Exactly one year ago, Irishman Andy Lee was preparing for his light-middleweight debut against Frank Haroche Horta, a French journeyman who was expected to be blasted out in a few rounds. A below-par display from Lee saw him overcome his opponent by the narrowest of margins by majority decision, and the result and performance left his career at a crossroads. 12 months later, and the 30-year-old is preparing to headline at the Brooklyn Center in New York for his first defence of his WBO middleweight title.
It has been said that Lee's rise to prominence at 160lbs has been down to the "luck of the Irish", but Lee has made his own luck. His decision to back himself against power-puncher John Jackson looked to be a disastrous one when we was floored heavily in the opening round at Madison Square Garden in June, but while it wasn't part of his gameplan, the ease with which Jackson was landing created complacency in his opponent's mind, and that ultimately proved to be his downfall. Lee landed the right hand of his life to not only stun the MSG crowd but to catapult himself back into top tier of the middleweight division.
After Billy Joe Saunders decided to face Chris Eubank Jr instead of competing against Matt Korobov for the vacant WBO belt, Lee was quickly drafted in for his second shot at a world title. His first saw him falter badly to lose to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr in 2012, but that experience played a big part in how Lee executed his strategy against Korobov. After his success at amateur level, Korobov was expected to break down Lee, and for five rounds, that is what happened. A cautious Lee lost every round on two of the three scorecards, and it quickly became apparent that he would require a stoppage to claim the win.
However, nobody expected it to come in the very next round. Like against Jackson, Lee landed with a huge right hook, and although Korobov didn't go down, the fight was effectively over the moment he wobbled the Russian. Despite Amir Khan, Keith Thurman and Timothy Bradley all competing in Las Vegas on that night, it was Lee's victory that stood out. His calculation and his ability to draw in and surprise his opponent has earned rave reviews over the past nine months, but against Peter Quillin on Saturday night, Lee needs to discover a fresh way to continue his momentum and move closer to a unification clash with Gennady Golovkin.
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What's remarkable about Lee's success is that he has only won one of his last nine completed rounds. He's shown that you don't necessarily require an accumulation of shots to feel in control of a fight. From an outside perspective, Lee wasn't in control of his contest with Jackson but alongside trainer Adam Booth, who has done wonders for Lee's confidence, they were aware that they were taking a calculated risk and it paid off. The problem with Lee's recent style is that it plays into the hands of future opponents, and they can find a way to neutralise the southpaw's biggest weapon.
That's one of the factors why many have Quillin as the favourite for this fight. He hasn't fought in almost a year, but Lee's not necessarily a fighter who is going to work off any ring-rust from Quillin, unless he finds the correct balance of attack and defence. If Lee sits on the back foot, Quillin, an undefeated former WBO title holder, is going to ease into his rhythm and potentially outclass his opponent heading into the middle rounds, but if Lee adopts a forward-thinking strategy, he leaves himself vulnerable to the power of the Brooklyn resident.
Lee may possess the belt heading into Saturday's encounter, but he has more to prove than the challenger. He undoubtedly has the artillery to take out Quillin, but there's going to be a process that he needs to execute before he can land the finishing blow. For Quillin, his thinking is simple - work off avoiding the right hook and look to discourage the champion in the early stages. This is a fight that will almost certainly end inside the distance and although Quillin has the advantage heading into the match, don't rule out Lee pulling off what would be a famous upset.
Victory for Lee would set up a huge domestic showdown with Billy Joe Saunders, who shares a traveller's background with his potential opponent for the summer. As mandatory challenger, Saunders will get his shot at whoever prevails in New York on Saturday night, but everyone connected with the former Olympian will be rooting for Lee, with any meeting between the two likely to be held in a football stadium in Dublin or London.