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Notre Dame graduate Mike Lee resumes climb up boxing ladder

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Updated: July 22, 2014 2:45PM

In boxing, Mike Lee has gone the distance as a curiosity.

He was an American white guy in a sport in which that species is endangered to the brink of extinction.

He was a comfortably raised, suburban college kid — an honors grad from Notre Dame, no less — in a sport in which a hardscrabble, up-from-nothing upbringing is a virtual requirement.

He was a white guy whose rugged good looks and straight-ahead style made him an attraction in a foundering sport that had squandered much of its fan base during Lee’s lifetime and seemed clueless about how to regain it.

Finally, things were coming pretty easily for him in a brutal sport in which there is no ‘‘easy.’’ Within a year of turning pro, Lee had a contract with a big-time promoter, big-venue fights, ample TV exposure and a nationally aired Subway commercial, while more accomplished fighters paid their dues in tank-town obscurity.

Too much, too soon? Perhaps.

‘‘I got into this with the goal of becoming a world champion, and I was so focused on it that maybe I didn’t pay as much attention to the process as I should have or enjoy it as much,’’ Lee said.

In 2013, the joyride went off the rails. Lee began to sense merit in the arguments of those who had told him he was crazy to box professionally in the first place.

He was climbing out of the ring after a sparring session one day when his back locked up. The pain was excruciating and got worse as it lingered.

‘‘I felt like I was 80 years old,’’ Lee recalled. ‘‘I couldn’t move.’’

X-rays revealed two bulging disks in his lower back. A specialist in Southern California prescribed rest and therapeutic exercise rather than surgery. The regimen was working and Lee was regaining his mobility when he began experiencing persistent pain and a peculiar clicking in his jaw.

Temporomandibular joint disorder is an irregularity in the hinge joint that connects the lower jaw to the temporal bone in front of the ear. The diagnosis meant more treatment, more therapy and more time away from the ring, but Lee had no choice. A boxer with a bad back and a vulnerable jaw isn’t long for his chosen occupation.

‘‘I never felt that,’’ Lee said. ‘‘I knew these were freak things that were keeping me from getting where I needed to go. No question 2013 was a bad year, probably my worst. But I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason.’’

Lee, now 27, grew enamored with Southern California while undergoing treatment and decided to move there from Houston. That meant parting ways with trainer Ronnie Shields and teaming with San Diego-based Chris Byrd, an Olympic silver medalist and former heavyweight champion known more for exquisite boxing skills than punching power.

‘‘Chris is perfect for me right now,’’ Lee said. ‘‘I’m learning a ton from him. I’m an athlete with good movement and decent power. My boxing skills weren’t on the same level. Chris is really teaching me how to box.

‘‘Ronnie was great for me, but he’s a busy guy with a lot of fighters. I couldn’t ask him to leave Houston.’’

Byrd acknowledged some misgivings about Lee’s skill level upon first seeing him.

‘‘Most guys have extensive amateur experience before they turn pro and learn as they go,’’ Byrd said. ‘‘Mike didn’t have that, but he’s very teachable. He wants to be great at this, and he’s willing to listen and learn. The first thing I told him was, ‘You don’t have to take a punch to land one.’ ’’

Lee went more than 18 months without a fight after a unanimous four-round decision over Paul Harness in September 2012 in Las Vegas. During that time, his contract with promotional giant Top Rank Inc. expired.

‘‘No hard feelings,’’ Lee said. ‘‘I couldn’t fight for anybody until I was healthy.’’

Byrd was in his corner and New Jersey-based Main Events promoted his comeback fight, a sixth-round technical knockout of previously unbeaten light-heavyweight Peter Lewison on April 4 in Philadelphia. Lee thinks he’ll have his pick of promoters if he continues to progress, beginning with a six-rounder Friday against Paul Gonsalves (7-3) at the UIC Pavilion.

It’s an ESPN ‘‘Friday Night Fights’’ card, with welterweights Roberto Garcia and Breidis Prescott and middleweights Caleb Truax and Rogelio Medina in 10-round co-features. But the abundant supply of local buddies and fellow Domers in the crowd will make Lee feel like the main attraction.

And not just a curiosity.

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