By Daniel Cann
This Saturday sees an exceptional fight bill at Liverpool’s Echo Arena. The headline bout is the intriguing world title contest between Ricky Burns and Nicky Cook, but the chief support between Dagenham’s Kevin Mitchell and Manchester’s John Murray for the WBO Inter-Continental title could upstage the main event.
The pair are undoubtedly the best lightweight operators in Britain and have long been rivals. They are the same age at 26, the same height, at five feet eight and both turned professional in the same year: 2003. The pair have long been on a collision course and despite the contest being cancelled and rescheduled a few times it is finally on. Anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the noble art understands that this is a mouth-watering clash with domestic bragging rights and a potential shot at one of the world titles for the winner. The stakes are high.
In Kevin Mitchell (31-1 with 23 inside the distance wins) we have a smart, classy boxer with a decent dig in each hand. In the past Mitchell has always been in control and unflustered, able to adapt to any style or question posed to him. He has a calm, methodical, economical style, biding his time, exerting steady pressure, probing for weaknesses and gradually dismantling opponents.
Last time out he unravelled against tough Australian boxer Michael Katsidis in a bid for the WBO world lightweight title. Mitchell was stopped in the third round. It later emerged that he had domestic issues with his then girlfriend and with that distraction his preparation was far from perfect. Mitchell has conceded that his mind was not fully on the job and neither was he in top condition. That is in no way to detract from Katsidis’ brutal win, but clearly Mitchell was not properly focussed and prepared.
The whole episode must have been particularly stressful and harrowing as it was in front of his home fans at Upton Park. Mitchell has also admitted to a six month drinking binge in the wake of that defeat and it was not until his parents rallied around and gave him a sharp wake up call that he finally pulled himself together and found the motivation to get back in the gym last November. Every boxer knows and understands how hard it is to come off a defeat and we can all understand relationships that go awry.
Before the world title challenge Mitchell looked (and was) one of Britain’s brightest prospects and he looked world class.
Let us not forget how impressive he was when stopping dangerman Carl ‘Ingemar’ Johansson (previous Ricky Burns conqueror) in nine rounds in a British Super-featherweight title defence in 2008. In moving up to lightweight he took his power with him as his contest against Ignacio Mendoza (KO 2) showed.
The real contest that proved Mitchell’s undoubted class and mettle was his emphatic points win over Amir Khan Conqueror Breidis Prescott, the Colombian banger. That night in December 2009 Mitchell came of age, showing a coolness and maturity to win on a landslide points decision. That evening Mitchell fought a smart tactical contest making his opponent miss countless times and managed to avoid getting drawn into a slugfest. The Dagenham man knew exactly how to score points and frustrate his dangerous foe. He looked excellent as he picked Prescott off at range, countered and moved well. Mitchell can box excellently off the back foot and also took a few from banger Prescott proving that when he is properly prepared Mitchell is tough and durable and can withstand solid shots.
If Mitchell sticks to the game plan set by trainer Jimmy Tibbs and is in the best shape he can be then he is a formidable opponent for anyone. He scores with fast accurate punches and in the Prescott fight proved he can fight well under pressure which bodes well against Murray as he will have to! Prescott is much cruder than Murray who is far more accomplished and skilful but Mitchell has passed a tough test and has dealt with pressure fighters before.
It will all depend on how much Mitchell has recovered psychologically more than anything else following the Katsidis defeat. Sure he can get his body back into fantastic shape and sharpen up with plenty of quality sparring, but nothing compares to the harsh realities and the loneliness of the boxing ring. Many pundits have said that they would have preferred it if Mitchell had a ‘warm up’ fight before meeting Murray. But then again perhaps a big showdown like this is the only way to get the best out of Mitchell and motivate him. We shall see.
Since turning pro Murray has looked impressive on many occasions, notably beating Lee Meager in five, dismantling Scott Lawton in six, Jon Thaxton in four and finally seeing off the brave challenge of tough Welshman Gary Buckland in eleven for the British and European titles back in May last year. Murray is a pressure fighter who slowly breaks his opponents down. There is something brutally methodical about Murray’s ring work. He is patient and relentless, his work rate very impressive.
He has looked ordinary at times as well, labouring against Miguel Angel Munguia in a points win in the States and struggling in a grueling eight round points win against rugged spoiler Youssef Al Hamidi where he looked surprisingly and uncharacteristically static and hittable at times. He had another grueling, draining contest against Spanish fighter Karim El Ouazghari last time out this April at Bethnal Green knocking his opponent down in the eleventh before emerging as clear winner on points in a European title defence.
Murray currently holds the longest unbeaten streak in British boxing and is ranked number three by the WBC and thirteen in the IBF rankings. His record of 31 wins with no defeats with18 of those wins coming inside is undeniably impressive. He has had plenty of seasoning and experience and even in the tougher fights has shown a steeliness and resolve that is as enviable as it is admirable.
The Manchester fighter is all business, mean, moody, focused and both mentally and physically strong. So far I have never seen him really take a backward (or wrong) step, his chin remains largely untested but that is probably more to do with his ability rather than the quality of the opposition which has included plenty of former champions and contenders. He is on the brink of world honours and a world challenge and is perfectly aware of the prestige of this fight. He will not want to blow his big chance here and since the fight has been moved from London to Liverpool he can expect almost home support which is another boost.
Murray has expressed a desire to fight Michael Katsidis in future and that would be a cracking fight. Katsidis is well known and respected in this country and it would prove big box office if he can be brought over here. Murray has to get past Mitchell first and I am sure he will not overlook his main domestic rival.
Murray can bang well to the body, which has to be a key target area for him against Mitchell if he wants to slow him down. Murray hooks and uppercuts well, but he will need to get inside and slip that jab and feint and cut off the ring and trap Mitchell, forcing him to make mistakes before he can land the heavy artillery.
My main questions concerning Mitchell are what will his punch resistance be like? How will he cope under the undoubted and expected pressure of Murray? Will the boisterous support for Murray effect him? How will he handle the big occasion? Is he really over the Katsidis loss and all his problems of last year?
There are lots of issues here. If Mitchell has the fire in his belly and the desire to win and can stick to and execute a game plan then he has a chance of beating Murray most likely on points. If the psychological scars of last year have not fully healed and he is not 100 percent then I can see Murray grinding out a points win or even a late stoppage.
Both men bring a lot potentially to the table and this is what makes this one such an exciting prospect. The winner can expect a possible shot at WBA world lightweight champion Brandon Rios. The loser will have a long way to climb back.