Roles with the punches: Andy Lee uncovered
Former Irish Olympian boxer and world champion on life in retirement, taking up acting classes and growing up in a trailer in England
Andy Lee: “Every decision you make in the ring is potentially career-altering.” Photograph: Myles Shelly
To know all you need to know about Andy Lee, you need two things above all. First you need the cover of his book, Fighter. In the foreground of the cover photo, Lee is walking towards his corner, sweated and matted and shelled from his efforts in the boxing match he has just brought to an end. In the background, his opponent lies prone on the canvas, held in a sitting position only by the ropes at his back.
Lee is a former Irish Olympian boxer, former world champion, freshly retired in early 2018 with a record of 35 wins from 39 pro fights. In the picture on the book’s cover, he isn’t jubilant, he doesn’t have the strut or the swag of a cocky boxer who has been putting on a show. Everything he has, and everything he is, has gone into the single-punch stoppage he has just pulled off. It would be impossible to find a more fitting cover image for the story of his life.
The second thing you need to know is the story behind the cover. Look closely at the face of the boxer on the ground and you will find that there’s not really a face there at all. From the neck up, he has been distorted and shaded and photoshopped out of recognition. Unless you’re a true fight nerd, you won’t know who it is. Deliberately so, as Lee explains.
“I went out of my way to have the face changed because I didn’t want him to have to see it,” he says. “He doesn’t deserve that, it wouldn’t be right. It could easily be me lying on the floor. And this could be him writing a book about the career he went on to have. And if somebody did that to me, if someone put me on the cover like that, I’d be going mad.
“So the idea is that it’s a boxer, just a fighter who took a punch. It’s not him. That’s not that point of it. We went over the cover a lot of times. It’s a great photograph and it tells the story.
“If you look at me walking away, I’m not celebrating wildly or anything. I’m f**ked as well. I’ve been in a battle and that one punch could have finished me for the night just as it finished him. I’m just as hurt as he is – the difference is that he is on the ground. So we wanted that to be the cover but I couldn’t allow it to be used in a way that he’d be recognisable. That wouldn’t have been right.”
None of this will be a surprise to anyone who came across Lee during a career that started in earnest at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and ran all the way to his final fight in Madison Square Garden in March 2017. In a world of spivs and spoofers and thumb-on-the-scale merchants, Lee was always the most decent guy in the room. He was Mr Nice Guy who won the fight and who everyone liked along the way.
He did it all by being himself, even though that small description covers a multitude. Being himself meant growing up in a trailer in England, listening to singsong taunts in the schoolyard. “We all live in a yellow caravan, a yellow caravan, a yellow caravan...” He left school at 13, even though he was bright enough to get into the top class when he started secondary school.
It meant having to take a deep breath before phoning his father to tell him he was bringing a settled girl home for Christmas one year, and bringing her anyway when his dad told him he wouldn’t be bringing any settled girl into his house. He knew his dad and he knew his girl – they were thick as thieves in no time. The girl is now his wife, the musician, writer and actor Maud Lee. Being himself has sometimes been complicated. “Only when the worlds clash,” he smiles, “and that would be very rarely, really. One day you could be standing on a building site in London hanging out with hardened criminals and fronting up with them and knowing that there is a respect there, not an inch given, real alpha male territory. And then I could be hanging out with Maud at the Abbey Theatre talking about some cultural thing that would be a million miles away.
“That doesn’t happen often but when it does, it’s mad, yeah, definitely. Going from one extreme to the next. But you just go through those things. You become comfortable. I wouldn’t say I was comfortable when I was introduced to Maud’s world, definitely not. But you get comfortable.”
Comfortable? He’s nearly part of the furniture in that scene now. Her new play Recovery is coming up in the Project, directed by her sister and starring Peter Coonan. He has started to dip more and more of himself into that world as well, not entirely certain of where he’s going with it but enjoying the ride all the same.
