If you were watching undefeated light heavyweight and on-the-cusp contender Mike Lee fight for the first time, it would be fair to wonder, initially, what all the fuss is about.
Make no mistake: Lee, born and raised in Wheaton, is 17-0 as a pro and objectively viewed as possessing considerable promise entering his fight Friday against Chris Traietti at the UIC Forum. But if you’re looking for a single star-making skill — Mayweather’s hand speed, Pacquiao’s rapid-fire punching or Klitschko’s wilting power — you won’t find it in Lee. Not on the surface, anyway.
What’s intriguing about Lee — what eventually might make him special — are other aspects that he and trainer Jamal Abdullah value immensely: intelligence and adaptability.
“Jamal has found a way for me to open my mind up,” Lee said Wednesday during a workout at Franklin Street Gym. “He’s taught me that there’s no rules. You can move how you want. He’s got me mixing it up a little bit, which I like.”
Lee said he and Abdullah lately have studied some of boxing’s most nimble ring generals — champions Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux, for instance — in hopes of picking up tips to refine Lee’s defense and turn his counterpunching into a world-class weapon. Abdullah, who has worked with Lee for only four fights, already senses progress.
“The growth that I see is, we’re not satisfied getting hit,” Abdullah said. “I tell him, ‘A lot of people got heart. But they also take a lot of punishment to get the job done.’ I don’t believe in that.”
Now that the stakes have jumped — the main event is a 10-round bout that will be contested for a minor belt, the IBF-USBA light heavyweight title — Lee, who previously fought as a cruiserweight, said he’s at 175 pounds to stay. He’s also confident the move down will amplify his power without other compromises.
“I have power. I know it,” Lee said. “Everybody I fight tells me I have the hardest punching they’ve ever been hit by. I feel good at 175.”
After making adjustments from amateur boxing to the pros and recovering from a 2013 lost to injuries, Lee indeed seems to be growing into his power. Three of his previous four fights and four of his last six ended in stoppage wins.
But his opponent represents the most dangerous test yet for Lee. Traietti (21-3), of Quincy, Mass., is a gritty fighter with knockout power (17 KOs) who hasn’t lost since 2011, to former world super middleweight title challenger Edwin Rodriguez. And in Traietti’s first fight away from the East Coast, he won’t be alone — a large contingent of family and friends is expected to attend.
“I brought home to me,” Traietti said. “It’s gonna be just like fighting at home, not any different.”
Lee acknowledges the step up — he has fought only four opponents with as many rounds under their belts, and none on Traietti’s level — but he’s embracing the challenge. He’s also excited by the prospect of what amounts to a hometown fight and the thought of helping christen the UIC Forum as a boxing venue.
Will it be a one-night-only affair? A win could begin clearing a short path to a more established boxing hotspot — and a world title shot.
Said Lee: “I’m ready to elevate to that next level.”
Follow me on Twitter @JasonLangendorf.