Notre Dame graduate Mike Lee has been in the boxing news a lot lately. Really, a ton, when you consider that Lee is a novice of six professional fights without a truly decorated amateur background.
He's a Subway spokesman, alongside Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, and Ryan Howard in new commercials that air constantly during NFL games. He's been promoted heavily by his big-time promoters at Top Rank, arguably the biggest boxing firm in the United States.
And on Friday night, he and Top Rank bring professional boxing to the University of Notre Dame for the first time ever at the Joyce Center. Top Rank will even be streaming the card live on their web site starting at 9 p.m. EDT.
Lee (6-0, 4 KO) is in a six-round fight with a lesser novice named Jacob Stiers (4-1, 2 KO). Stiers, a 32-year-old from Kansas City, lost his pro debut back in 2003, and was out of the boxing game from 2004-2009. The combined records of the four opponents he's beaten? 4 wins, 20 losses, 1 draw.
So why the attention?
Because Mike Lee, as luck would have it, is your new Great White Hope.
It is foolish, naïve to believe that Lee being a handsome, well-spoken, white, 24-year-old boxer with a Notre Dame background isn't the reason he's being pushed so hard. I will note once again that, no, there is nothing particularly special about Mike Lee as a boxing prospect. He's not a blue chipper. He's not one of the best American prospects.
But again: He's a handsome, well-spoken, white, 24-year-old boxer with a Notre Dame background.
It matters. And don't kid yourself into thinking it does not. It's the reason that over the years, many white, American fighters have been given opportunities that they may not have truly deserved in terms of talent or true in-ring potential.
I'm not saying Lee does not deserve these opportunities, by the way. Maybe he does. He is, after all, a young fighter who may still get better. There's no doubting his dedication to his craft. He stays in shape, and trainer Ronnie Shields says he works his ass off in the gym. He has gotten noticeably better in the ring over his six pro fights. We have seen more talented prospects who didn't have that drive to improve stall out, and then flame out. Lee might not make it big, but it won't be for lack of effort on his part -- or his management team's part.
Lee says that already, he's noticed that he's been able to bring in some new fans for his fights. From the Chicago Sun-Times:
"What I’m starting to capture is a lot of sports fans who aren’t necessarily boxing fans," Lee said. "That’s really what the sport needs. There are so many little kids and guys who come up to me after fights and say, ‘This was our first boxing match. We’ll be at every one of your fights from now on.’"
Lee is right. Boxing needs this, and needs it badly. And if it takes someone like Mike Lee to make it happen, then fine. There's nothing particularly diabolical or shameful about Lee being promoted heavily. You sell to people who will buy. And if people buy Lee, then Top Rank cannot be blamed for exaggerating, or for going overboard.
Earlier this year, we saw another Notre Dame graduate mess around with pro boxing a little bit, when former Irish football star and current Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski used his free time during the NFL lockout to take a trio of pro fights, all wins. Zbikowski's presence didn't mean much, but people did talk about it. And while "Tommy Z" had no lasting impact, he also wasn't a full-time fighter.
Mike Lee is. Unlike Zbikowski, this is Mike Lee's career. He found himself a real trainer. He's got a real promoter. He's definitely got a real team looking out for his marketing.
Now it's up to him, and whatever talent he has, to be more hope than hype.