by Johnny Walker
“As I say all the time, I never proclaim myself to be the great American hope, the great American heavyweight. Honestly now I just try to work hard, to stay humble, stay focused, and try to reach my goals. I believe in myself and I believe that I have the ability to become heavyweight champion of the world” — Seth “Mayhem” Mitchell
Listening to Seth Mitchell talk during a recent conference call about his upcoming fight with Johnathon Banks this Saturday in Atlantic City, I was brought back to the hackneyed argument often heard from disgruntled American boxing scribes and fans as to why USA heavyweights have been eclipsed over the past decade of domination by foreigners Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko brothers.
That argument–that the US is lacking in great heavyweights because they are all playing professional football or basketball–seems to me to not stand up to scrutiny. While the NFL and the NBA today do employ some great athletes, those leagues didn’t just suddenly become popular in the last ten years. The NFL was around and quite popular in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as well. Ditto for the NBA. So why, suddenly, is it that these leagues are said to be siphoning off all of the elite talent formerly reserved for heavyweight boxing in the United States?
We can get into some other more probable reasons why American heavyweights no longer dominate–like the fall of the Soviet Union and the freeing up of Eastern European athletes to compete professionally–in another column. But for those who firmly believe in the “NFL/NBA” hypothesis, the career of former college football player Seth Mitchell might prove to be a test case. Can a former football player cross over to a sport that he admits previously wasn’t a passion for him and become the heavyweight champion of the world?
The striking thing for me while listening to Mitchell–a nice guy who doesn’t engage in trash talk and who is remarkably candid when answering questions about himself–is that he freely admits that boxing is for him something of a second choice. Lacking pretension, he doesn’t pretend to have worshiped any particular boxers as a youth–in fact, he still sometimes sounds as if he’d rather be playing football now, if injuries hadn’t forced him to leave the sport.
“Not really,” Mitchell says when asked if he has any boxer, past or present, that he models himself after.
“Like I say, I literally just got involved in boxing six years ago. There’s nobody that I really looked up to as a fighter, and you probably ask Johnathon this question and he probably could say well I used to look up to so and so in the boxing, but that wasn’t my thing.
“I wanted to be a football player. I really looked up and admired and wanted to play like Ray Lewis, middle linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. But as a boxer I like a lot of people. I watch tape on fights just to pick up different things to add to my boxing craft. My favorite fighter right now is Miguel Cotto.”
The question posited by Seth Mitchell’s boxing career is this: can a gifted athlete “pick up” heavyweight boxing as a vocation well into his 20s and reach the pinnacle of the sport?
For instance, for all of the disrespect that the world heavyweight champion Klitschko brothers get in America, no-one rational will argue that fighting isn’t in their blood. Both Wladimir and Vitali have idolized fighters of all stripes, from martial arts to boxing, since they were young. And that mentality also applies to most top-flight boxers, to other rising heavyweights like Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev, who comes from a family of fighters and who like the Klitschkos has an extensive amateur background. The closest Seth Mitchell can come to this is to say that he loves athletic competition in general: he didn’t grow up obsessed by the notion of being a great fighter.
But boxing is such a singular profession: “the sweet science,” as it’s called. Can a man whose boxing career is a mere six years old really expect to capture the heavyweight title from men who have been working at it for much of their lives?
If former college football player Seth Mitchell can achieve his goal–he says he hopes to fight for a title in late 2013–perhaps I’ll begin to put more stock in the “NFL argument.” This Saturday’s fight with the cagey Banks–a boxer who is in many ways, as Mitchell points out, his opposite, coming from the old-school boxing culture of the late Emanuel Steward’s Kronk gym in Detroit–should tell us more about just how realistic Seth Mitchell’s boxing dreams–and the dreams of American fight fans for a new heavyweight king–really are.