Roles with the punches
Andy Lee, former champion of the world, has switched his attention to acting and written a book which can be judged by the cover, writes Malachy Clerkin
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 i s – the difference i s that he i s 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 i t 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 l eft 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.
“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 rele-
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