Andy Lee has been on the cusp before. In fact, he's been on the cusp for over half a decade, when former trainer and manager Emanuel Steward was proclaiming that the Irish middleweight was one of the many alleged Tommy Hearns clones. Tall and lengthy, with a powerful punch, the young Lee was hyped heavily, with Steward carefully managing his career to maximize his potential, both in the ring and at the box office.
But then came Bryan Vera in March 2008. Vera, an unheralded brawler from Texas, met Lee on an episode of ESPN Friday Night Fights in Connecticut. On paper, it wasn't much more than another pit stop fight for Lee on his road to stardom. Then 24, Lee had run up a record of 15-0, with 12 of those wins by stoppage. And though he'd yet to face anyone dangerous, Steward's love of the young southpaw mixed with a thin middleweight division made it easy to get swept up in his potential, and in Steward's sell job.
In fact, shortly before the fight with Vera, Steward proclaimed that Lee could beat then-undefeated middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik "right now." Perhaps it was more to do with Steward's apparent distaste for Pavlik, but he made the statement nonetheless. Pavlik had knocked out Jermain Taylor, then trained by Steward, to win the middleweight championship in September 2007. And when promoter Bob Arum would compare Pavlik -- a tall, rangy, powerful puncher -- to Tommy Hearns, Steward would flat-out scoff at the suggestion, even as he made the same comparisons for Lee, who had proven far less.
Lee, though, was not quite ready for a serious test, and his flaws and faults were exposed by Vera. Though Lee dropped Vera in round one, the rugged scrapper wouldn't go away, imposing his will on the larger man and ultimately earning a seventh round stoppage. It was an eye-opener for the young Lee, who wasn't used to such resistance and fortitude from his opponents.
After Vera, it was back to the build, and once again, his career went into a very play-it-safe sort of mode. Steward remained managing and training Lee, and opponents were carefully selected, with Lee fighting in Ireland, Germany, and smaller venues like the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma, and the Horseshoe in Hammond, Indiana.
It wasn't until 2011 that Lee faced a genuine threat again, when he was matched with Craig McEwan on HBO, part of the Sergio Martinez-Serhiy Dzinziruk undercard. McEwan, an unbeaten prospect from Edinburgh, Scotland, was plenty competitive with Lee, but with the fight on the line, Andy Lee dropped McEwan in round nine, and stopped him in the 10th and final round.
Though McEwan wasn't a top contender, it was the sort of fight that was good for Lee at the moment. He needed a real test, and he needed to survive it, and come out with his hand raised. There was nothing more to take from wins over the likes of Michael "Night Stalker" Walker or Mamadou Thiam. Everyone, including Lee, knew he could have his way at that level. But McEwan was a solid prospect who came to win that fight, and had the ability. Lee, when it counted, was better.
His confidence boosted, Lee went out and beat Alex Bunema two months later, and got revenge against Vera in October 2011, winning a wide decision in Atlantic City. He was deemed ready for the final step: a world title.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr was the target. Chavez, who held the WBC middleweight belt at the time through various plots and schemes, had gone 46 pro fights without recording an official loss, and was knee-deep in his "Freddie Roach has changed this fighter!" stage.
Lee boxed well against Chavez early on, but the durable Mexican took everything Lee could throw at him, and overpowered him to win a seventh round TKO. Since then, Lee has again scaled back his competition, winning five fights in a row, including a fifth round knockout of John Jackson in his last bout in June, a fight Lee was losing at the time.
On Saturday, Lee (33-2, 23 KO) gets a second chance at a world title when he faces Matt Korobov (24-0, 14 KO) for the vacant WBO middleweight belt, which Peter Quillin vacated earlier this year. Now 30, Lee is working with trainer Adam Booth, a man who has had success with the likes of David Haye and George Groves in the past, and is arguably one of the most underrated corner men in the game today.
"We have prepared for the best of Matt Korobov," says Booth. "He had a world class amateur career and is undefeated as a pro. However, Andy is a big middleweight and he has vast experience as an amateur and professional. He can box on the outside, fight at close quarters and has the power to take a fighter out with either hand."
Lee is the betting underdog this time. Maybe it's the fact that his W-L record is still pretty empty. Maybe it's that the last time he fought on this level, he was beaten down by Chavez. Lee isn't an old fighter, but it seems like he's been around forever, and it also seems like he's failed more than he really has.
But "Irish" Andy has an opportunity to finally break through to the upper echelon of the middleweight division, even if just on paper, and even if the title is just a title in today's boxing world. Lee feels that more than ever, he's ready for this fight.
"I relish this opportunity to fight for the WBO middleweight title," he says. "I have never been more ready to win the title. I am totally focused on the fight and I'm ready to take care of business on Saturday night."
Lee credits the experiences -- good and bad -- with preparing him to take that final step up the ladder.
"I have learned a lot over the years, I've been in different fights and training camps and I've picked up a lot of experience along the way. I've fought a lot of different guys with different styles, been in different situations, faced adversity, and I fought my way through
"This is my time and my date with destiny."