World-Class Boxer Andy Lee On The Perfect Right Hook & What it Takes to be a Champion
Today’s episode of the podcast continues with our Olympics-theme, where we’re talking about world-class athletes, these people who made it to the top, and how they got there. Last week I spoke to David Epstein—author of The Sport’s Gene—about what makes athletes great, and this week, I sat down with an actual champion to find out more.
Andy Lee is 34-3-1, and a former WBO Middleweight Boxing Champion. Known in boxing circles as a tough-as-nails southpaw, Lee’s famous right hook is absolutely devastating. He’s also an Olympian, having competed for Ireland at the 2004 Olympic games in Athens.
In this interview, you’ll hear Andy and me get into the actual mechanics of a perfect right hook, what Lee thinks makes a champion different from a great athlete, and how Lee ended up acting in a Chekhov play.
Andy Lee: Hi Ben! Thank you for taking the time to let me watch that fight.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: No worries, you must be pretty excited.
AL: Yeah, our guy won so it’s pretty good.
BSS: I was frantically looking for a stream, but couldn’t find it. So what happened”AL: He won the fight, yeah, previous to this fight three of our guys have lost, three of our guys who were kind of favorites to win had lost, so there was a lot of pressure on the team – on the coaches and stuff, so he got the win, which is good.
BSS: Cool, so thanks for doing this. Let’s start with that fight you just saw. One question I had was when you watch a match on TV, what are you actually watching? Are you watching body language, tactics, technique, or just the spectacle of the thing”AL: Everything. I’m watching everything. The spectacle but also like you said, the tactics, the body language, the coaches, the instructions they’re giving, the feints. Everything. How a boxer handles himself on the inside, how composed he looks in between rounds. I love watching – I’m a fan of boxing anyways. If I wasn’t a boxer I’d watch all the fights anyways. I love the sport.
BSS: So what’s the kind of thing you want to see in composure, in coaches, or in the boxers themselves”AL: Obviously you have your opinion of how the fight’s going. You can see what each guy needs to do to win or to improve and that’s what you’re hoping you hear from the coach in the corner. You know, boxing at the highest level, amongst the best boxers, is almost like a chess match. It’s very tactical, it’s very strategic, and the margins between winning and losing are very fine. It can be just one simple thing that the winner does that grants him victory.
BSS: Like what for example”AL: Like small things, things that aren’t too obvious. Like there’s a great American fighter called Andre Ward who’s unbeaten and probably the best light heavyweight in the world. He has very good feet. He’s always picking up his feet, he’s never really flat-footed, he’s always taking little steps with his feet. To a casual fan, that wouldn’t be very obvious that he was doing that but it’s one of his successes. Whenever an opponent attacks him or wants to attack, his feet are always ready to move, he’s never planted – and an object that’s in motion tends to want to stay in motion – and with his feet always moving, he’s able to move in and out quickly, quicker than his opponent.
It’s just a small thing but I believe – in boxing anyway – the great great fighters do those small things that the just good fighters don’t do. I think that’s the difference between being a good fighter and a great fighter, the small things that aren’t so obvious. When you look at great fighters and you say, “I’m doing what he’s doing, I can do that, I can move like him, I can throw his punches.” But it’s the smaller things that you don’t see, that’s the difference between good and great fighters.
BSS: That’s one of these things of how boxing is like a great metaphor for life and success in the ring matches with success out of it. But I’m interested in those small things exactly like not being caught flat-footed – it’s also a symbol for life, know what I mean”AL: Yeah!
BSS: But so, you’ve been there. You’ve been at the top. You’re a champion. So what are the small things that you’ve done – whether it’s in the mindset or in the training, or what you eat for breakfast – what do you think it is”AL: My mantra is, even though sometimes I forget it, is to take the small things very seriously and take the big things very lightly. So small things on more technical terms would be hydration, getting the right amount of sleep, making sure I eat the right things, making sure I’m not distracted by external factors maybe like family and friends or things that are stressful. Take those very seriously and manage those things to get the most of my powers.
