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

The Irish Times Magazine - - INTERVIEW -

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

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