew Lee was talented. He'd been the only Irish boxer to qualify for the Athens Olympics in 2004.

The IABA's High Performance Unit still hadn't found its rhythm at the time but Lee, fighting out of St Francis BC in Limerick, was a prospect.

A convincing win in his first fight in Athens saw him through to meet Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam (Cameroon) in the last 16. The fight ended 27-27 but it was Lee who came up short on the deciding countback. 44-42.

Back in Ireland, disappointed, he weighed up his career options and dithered. At first he agreed to stay in the amateur ranks but then, in December 2005, he moved to Detroit, the town whose boast of having put the world on wheels was sounding hollow in the face of extensive urban decay and city hall corruption.

"It's all about a new challenge," he reasoned.

Less than two years later, Lee was back by the Liffey, fighting on the undercard of Bernard Dunne's disastrous European title defence against Kiko Martinez. Emanuel Steward was in Andy's corner that night and you could see Lee was changing.

Away from the ring he carried himself like an executive. A smart director of a listed company that dispensed pain. But he'd been promoted on merit.

"I had to show that I was meant to be there," he told me. "There's fellas turning up in gyms every week thinking that they're going to make it and having to prove themselves. They probably only last about a week. When I walked in the door, I was like everybody else. I was learning a different style of boxing. You've got to learn some tricks."

As promised, Manny did bring Lee back to Ireland. Four months later, in December 2007, Lee was back in town to fight for the Irish super middleweight title.

Victor Cordoba, the Panamanian super middleweight, was the first world champion that John Been trained.

Neil Sinclair, Paul McCloskey, Martin Rogan and legendary hardman Eamonn Magee were other fighters who benefited from Breen's coaching.

In 2007, John was coaching Jason McKay who was hoping to add the Irish super middleweight belt to the light heavyweight title he'd won at The Point a year earlier.

The Breen-McKay axis felt they had the measure of Lee, who'd sparred in Breen's gym over the years.

"His heart is very suspect," said McKay about Lee in Dublin. "We'll see that when we get into the later rounds. Can he stick the pressure? I don't think so."

You could tell from the cold unflinching gaze in Lee's eyes that he was insulted. And angry.

McKay, who'd just one loss in 19 fights, was re-working a riff that Breen had thrown into the mix at an earlier press conference in Belfast, believing it would unnerve the Limerickman and expose his Achilles' heel.

Bad mistake.

Respect

"We have more respect for Jason than he has for us," Manny Steward responded. "He's making a big mistake questioning Andy's heart."

Knowing they'd ruffled Lee, John Breen pressed home what he thought was his advantage. "All this talk about fighting for a world title is going to go out the window tomorrow night," he said dismissively. "Jason has more heart than Andy."

Lee remained calm. "He's questioned my heart and made it personal," he stated. "We handle ourselves with class and we respect everybody. But he's like a fella who's never ate at a nice restaurant before. He just walks in, insults everybody and embarrasses himself."

Important ranking points come with a national title but Lee indicated that his attention was on Jason McKay, saying menacingly, "This is just another fight on my resumé. It's one I'm taking seriously. I'm coming to win. After the first couple of rounds, I'll have him sussed out and from there I'll start to operate."

Lee knew what it was like to win a title in the draughty old National Stadium. As an amateur, he'd won three senior titles, two under-21 and one junior.

From the opening bell, the ferocity of the exchanges suggested this fight wouldn't go the distance. There was spite in Lee's punches. Malicious intent.

As McKay attempted to figure out how to cope with Lee's explosive southpaw style, his rangy opponent set him up with a right jab before unleashing a series of crushing lefts which stunned and unnerved the Banbridge fighter.

As McKay's eyes began to mark up from Lee's repeated battering, Lee maintained his trademark upright style which enabled him to pick off his opponent at will.

In the second round, as referee Emile Tied separated the two men, the blood streaming down McKay's face came from a nasty gash high on his forehead above his left eye.

A clash of heads. Accidental maybe but Lee taunted his rival, banging his heart and inviting McKay to take a shot. Brave and tough, McKay didn't run. But, as he rode a big left from Lee, a disguised right sent him toppling to the canvas for an eight count.

Both men stepped up a gear in the third round. But the Limerickman was in his element, displaying the speed and skill that helped him survive and thrive in one of the toughest gyms in the world.

Calmly picking his shots in a display of brute hostility, he delivered a pulverising left that snapped McKay's head back and broke his nose.

But McKay got some purchase when a vicious right opened a cut below Lee's left eyebrow. McKay fought back in the fourth. But his aggression spurred on Lee who decorated McKay's blood-splattered face with a tattoo of welts and bruising.

Winning each round, Lee was in control but in no rush to attempt to finish early. Sticking out his chin, Lee invited McKay forward before unleashing bombs with left and right.

It was calculated. It was brutal. It was a punishment beating. In the sixth, a dynamite left from Lee sent McKay's gumshield careering through the air like a wounded bird.

For the more squeamish in the room, it was a relief when McKay failed to come out for the seventh round. "No más, no más."

No more Mister Nice Guy, the new Irish champion had shown he could be ruthless and cold-hearted in his will to win.

"I wanted to break him apart, physically, emotionally and mentally," Lee confided later.

It was on that Brian Peters promotion that Andy Lee first proved he had what it took to become a world champion.