Brandun Lee anonymously strolls through the halls of La Quinta High School, one of nearly 600 faces in the Class of 2017. To his peers, his teachers, administrators, he’s your average 5-foot-11, 145-pound 17-year-old. Many are unaware of his life outside of these halls.
They don’t know of the hundreds of thousands of miles and two Chevy Tahoes he and his dad, Bobby, burned through shuttling to boxing tournaments up and down the West Coast.
They haven’t heard about the long weekends away from home, the countless hours spent in the gym, often in solitude, or the more than 40 championship belts collecting dust at home in Coachella, forged from a staggering 181-9 amateur record.
It’s unbeknownst to many that Lee was featured in The Ring Magazine six years ago, at 11, referred to as a boxing prodigy after he had already won three national junior Golden Gloves championships and the collection of green, red and yellow belts had begun to multiply.
“But in a lot of ways, I’m pretty normal,” Brandun Lee said.
The career path he’s charting is not.
Few know that early this month revered boxing manager Cameron Dunkin opened up his checkbook and shelled out more money than he ever has to sign an amateur when he agreed to a six-figure deal with the Lee and his dad.
And while many of his classmates look forward to their winter break from school, Lee is focused on Dec. 10, when he will make his professional boxing debut at the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pa. He’ll then fight again a week later in Virginia.
“A lot of people don’t know how hard Brandun has worked for this,” Bobby Lee said. “They don’t know how driven he is, how dedicated he’s been to his craft.”
They don’t know because that’s how Bobby Lee wanted it. He kept his son under wraps, careful not to let his head get overinflated as the wins piled up. It’s the same reason you won’t find many YouTube videos or newspaper clippings of Brandun Lee.
The Lees didn’t want their son to be just another in a long line of prominent amateurs who lost focus and fizzled as a pro. So they kept things quiet, in perspective.
“In boxing, anything can happen because he’s fighting the best of the best,” Bobby Lee said. “So I kept things very quiet in amateurs.”
That will be more difficult to do moving forward.
“He’s tremendously talented, and a really good draw,” Dunkin said. “There are not a lot of Korean fighters around.
“It won’t happen overnight, but people are going to know who this kid is.”
Brandun Lee’s boxing journey began a decade ago in Yuba City, about an hour north of Sacramento. Lee’s mother, Laura, placed him in a youth soccer at 6, but he couldn’t stay on the field because he was overly aggressive, pushing and tripping anyone who stood in his way.
“I was a feisty little kid,” Brandun Lee said.
So he turned to boxing, a sport he was already familiar with. His mom grew up in a Mexican-American boxing family, with brothers who fought as amateurs. Brandun’s Korean-American dad was training his older brother, Jhong, a rising amateur fighter when Brandun began to take an interest at 7-years-old.
Soon, Bobby began taking both sons on bi-weekly trips to San Diego and Los Angeles for fights and additional training. They repeated the grind for five years, creating a close bond on the long drives that would often last up to 26 hours round trip.
“A lot of people ask me how I did it,” Bobby said. “My answer is that it had to be done. We did whatever it took.”
By 2012, the Lees had moved to the Coachella Valley, leaving behind family and friends to forge a future for Brandun in a region with a rich boxing history. By 2015, Lee was ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA amateur boxing for junior men.
Brandun’s rise didn’t happen by chance. It was calculated. Bobby Lee managed his son’s time away from the gym, keeping him out of trouble by not allowing him to go to parties or to hang with friends who would draw him away from his goal.
“That’s been a good thing,” Brandun Lee said. “There’s a lot of trouble out there, and I’m not a wild kid anyway, so I don’t mind.”
Brandun would spend most of his afternoons after school at the Coachella Valley Boxing Club. When he wasn’t there, he was at home in the family gym, working alone for hours watching film of his favorite professionals and trying to replicate their moves into his own repertoire.
“He’d be in a different world in his mind, really,” Bobby Lee said. “The best fighters are not only taught but have the smarts and creativity to explore what they’ve been taught and take it to the next level. Brandun has that.”
He watched a lot of Felix Trinidad and Terence Crawford . He studied Floyd Mayweather Jr., focusing on his cat-like quickness and defensive prowess. He duplicated how Gennady Golovkin sat down on his punches, and how Guillermo Rigondeaux used his signature head-fake to keep opponents guessing.
