Lee living real-life 'Rudy' tale

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

For as long as he could remember, he wanted to attend college at Notre Dame. He had to start his college career, though, at another school before transferring. He dreamed of achieving athletic greatness while a student there, but found few who shared his belief that he could succeed.

He was wasting his time, they told him. He should use his mind, they said.

Rudy Ruettiger heard the critics, but he lived his dream of playing football for the Fighting Irish. His story was immortalized in the popular 1993 movie, "Rudy."

And on Saturday, Mike Lee, who is striving to become the 21st-century Rudy, will continue his pursuit of a boxing world championship when he fights Alex Rivera on a Top Rank card at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas.

Lee, 23, graduated with a degree in finance from Notre Dame, where he carried a 3.8 grade point average, and could be earning a six-figure living on Wall Street. He's the prototypical All-American boy, an outgoing, handsome, photogenic young man who could easily wind up on the cover of the school's yearbook.

Some day, he may pursue a Wall Street career. But on Wednesday, he was sitting in a ballroom at the Palms, rubbing shoulders with boxers who have essentially been fighters since birth, explaining what caused him to give up on a lucrative business career in order to pursue the longshot dream of becoming the light heavyweight champion of the world.

"The number one question I get is always, 'Why are you doing this?' " Lee said, chuckling. "It makes perfect sense to me, but to a lot of people, I guess they don't understand it."

Ruettiger, though, understands better than anyone. Ruettiger, now 62 and a motivational speaker who lives in Henderson, Nev., transferred to Notre Dame from Holy Cross Junior College and walked onto the Fighting Irish football team in 1974.

He is 5 feet 6 and weighed less than 170 pounds. Kickers are usually bigger than that, but Ruettiger was a defensive end. He wouldn't give up on getting to play in a home game, and eventually got a sack in a game against Georgia Tech. Following that game, Ruettiger was carried off the field on the shoulders of his jubilant teammates.

If anyone understands Lee's passion, it's Ruettiger.

"Michael could go to Wall Street today," Ruettiger said. "He doesn't need boxing. By doing this, what he is basically saying to people is, 'Follow your dream. Follow your passion.' There is a lot of hard work involved and there are a lot of things that are necessary to reach his dream, but he's willing to do what he needs to do to get there.

"This is the most important thing: Most of us never live our dream, and eventually, we regret it. We don't want to take the risk to do what it is we love and really want to do. It's like Rudy the movie. Maybe a lot of guys on the team didn't agree how I made the team. It doesn't matter. I made it. I got there. I lived my dream. And Mike is doing the same thing. He has a passion for this. It's clearly evident just talking to him and he's not going to give up just because a few people doubt him."

More than a few doubt him, however. Even with the plethora of organizations that award world championship belts, it's still a very low percentage of boxers who actually win one.

"Winning a world title is extremely difficult," Lee's trainer, Ronnie Shields, said. "There's no doubt about that. There are a lot of very good fighters who have never done it."

Lee didn't begin to train as a boxer until he was 16 and didn't have his first amateur fight until he was 19. But he won Notre Dame's "Bengal Box" tournament three times, as well as a Chicago Golden Gloves title, in an amateur career in which he went 16-0.

He's 1-0 as a pro, so it's safe to say that he's a neophyte. Featherweight Yuriorkis Gamboa, who will meet Orlando Salido in the main event on Saturday in a World Boxing Association/International Boxing Federation title unification bout that will be broadcast live on HBO, had 245 amateur bouts. Another Shields protégé is Guillermo Rigondeaux, one of boxing's best prospects, who had around 400 amateur matches.

Shields wasn't about to predict greatness for Lee, nor was he going to douse his dream. Lee, he said, is a hard puncher who is eminently coachable and has all of the intangibles needed to be a champion. Because of that, Shields said, it isn't out of the question that Lee could one day fight for the title.

"He's not a world beater just yet, but he's willing to learn and that's the most important thing," Shields said of Lee. "It takes time, but I believe he'll get to the point where one day, he will challenge for the world title. He's absolutely got the talent to do it. Now, he has a lot to learn and there is more than just talent, but this is the kind of a kid who, when he puts his mind to doing something, he works hard at it. He gives you everything he has every day. He's very coachable. He listens. This is the kind of guy who, despite not having a long amateur background, can pull it off."

He has the athletic genes. His father, John, was a shortstop in the Seattle Mariners organization, getting as high as Double-A. John Lee was also a nationally ranked racquetball player.

Mike Lee was good at pretty much everything he tried from a very young age, though his father concedes it wasn't just from talent.

"He was never the biggest kid; he was never the fastest kid," John Lee said of his son. "But, he was always the most disciplined, always the most determined and, without question, he was always the toughest. It's funny he ended up boxing. I thought he'd be a baseball player or a football player. I never guessed he'd do this. But I figured he would be an athlete because of the drive and determination he had.

"At a young age, people would watch him play a sport and he was so driven, they'd say to me, 'You can just tell, he's going to play something somewhere.' He got hooked on boxing and he's giving his life to making this happen."

The Notre Dame community has rallied around him. He sold an astounding $100,000 worth of tickets to his pro debut in May when he won a four-round decision over Emmit Woods. The fight was on FOX Sports Net's Top Rank Live and the gate that Lee himself provided is the largest in the nine-month history of the series.

Lee has sold several hundred tickets to Saturday's card, with Notre Dame alumni in the Las Vegas area planning to attend. One of them will be Ruettiger.

"This is the kind of story that is good for boxing," Ruettiger said. "This is a very personable, very intelligent young man who, let's be honest, could do pretty much whatever he wants with his law and do well at it. He chose to take on one of the toughest challenges out there and try to box.

"He's an impressive young man and I do see the (parallels) with my story. He knows this already, but the important thing is to trust his heart and give everything he has to reaching his dream. Other people are going to tell him he can't do it, but if one person – Michael himself – believes he can do it, at the end of the day, that's all that matters."

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