“I’ve been doing an acting course in Bow Street,” he says. “I did it for six months initially and then I’ve been doing an advanced course two nights a week. I started it because Maud got me it for a gift for Christmas. I had been in there a couple of times and Maureen Hughes who runs it helped me with auditions a couple of times.
“It was something that interested me and the more I got into it the more I realised that there are a lot of parallels between boxing and acting. A lot of boxers want to be actors, a lot of actors want to be boxers. Actors love mingling with boxers because they like to feel tough and dangerous and whatever. But for boxers, there’s a lot to learn as well from actors.
‘I am who I am’
“So many things have come up in the course that I can relate to as a boxer. The preparation is one thing, the performance is another. But also, there’s this element to both of them that is about becoming somebody else when you go to work. You are a person and you are an actor. You are a person and you are a boxer. You have to learn to flick that switch.”
We’re sitting having coffee on Thomas Street on the morning of the presidential election. We don’t know yet what Peter Casey’s dog-whistling will earn him at the polls. Lee is a live-and-let-live sort of character and has never defined himself by his Gypsy heritage. Nor, for that matter, has he ever run from it.
“It’s not something I’ve ever really shouted about but it’s not something I ever shied away from either. I am who I am – I don’t have to be singing from the rooftops. I’m not a campaigner in any sense. I could be. But I only represent myself. Maybe I could have some impact.
“The problem is, a lot of people think the way Peter Casey thinks. The guy is clown who feels he has to say anything to stay relevant. And he’s obviously tapping into something that is there among people. I remember a couple of years ago with the Carrickmines fire [in which 10 Travellers, including a pregnant woman, died in a fire at a halting site], some of the comments you could read online on thejournal.ie and things like that, some of them were horrendous.
“Something so tragic as that, to get stuck in like people did is just beyond me. And sometimes I think I should chime in a bit more and speak up because maybe I could change people’s minds or their perceptions of what Gypsies or Travellers are like. And maybe the book will do that to some extent. Maybe they’ll read it and have a second thought as to what a Traveller or a Gypsy can be.
“And maybe it’ll be some way for a young Traveller or Gypsy to change how they think as well if they read it. Maybe they will get a sense that they have more options than they think they do in life. Because it is a very restricted life. I say it in the book – you are brought up in a world where you have two choices, you have a world of crime or a world of work from a young age. That’s basically it when you’re a kid in that world. You don’t know much beyond it.”
A route out
Boxing was his route out, his door-opener and horizon-broadener. He got out the other side of it with his health intact, his sense sound, his family around him. He and Maud were joined by little Julia last year and that takes up his time now. Life is slower and different and the stakes are more manageable.
“If you change careers or you move country or you move to a different job anywhere, that’s a big life decision. But it’s one that you sit down and you think about and you deliberate over for however long you can until you’re happy you’ve made the right call. In boxing, you’re making hundreds of those decisions in the course of just one fight. Every decision you make in the ring is potentially career-altering.
“You’re standing there and if you move your head this way, you slip the punch. But if you make the wrong choice and you move it that way, you’re caught with the punch and that’s it, the whole thing is over. And that means that your life is changed in an instant and your family’s life is changed and loads of people around you and behind you and attached to you, their life is changed straight away. That’s a massive life decision and you might make three of them in the space of two seconds.”
Does he miss that sense of risk, now that the big decisions are over whether Julia needs one blanket or two when they go out in the buggy to the shops?
“No, not at all,” he laughs. “Sometimes I look at guys from my generation who are out there still fighting and maybe even making millions from it but I look at them and I feel sorry for them. Like, do you really still need to be out there doing it?
“I’m just happy with the way it all fell for me. I got out healthy, for the most part. I got out having achieved what I wanted and having secured my future to a certain extent – not that I’m set for life or anything but I can go out for a Chinese on a Saturday and not worry about it.”
Not a soul would begrudge him.
Fighter by Andy Lee and Niall Kelly is published by Gill Books