And then the big things, like the fight itself, like the weigh-in, like the press conference. Take them lightly, and try to lighten the mood. So, for example if I’m in the dressing room I don’t like to be left alone for too long because you go inside yourself and become pensive. I prefer to have people around. Usually I’d like to have somebody who’s not been involved in my training, someone from outside of my training camp, a friend or someone I haven’t seen in a while to come in and we just talk like two guys talking, about the weather, soccer, anything else but the fight.
And then, while that’s going on, I’ll be preparing, getting my hands wrapped, putting on my equipment, warming up, limbering up, and then as soon as the knock comes on the door that it’s time to go, that’s when I switch on.
BSS: So walk us through it. The knock comes on the door, you’re walking to the ring, what’s going through your head”AL: It’s a conscious change in my mentality, in my demeanor. I have to become somebody else because – I know your listeners might not be familiar with me – but a lot of people say I’m too nice a guy to be a fighter. I’m too friendly. Most of the time that’s true, but during that walk from the dressing room to ring, I have to change, I have to become a bad person. A person that wants to inflict harm and I don’t mean that in a bad way but I have to – not want to hurt him permanently or long-term or anything like that – I just want to beat this guy. I want to beat his ass, you know what I mean? That’s what I’m going in there to do, and he’s going in there to do the same thing to me. It’s not personal, it’s an unwritten agreement. We’re going in there and we’re going to try to beat each other.
I’ve had to learn that – over the years I’ve learned to do that. There’s been fights where I haven’t done it, and I haven’t wanted to do it, but I realized and I spoke with my coaches and they told me you have to do this, and that’s something – that’s my mental preparation for a fight.
BSS: So is that something that can be trained, that mindset, that switch, that conscious change”AL: Yeah, it is. I have a very good coach. I’ve been lucky my whole career to work with – I’ve just been fortunate to find myself living in good places with very good coaches available. I was born in London and started boxing in the Repton Amateur Boxing Club which is in east London Bethnal Green and I couldn’t have asked for a better foundation because it’s renowned for its young amateur boxers, that gym, and they taught me the basics.
From then we moved to Limerick in Ireland, my family’s from Ireland, and we relocated to Ireland and I worked there with some great coaches in Ireland, you know my two coaches, and then with the national coaches, who are now the national coaches of the Olympic team in Rio.
From there I kind of professionally moved to Detroit and I worked with the legendary Emanuel Steward who trained over 35 world champions, fighters like Evander Holyfield, Oscar de la Hoya, Lennox Lewis, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, you know, he was a legend. So I got to work with him for nice years of my career and I learned so much from him.
He unfortunately passed away in 2012 and then I relocated to London and hooked up with a coach called Adam Booth, who always impressed me. As I said, I watch all the fights, I watch all the coaches, and there was always one guy who stood out and that was Adam Booth. So I flew to London, relocated, and convinced him to train me. He was the one who really installed this change of mindset, to make me think, because he knows how nice I was outside the ring, how affable I was towards people – and he trained it. We’d be in the gym, working hard on the mitts, on the pads, and there’s a lot of talking, a lot of drilling. When I’d be tired, when I’d be going through it, pushing myself, he would say now bite now, change, become that person, go to that place where – I don’t know, can I curse on this podcast”BSS: Yeah, say what you want!
AL: Because I want to tell you what he said. He said to me, “Go to that fucking place where you just bite down and say fuck it, let’s have it.” Sometimes, you know, boxing is very technical, it’s a science and a way of life. But sometimes, when you boil it all down, it’s still a fight, and anyone can have a fight on the street and sometimes you just have to bite down and say, “Fuck it” and let a fight be a fight.
And he worked with me on that for a long time, and I have to thank him for that because I don’t think I would’ve became world champion without him.
BSS: That’s awesome. I think about my coaches in my not-professional soccer career, and always heard this stuff from them, and never could quite cross that line of like, “I’m putting my body down,” know what I mean? And the thing to me, is like, is it really coachable? Or do people just have to have that in them? It’s interesting to hear you say that it’s coachable.
AL: I believe that it is. If you have that desire, if you want to go there. It’s coachable, but the student has to be open to it. He has to want to go there, want to be taken there. That’s the only way. There’s no easy way of getting there.
I believe that anyone you see at the top of their game in any aspect of life – sports, business, you name it – they’re there because they’ve worked their asses off, they’ve worked hard, they’ve grinded, they’ve persisted when it probably would’ve been easier to walk away from it, but I believe they’re there because they’ve worked for it.