“I try to take everything I see and incorporate it into one,” Brandun Lee said. “It’s kind of like an art, trying to put together the perfect combination of offense, defense and everything else.”
When he got into the ring, Brandun Lee beat a lot of good fighters. After a while, there was nobody else to fight in amateurs.
In 2012, the Lees began focusing on Nevada, and in two months Brandun Lee has beaten everyone his age and weight division. They then turned attention to Oregon and Washington, and cleared those two states in six tournaments.
They then focused on California, where most believe the best young talent in the county resides. It took two years, but the Lees eventually conquered Southern California.
“We kept going until there was no one left to fight,” Bobby Lee said.
Recently, though, fights have been difficult to come by. Brandun Lee has fought primarily against grown men or professionals since he was 15. The only time he’s fought someone else his age is at Nationals or the Junior Olympics.
At the Desert Showdown, the renowned tournament held annually in Indio, or a national tournament in Reno, parents travel with their kids for a tournaments featuring many of the top junior fighters in the country. Parents have approached Bobby Lee to ask if he’d be willing to move Brandun to a higher weight class than 140 or 147. When he’s declined, they have instead fed their kids breakfast the morning of the weigh-in to avoid meeting Brandun in the tournament.
Other fighters, however, have brought the fight to Brandun. Bobby Lee recalls a time last year, when a 19-year-old from Texas was in town and dropped by the boxing gym to challenge Brandun, who was barely 16 at the time.
The two put the gloves and headgear on, rung the bell and on the first punch Brandun Lee cut his opponent over the left brow. Blood dripped on the canvas, the fight ended and directions were given to the nearest medical center for stitches.
“His hook is unstoppable unless you’ve been fighting as a pro for a long time,” said Lee Espinoza, who runs the Coachella Valley Boxing Club. “He can get it off against just about anybody, and he has the creativity to work the hook into combinations, like – ‘BOOM-BOOM-BOOM!’ ”
A month after Brandon turned 16, he was invited to spar against five-time world champion Timothy Bradley Jr. at his gym in Indio. It was just prior to Bradley’s June 2015 defeat of Jessie Vargas for the World Boxing Organization’s world welterweight title.
The session with Bradley went well, but the thing that stood out to Brandun most was that afterward Bradley called him back into the ring to ask him something.
“He said, ‘How did you do that one thing?’ ” Brandun Lee remembers. “He was asking me. I was 16 and a professional who beat Manny Pacquiao is asking me how to do something.”
Bradley has since fought twice, but has not asked Brandun Lee back, and recently declined to say why via text message.
Brandun Lee went a few rounds with 36-year-old Mauricio Herrera, of Riverside, but other big-name fighters have declined to give the Lees sparring opportunities.
On a recent Thursday evening, Brandon jumped into the ring with professional boxer Kenny Williams of Palm Springs. Brandun, an orthodox fighter, was instructed he could only use his left hand for three of the four rounds.
“We have to do that or we would have no more sparring,” Bobby Lee said. It is also a training method the father has used to help his son improve his left-handed punches and instincts.
“If they were fighting for real,” added Espinoza during the drill, “[Brandun] would have stopped him within 30 seconds.”
Williams wasn’t arguing that as hard has one might think.
“The kid can do it all,” Williams said. “He can do whatever he wants in the ring. If he works hard a stays focused, a lot of people are going to know about this kid in a few years.”
Still, Dunkin and the Lees are hoping to bring Brandun along slowly. Because he won’t be 18 until April, and there’s always the risk of wanting too much too fast, they are planning to take things one fight at a time.
There’s still a lot to be discovered about a kid who appears to have all the tools, but has never really been tested by a savvy professional. Until then, the verdict is still out about whether Brandun Lee can be a world championship contender by the time he’s 22 or 23.
“Brandun Lee is a very talented, skillful fighter,” said revered trainer Joel Diaz, who trains fighters out of Indio. “He’s a very disciplined, great kid.
“Can he take the pressure? Can he take a big punch in a big fight? I hope he rises in the sport, but it’s always a wait and see with young fighters.”
Fear that nothing is guaranteed and there’s still a lot more work ahead is what Brandun Lee says motivates him.
“People wondering, ‘Is he going to make it or not?’ — that makes me want to work harder. I set the bar high, so now that I’m turning pro, the bar I’ve set for myself is even higher.
“”I’m ready for what’s next.”