Notre Dame alumnus Mike Lee battles inside the ring and out

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 16: Mike Lee celebrates after defeating Joseph Gardner by TKO during their cruiserweight bout at Barclays Center on January 16, 2016 in Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 16: Mike Lee celebrates after defeating Joseph Gardner by TKO during their cruiserweight bout at Barclays Center on January 16, 2016 in Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

Mike Lee has a perfect 20-0 record as a light heavyweight and his prospects are high, but his struggles with ankylosing spondylitis have added a new dimension to his dream of becoming a boxing champion.

In early April, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre was filled with over 1,000 Notre Dame alumni for the 60th annual Knute Rockne Gala. This charitable event raises money for college scholarships and features former Notre Dame greats who give speeches telling their remarkable stories. This years event included speeches from Lou Holtz, Rudy Ruettiger and Mike Lee. At 30 years old, Lee is the youngest addition to Notre Dame’s pantheon of champions, but his story is as compelling as his illustrious peers’.

Lee (20-0, 11 KOs) is an eight-year boxing veteran. He’s rated as the number three light heavyweight by the WBO and boasts a flawless record. He has a finance degree from Notre Dame and is blessed with movie star looks. On the outside, Lee appears to have it all, but his address at the Rockne Gala focused on his personal battle with ankylosing spondylitis.

In November of 2017, Lee wrote an article titled “Invisible Pain” for The Player’s Tribune revealing his ongoing struggle with AS. Most don’t know what AS is, but Lee caught up with FanSided at the Rockne Gala and talked about his experience with this disease.

“Like any autoimmune disease, it’s a disease that attacks your healthy cells and causes a lot of inflammation,” Lee said. “What comes with that is severe inflammation of my lower back, my spine, my vertebrae, my knees, joints. I started getting headaches on a daily basis. I was getting chronic fatigue.”

The impact of AS first hit Lee while sparring in 2012. He described it in his article “Invisible Pain”: “I was sparring, just like always, when in the middle of a round my back gave out. I torqued wrong or something and it felt like I got hit by a sniper, and I just dropped to the canvas.”

Lee estimates that he spent two and a half years in and out of the hospital searching for a diagnosis and receiving treatment for AS. He didn’t fight in 2013 due to his illness. While the physical effects of the disease are profound, it’s the mental trauma that hit Lee the hardest.

“I find myself in a really dark place because everything I love in this world was taken from me,” said Lee. “It took me a long time to really turn that mindset around and realize how am I going to turn this into a positive once I get out of this hospital.”

Lee added, “There are some days where I feel like I can barely get out of bed still. It’s mentally, ‘how do I tackle that?’ Because mentally if I go down that dark hole, it’s only going to get worse.”

For a while, Lee was in a dark place. His career, dreams and physical health were in question, but Lee’s warrior resolve beat down the inklings of apathy and depression. Lee credits a positive mindset as his key to overcoming the physical and emotional blows of AS.

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“I know it’s crazy to think that your mind can make that much control on your body but I know in my heart it does,” Lee said emphatically. “I literally would sit there in the hospital bed and I would visualize getting healthy or getting better.”

Lee did get better, and he now knows how to manage his illness. He adheres to a strict diet and uses medications like Humira to keep AS under control. He will always have this disease and still fights it, but his experience with AS has made him a stronger person.

“This may sound corny, but what it taught me moreso was to be a stronger person mentally, which I’m now realizing is so important,” Lee said. “Everybody that’s top 10 in the world is talented, but what you see is the ultimate differentiator [between them] is the guys that have that different mindset — the guys that believe in themselves, the guys that lay out that strategic plan.

“While physically it deteriorated me, mentally it gave me a lot of time to get stronger and become a better person and a better fighter,” Lee said.

With his darkest times behind him, Lee’s focus is on winning a world title. The light heavyweight division is loaded with talent. The current titleholders are Sergey Kovalev, Artur Beterbiev, Dmitry Bivol and Adonis Stevenson.

Lee welcomes a fight with anyone possessing a major world title.

“I want to test myself against the best guys,” Lee said to FanSided. “That’s why I work so hard to get in this. I want that one chance, whoever has the belt, to basically go for it.”

Lee is poised to have a big 2018. He fights on Friday, June 8 against Jose Hernandez (19-3-1, 9 KOs). It will be televised on CBS Sports Network. This is his first fight of 2018, but he hopes that it is the first step in earning a title shot.

“I’m not looking at five fights. I’m not looking at three fights. I look to challenge for a title very soon.” Lee said. “We will look at the landscape after this, but this gives me a high rating. This will be for a junior WBO belt, so this will move me even higher than number three. Then, it’s just waiting for a phone call and an opportunity.”

If Lee lands a title shot with one of the current champions, he will likely be cast as the underdog. It’s a role he’s used to playing.

“I think a lot of people have counted me out throughout my whole career,” Lee said thoughtfully. “People didn’t think I would get to 10-0 and didn’t think I would get to 20-0. When the bell rings and the moment is big, that’s when I perform. That’s the kind of fighter I am. I know that I can outbox these dudes.”

Mike Lee has been tested inside of the ring and out. He’s beaten every man that has opposed him and the disease that threatened his career. He has come out the other end stronger physically and emotionally. He certainly has a champion’s heart and just wants the chance to prove that he has the boxing skills worthy of a champion.

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Lee concluded, “I don’t care what people say or how much tape they watch, the most important thing is that I know it in my heart. I know when it comes to fight night, that I have what it takes to win a world title.”