BSS: Have you done any coaching yourself? Or any training of young people”AL: No I haven’t. It’s something that I think will always be there for me in the future, but while I’m still competing I’ll just keep it separate. We have a young fighter in our gym named Ryan Burnett, and he’s from Northern Ireland, so I can relate to him because I know where he comes from, but he’s an immense talent. He just has to learn – at this stage he still has to learn the finer points of boxing. He has all the skills and all the physical talent but he just has to learn the finer points. I just try to advise him and help him in any way that I can, you know”BSS: Do you give him like media training, too? Or just technical training – I mean, you can’t teach him the Andy Lee right hook, right”AL: I tried to show him a little bit – he hasn’t got a bad hook himself – but, no, I just try to teach him a little bit of finesse. Like I said, it’s the small things that separate the great from the good. So that’s all that I try to tell him. He has all the ingredients. If he was a raw novice, somebody who’s never boxed, it would be a lot harder, just teaching him the basics.
Like in anything, you have to learn the basics first, the fundamentals. In order to grasp the essence of anything, you have to have the basics. So first and foremost is the basics and then once you have those you can learn the higher levels of anything.
BSS: So, I was joking about your right hook, but I watched a bunch of your knockouts on YouTube, and can you walk us through a perfect right hook, like in the whole body”AL: You know, it’s like, the hooks that I’ve landed that’ve knocked people out – it’s an instinct that happens without even a thought. It almost happens and then you have the thought of throwing the punch. The subconscious mind does it before you consciously think it.
But to break a good right hook down, it starts at the feet. The feet have to be placed in the right position, for me I’m a southpaw which means I lead with my right hand so my right foot has to be ahead of my left foot. I have to be balanced.
And then the power comes from the hip, it’s not from the arm. It has to come from the hip. It’s kind of like the momentum of a baseball bat swing. You know they start from the hip and then they pull through and the bat is almost the last thing to pull around, to swivel. It’s the same with the hook, you pull your hip through and then you follow with your shoulder and then you hook your fist comes around.
The end part, the fist has to be turned in towards your face and your forearm and elbow should be parallel to the ground, and that’s how I throw my hooks and they seem to be working.
BSS: But your famous hooks, like the one that more or less won the fight against Korobov, that was like, you couldn’t have seen that coming. It was kind of mayhem when you threw it, so that’s what you meant when you say instinct, you just threw it”AL: No, it was. But you practice these things countless times and then when you need it, it’s there. I remember one time in the gym, Adam was coaching me, and we’d been together a year or a year and a half. He’s very vocal, especially when we’re sparring, it’s almost like a game on PlayStation, he’d be controlling me from the corner, telling me jab, right hook, body shot, whatever.
We were going for a while and I just walked over to him one day and said, “Adam, for the next couple of rounds, just don’t say anything, let me box.” And he’d always say one or two things anyway, but I said just talk to me between rounds. And I had one of the best sparring rounds. He came back to me and said, “Why were you so much better in those rounds?” And it just occurred to me, that the subconscious mind is so much quicker. Even for me, the best moves happen in boxing when you don’t think about them, when they come at an instant, when they come instinctively.
Like, one of my other great knockouts was against John Jackson. That was a fight where I was having a tough fight and I was in trouble and he was coming at me, and the next thing you know he’s on the ground, and the next thing I knew I’m walking away with my hand in the air. And as I’m walking away, I thought to myself “Throw the right hook.” but I’d already done it, a split-second before it.
So, the action and the thought almost happen together, maybe a split-second apart. Boxing is about improvisation and you have to be able to do that in a ring, especially when it’s a firefight, when it’s a shootout, like that moment with Korobov. You have to be able to. But it only comes from repetition, repetition repetition, every day, drilling the same things over and over.
BSS: I love this tension between the repetition and the instinct. Obviously you have to train it, you have to have it inside but in that moment it’s never going to be exactly the way you trained it. People talk about this in improvisational theater, in improv. I come from Chicago, where improv comedy is king, and you can go through it time and again, you can know your colleagues in and out, but once you’re on stage and you’re under the lights, you don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you and you got to do it. I love that.
