By Kevin Byrne- follow Kevin on twitter @kevoobyrne
GARY KEEGAN believes Andy Lee and Katie Taylor are cut from the same cloth.
Keegan – the IABA’s High Performance director between 2003 and 2008 – is one to know.
Limerick man Lee, 28 this week, was the role model he turned to when he started his ambitious programme.
Irish amateur boxing was in the doldrums and no longer winning, or even really competing, for the big international medals.
That is not the case any more.
A bronze for Lee at the 2004 European Championships ensured he was Ireland’s sole boxer at the summer’s Olympics in Athens.
Since then the boxers have gone on to be hugely successful. Olympic silver for Kenny Egan, bronze for Paddy Barnes and Darren Sutherland followed, while there have also been European golds for
Barnes, Joe Ward and Ray Moylette and plenty of other high-profile hits along the way.
Nobody has won more than Bray ace Taylor, the four-time World and five-time European champion.
But right from the start, Keegan knew Lee could get everything going.
He said: “I remember looking out there and going ‘where are we going to find the talent for this programme that we’re trying to build?’ and there he was, the first guy.
“Within a couple of months we had a guy we could begin to call a role model for what we were trying to develop.
“He just fit so well into what we were trying to do there. He was always a phenomenal professional.
“Often you’ll find talent in the absence of the character and Andy had both. But he had a wonderful personality – a very honest individual, very hard-working and extremely respectful.
“It was his attention to detail – to his art and his craft – and his patience with people.
“For me was a beacon. We were trying to find something in there that really didn’t exist at the beginning.
“There’s another boxer he reminds me of, one who is totally modest – and that would be Katie Taylor.
“A very much feet-on-the-ground kind of guy, very unassuming, in fact you wouldn’t put him down for being a boxer until you get him into the ring.”
Lee and Taylor are looking forward to huge summers as both fulfil their lifelong dreams.
Taylor will go to the Olympics as the sixth member of the Irish boxing team, her inclusion meaning we will send one more fighter to London than we did to Beijing.
On Saturday night in Texas, Lee will take on Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr for the WBC world middleweight title.
While he cannot wait to grace the biggest stage in boxing, Lee has never forgotten his roots.
He said: “I was glad to kind of start all that. The World Juniors in 2002 was kind of the start of Irish boxers realising we could compete internationally and win medals.
“Before that we never really had the faith. Really it was all down to Gary Keegan.
“He formed the High Performance and was the driving force behind it all. He’s the reason we won more when we went out to competitions.
“He had some opposition but he got his way in the end. He brought in Zaur Antia, he brought in Billy Walsh, nutritionists, physios, everything.
“So really it was all down to Gary Keegan and the fighters themselves believing in themselves and dedicating themselves.
“For a country of four million we’ve had unbelievable results. In the Olympics and as pros now. Boxing is going strong now in Ireland, it’s good.”
Lee still refers to his amateur fundamentals giving him the edge in professional boxing, which he took up in 2006 winning three Irish senior titles.
Chavez Jnr cannot call upon the same grounding, and Keegan reckons Lee’s destiny was obvious from day one.
Keegan – now the director of the Irish Institute of Sport – added: “He’d just came home from Cuba in 2002 after taking the World Junior silver medal and we knew that anyone who’d come through that could really go on to achieve at senior level.
“That was very exciting. When he walked through the door I mean everybody knew the potential and the talent that this guy had.”
Lee’s current trainer is world-renowned Steward. Yet he is still drawing on what he learned under Keegan’s structure.
He added: “In the amateurs we learned a lot of the basics. In America I’ve picked up a lot too but it’s more seasoning. I always draw on my amateur experience in the fights I’ve had.”
Now the stage is set for him to shine after racking up 28 wins from 29 fights in the paid ranks. And he is on a mission to become Ireland’s first pro champion since Bernard Dunne in 2009.
Keegan added: “It was guys like him that encouraged myself and Billy and Zaur that we actually had the talent in this country, and that the potential is there.
“We just had to have the right environment around it, people that are top-class in what they do if we’re to expect Andy to be top-class in what he does.
“I remember Andy’s quote on our wall – at least I think I do. I’m nearly certain it was ‘don’t sweat the big stuff’. Because everybody sweats the big stuff. Pay attention to the little things and that’s what drove Andy.
“If you forget him as a boxer and think of him more as a human being, that’s his ultimate quality. No matter where you meet Andy, he’s the same.
“It was a huge blow to the project when Andy went pro.
“But one thing was hugely significant. Andy came back to the team, I think a few months after he went pro, and he spoke to the boxers about how lucky they were to have the environment they had and the support around them, given what he had moved into.
“I’ll tell you what I do believe – I believe in Andy Lee. He’s only had one defeat. If you look at what he’s achieved, he most certainly deserves a title shot.
“Andy’s a counter-puncher, he knows how to use the ring. If this fella comes in straight lines I suspect Andy will have some answers for him.
“I wouldn’t be up to speed on professional boxing, but you have to have absolute belief in Andy Lee.”