Andy Lee nearly quit boxing before winning WBO middleweight title

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Andy Lee nearly quit boxing before winning WBO middleweight title
Andy Lee nearly quit boxing before winning WBO middleweight title

Andy Lee had a secret that he kept as he prepared to fight Matt Korobov in Las Vegas in December for the vacant WBO middleweight title.

A member of the 2004 Irish Olympic boxing team, Lee planned to walk away from the sport that had been his life since he was eight years old.

He'd lost a previous bid for a world championship in 2012 when he was overwhelmed by a much bigger Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

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Lee was confident he'd beat Korobov, but had decided in his own mind that if he didn't, he'd call it a career.

It would have been a solid career, but certainly not what he'd expected. When he turned pro not long after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, his then-trainer Emanuel Steward predicted great things for him.

Steward boldly predicted Lee would win a world title and raved about Lee any chance he could.

Steward and Lee became extraordinarily close, more like father and son than just trainer and boxer. And when Steward died on Oct. 25, 2012, a few months after Lee's defeat to Chavez, it hit Lee hard. Lee was crushed that he hadn't fulfilled Steward's prophecy and won the world title while Steward was alive to enjoy it.

Andy Lee (R) throws a right at Matt Korobov during their fight. (Getty)
Andy Lee (R) throws a right at Matt Korobov during their fight. (Getty)

There were many skeptics who raised an eyebrow or talked behind Steward's back when he'd predict greatness for Lee.

"People would talk a lot," Lee said.

When Peter Quillin vacated his belt last year, the WBO ordered Lee to face Korobov for the title.

It was, according to Lee, a last-ditch effort.

"That fight, to be completely honest with you, was a make-or-break fight for me," said Lee, who will make his first title defense on Saturday in the co-main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card on NBC at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. "I probably wouldn't have continued if it hadn't gone my way."

And it wasn't. After five rounds, Korobov was in command, up by 5-0 on two of the three cards.

In the sixth, though, Lee landed perhaps the greatest right hook of his career. He stopped Korobov to win the belt, as Steward's widow, Marie, looked on from ringside.

But that knockout was a transition of sorts. After Steward's death, Lee hired Adam Booth to train him. Booth had a tremendously different style than Steward, and on the surface it didn't seem to make sense.

Lee, though, felt comfortable with Booth and felt they'd work well together. And he said the dramatic knockouts he's scored while with Booth, over John Jackson in June and then Korobov in December, show the pairing is working.

"I think I've always been a pretty good puncher and I think my record is that of what you'd call a puncher," said Lee, who is 34-2 with 24 knockouts. "But I feel like my power has gotten a lot better during my time with Adam."

It's amazing on many levels, because Steward was an offensive-minded trainer who built his reputation in large part by teaching his boxers how to punch with authority.

Lee, though, said that when he got to Booth, he wasn't that adept on the inside. He's 6-foot-2, fairly tall for the division, and wasn't able to get the leverage when fighting inside.

It's something that Booth has helped him correct in a big way.

"We spent a lot of time on that, working on the inside, knowing what to do when I got there and staying relaxed," Lee said. "I've always felt I was a pretty good technical boxer, and I had a pretty solid game from the outside. But when guys get close to me now, I know how to react. I'm more dangerous and more complete as a result of that."

His power won him a title in a fight he had to win if he wanted to go forward in his career. And now, he faces perhaps his sternest test since his 2012 bout with Chavez when he takes on Quillin (31-0, 22 KOs) at Barclays.

Peter Quillin surrendered the WBO title in 2014. (Getty)
Peter Quillin surrendered the WBO title in 2014. (Getty)

Quillin surrendered the belt last year rather than fight Korobov, in part he says because of the birth of his first child as well as the fact that his uncle (who was like a father to him) was battling cancer.

Lee took advantage of that by fulfilling Steward's prophecy. And now he wants to complete it by successfully defending the belt against the man who never lost it in the ring.

Lee said he doesn't believe that Quillin was ducking Korobov, and said he expects a significant test on Saturday.

But he's extraordinarily confident he'll remain the champion.

"Peter made a decision, part business and part personal, to do what was best for him, and I can certainly understand his reasoning," Lee said. "I'm happy to be facing him in my first defense, because I wanted to fight the best contender I could.

"I know how hard it was to get to this point, to become a champion, and knowing that, it has made me that much more determined to keep it. I don't want to think that all of the work and sacrifice I did to get the title will be gone in one night. I'm going to lay everything I have on the line to keep this belt right where it is."

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