Andy Lee, WBO middleweight champion visited the Belfast Kronk Gym last week before returning to fulltime training.
The kids in the gym could not believe they were in the presence of a world champion and Lee was only too happy to sign autographs and pose for photos with his coveted belt.
Damian McCann, former secretary of the Belfast Kronk Gym played a pivotal role in Andy Lee turning pro back in December 2005.
He negotiated and secured a lucrative financial management agreement for Lee to turn professional with Emanuel Steward, legendary US manager and trainer from the world renowned Detroit Kronk Boxing Gym.
On signing Andy Lee on the 15 December 2005 Steward commented “I have no doubt Andy has a phenomenal talent and is capable of being a world champion the Irish people can be proud of.”
McCann had forged a relationship with Steward by sending him a letter back in May 2002 and newspaper articles featuring young boxers from his then Belfast ABC Gym.
The letter prompted the famous Kronk trainer to phone the north Belfast man late one evening and both men had a conversation and hit it off right from the offing.
In December 2002, McCann sent a Christmas card to Steward’s home in Detroit and attached a boxing article and photograph of an 18 year old Andy Lee winning a silver medal in the U19 World Junior Championships in Cuba in September 2002.
Lee had travelled to Cuba with Tony Dunlop, Belfast ABC coach who had been selected as a member of the Irish coaching team for the trip.
Steward called McCann on Christmas Day enquiring about Ireland’s rising amateur boxing star and his plans for the future. Steward was impressed that Andy Lee had beaten USA Champion, Jesus Gonzales in the semi-finals of the World Junior Championships. McCann requested Steward to call Lee to familiarise himself with the young boxer.
Steward followed through and rang a shocked Andy Lee, who was thrilled that Steward was interested in him a young 18 year old boxer, from Castleconnell, County Limerick.
Over the next three years McCann and Steward kept in connect about Andy Lee who was now establishing himself as a world rated amateur boxer with an impressive CV, 3 times Senior Irish and Four Nation Champion, World Junior Silver medallist 2002, European Senior Bronze medallist 2004 and had competed in both the World Senior Championships 2003 and Athens Olympics 2004.
In his last amateur bout in April 2005 at the National Stadium, Dublin, Andy Lee beat the Cuban champion and World Bronze medallist 2003, Yordanis Despaigne Herrera by a computer score of 13:8.
On St Patrick Day 2004 Steward and McCann cemented their friendship and relationship with the Belfast ABC Gym being renamed the Belfast Kronk Boxing Gym.
In September 2004, McCann received a phone call from Steward informing him he would be in Europe in October with Thomas Hearns, former multi-weight world champion and he wanted to travel to Belfast to officially open the new Belfast Kronk satellite gym and to meet Andy Lee.
True to his word Steward and Hearns came to Belfast and received a rapturous Irish welcome at the Belfast Kronk Gym. The charismatic Steward was also delighted to meet Andy Lee in person for the first time.
The Irish Amateur Boxing Association wanted Lee to stay amateur and focus on winning a medal for Ireland at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games. They put an attractive financial package together with funding from the Irish Sports Council.
Over the next 12 months Andy Lee had some soul searching to do, it was a decision that would influence the rest of his life, to stay amateur or go pro.
In January 2006, at the age of 21, Andy Lee packed his bags and said so long to Limerick and was on board an airplane bound for Detroit City to live at Emanuel Steward’s home. He had decided to leave the comfort zone of Ireland and the safe bet of staying amateur to instead enter the unknown in America and to pursue his boyhood dream of winning a world championship title in professional boxing.
Over the next 9 years the relationship and friendship between Andy Lee and Damian McCann became stronger with the Belfast man becoming Lee’s boxing confidante.
McCann commented ‘Before Andy turned professional I had two things on my mind, firstly nobody was going to rip Andy Lee off and secondly a quote from the famous US boxing promoter Don King – In boxing, you do not get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.’
‘I immersed myself in reading boxing books and articles and sourced various contracts and information from the internet to get a handle on the world of professional boxing. I assisted Emanuel in reviewing and negotiating promotional bout contracts for Andy. I always paid attention to detail; I was like Andy’s corner-man outside the ring. ’
In October 2007, McCann negotiated and secured Lee’s first promotional boxing agreement with Brian Peters Promotions for 5 fights to be staged in Ireland and broadcast live on RTE television.
Lee served his apprenticeship and learnt his craft at the Detroit Kronk Gym and gained immeasurable experience as a fighter sharing training camps and
sparring with world champions such as Jermain Taylor, Kermit Cinteron, Chad Dawson, Adonis Stevenson, Miguel Cotto and Waldimir Klitschko.
When Emanuel Steward got seriously ill and passed away on the 25 October, 2012, McCann made a phone call to Adam Booth in London informing him that Andy had been 7 years in America and he wanted to relocate back home and would he be interested in managing and training Andy.
The two best words to describe Adam Booth are professional and successful. It was Steward who lay the foundations, but it was Booth who re-structured and made adjustments to make Lee a more complete fighter both physically and mentally. They have a 100% record together, 6 wins in 6 fights.
The Belfast man in the last two years has also developed a good relationship with Adam Booth and Lou DiBella and was instrumental in helping broke and structure the promotional deal for Andy to fight Matt Korobov for the WBO middleweight title.
McCann was elated with joy when Andy Lee won the world title in Las Vegas; he commented ‘it was like a dream come true for me too, it was very emotional. I knew what Andy had gone through, the sacrifices away from home and family, the commitment he had made to boxing, his life’s work.’
‘The disappointment of fights falling through, other fighters getting fights he was in line for. Coming back from defeat and starting over. He had battled with adversity and stuck to the task. He met great people along the way and made a lot of good friends. Andy hit the jackpot in Las Vegas his gamble to turn pro all those years ago had paid off, it was the perfect Christmas gift for him, nobody deserved it more.’
‘Andy is lovely person; he is a man of strong character and a very dear friend of mine. We were a good team together. I was just glad to be part of the journey with him, there to help him realise his dream and I look forward to the future.’