AL: You can see a lot of parallels between acting or performing and boxing. Because there is that improvisation and the element of performing on a stage, there’s a lot of parallels. It’s funny because any actors that I meet all want to talk about boxing. They all want to be boxers. And any boxer that I meet, they only want to talk about acting! It’s funny to see the two worlds interact, you know”BSS: Are you still involved in the theater scene over there”AL: No, not really, not at the moment. I appeared in one play, a Chekhov play. It’s now touring but I couldn’t appear due to my schedule with the boxing. A fight I was supposed to have got cancelled and then the play went ahead without me. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed and something that I might do again but for now it’s on the back burner.
BSS: Yeah, did that help you switch off? Did it help your concentration when you went back? How did that jibe with the training”AL: It was fortune because I had a period where I was in Dublin and I wasn’t training for a fight so I was able to do it, do the rehearsal time and then do the performance. But I just approached it like a fight. I thought the rehearsals were my training, I was doing my work outside of the gym by reading the script and knowing the lines. And I got a great buzz from it, I have to admit. I’ve had fights where I’ve beaten guys and walked out of the ring like “Huh, ok, what are we doing now?” you know? But I got a great thrill from it. I was buzzing.
You know, in a sense I was putting myself out there. I was opening myself to criticism and ridicule. I’ve never done anything like that before. And I was really nervous. Really really nervous. For a fight, I won’t be nervous at all – but it was a really enjoyable, I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t mind going back to doing it again if the opportunity arose.
I just think you have to be careful about brandishing yourself “an actor,” “boxer,” you know, these guys have all these titles, but I’m a boxer first and foremost, and everything else is – if not a hobby – but a side addition.
BSS: Are you training right now”AL: I’m in Dublin, I’ve had some time off since my last fight. I’m going back to the gym in September, and I haven’t scheduled a fight but I hope to fight before the end of the year.
BSS: So, last questions: What’s it like to do that? How do you know when you’re in shape? How do you know when you’re ready? It’s like you’re preparing to prepare right now, right”AL: Yeah, that’s the stage I’m in at the moment. I’m in the gym nearly every day, training but not with any intent as I would be if I was in training camp, just preparing myself and touching on some of the things that I need to do when I go back. But you’ll never be ready until you start really grinding. You have that period of time where it’s almost a build-up internally as well as externally in the preparation.
I’ve been off for a few months now, so I’ll probably go back and do 14 to 12 weeks of training camp. Initially it’ll be long durations, breaking down my body, and as weeks pass and the fight gets closer the intensity picks up.
Believe me, when you’re doing a full training camp and the intensity picks up you know you’re ready because you pay the price in the gym. You pay the price every day you train and by doing that it builds up your mental strength and your physical strength so by the time the fight comes around, you know you’re ready.
BSS: But how”AL: Because you’ve gone through it. You’ve gone through the grind. You’ve gone through the pain. You’ve gone through everything, the sacrifice of being away from home, eating very cleanly but not the foods you want to eat – by just sacrificing and by sparring every day, taking punishment, giving punishment, and you feel yourself improving and getting fitter and getting stronger and you know you’re ready. For me it comes naturally because I’ve done it from a very young age. It’s nothing alien to me, it’s all very natural to me to go through it and to get in the ring when it’s time.
BSS: It’s almost like another one of these examples of, you got it because you’ve done it so much but on the other hand you just feel it, you just know.
AL: Yeah. You know, you know. It’s like, people have asked me, on days of fights, how do you feel? Are you nervous? Are you anxious? And the other words I say to them, to sum it up, is that I’m ready. I have a feeling of readiness, that I’m ready to go.
Like I said, it is a long build up and every night you’re lying in bed, even in between training sessions, you’re resting and all you’re thinking about is the fight. What’s my opponent’s doing. How’s he preparing? How’s the fight going to go? If he throws this punch what do I do? If I land with this punch how will he react? Every day you’re thinking of the fight thinking of the fight thinking of the fight. So by the time the fight comes you just want to get in there and do the thing. You’re burnt out from thinking of it.
BSS: Cool, well look, that was 25 minutes and I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I appreciate this and we’ll keep an eye out for that fight, I hope it happens like you said by the end of the year.
AL: Cheers Ben!